The Birth of the Provisional Republic of China

FROM THE LECTURE SERIES: THE FALL AND RISE OF CHINA

By Richard Baum, Ph.D., University of California, Los Angeles

The Chinese Republican Revolution of 1911 began without any plan in place. However, it did lead to the demise of China’s much-hated Manchu Dynasty. Read to know how the revolution began, and how the Provisional Republic of China took birth.

Image of the first Chinese Republic national flag.
The Republican Revolution of China began quite accidentally in 1911. (Image: vector_brothers/Shutterstock)

Repercussions of an Accidental Bomb Blast

As central government troops were being mobilized to suppress the Sichuan assembly’s railroad rebellion, the revolutionary allies of Sun Yat-sen’s Tongmeng hui, who had infiltrated the ranks of the local imperial army in the city of Hankow, hastily pushed forward their plans for an armed uprising.

On October 9, 1911, a revolutionary bomb went off accidentally and prematurely at the headquarters of Sun’s military allies inside the Russian Concession at Hankow. Apprised of this rebel bomb blast, the Hankow police mounted a raid on the Russian quarter, where they arrested 32 of Sun’s supporters and seized a sizeable cache of weapons and explosives.

They also seized documents that identified a large number of underground revolutionaries among the garrison’s officers and men. Their identities revealed, the compromised conspirators decided to strike first.

Learn more about the birth of Chinese communism.

Attack by the Rebels

The rebels, who numbered perhaps as many 2,000, first attacked the offices of the Manchu governor-general of Hankow. Caught completely by surprise, the governor panicked and fled, along with the local garrison commander. Encountering little resistance, the rebels gained effective control of the city by noon the next day, October 10, 1911.

Thus began the Chinese Republican Revolution of 1911—quite accidentally—without any master plan, and with its principal architect, Sun Yat-sen, thousands of miles away.

China’s Xinhai Revolution

In the folklore of China’s Xinhai Revolution (so named for the date of the uprising on the Chinese lunar calendar), the seizure of Hankow on October 10, 1911, is celebrated in Taiwan as ‘Double Ten Day’—China’s National Day, the day that Sun Yat-sen’s Republican ‘David’ slew the hated Manchu ‘Goliath’.

Indeed, it is ironically emblematic of the sudden and unexpected outbreak of the Xinhai revolution that Sun Yat-sen himself was in the United States at the time. Apparently, he was as surprised as anyone by the suddenness of the final Manchu collapse.

With foreign governments sitting on their collective hands, city after city, province after province, declared independence from the Manchu rule. By late November of 1911, three-fourths of China’s provincial assemblies had seceded from the Manchu empire.

This is a transcript from the video series The Fall and Rise of China. Watch it now, on The Great Courses Plus.

General Yuan Shikai

Meanwhile, in a desperate effort to stave off total collapse, the Manchus tried to persuade their recently retired Northern military commander, General Yuan Shikai, to assume overall command of what remained of the loyalist armed forces.

Photograph of Yuan Shikhai.
General Yuan Shikai was a retired Northern military commander. (Image: Rio V. De Sieux/Public domain)

Yuan Shikai, a clever negotiator, he dictated a set of strict conditions for his return to military duty. His terms included, among other things, granting himself full power of command over the entire Manchu army and navy and a substantial enlargement of the imperial military budget.

With few, if any, viable options remaining to them, the Manchu regent, a man named Prince Jun, acting on behalf of the six-year-old child emperor Puyi, agreed to Yuan Shikai’s terms.

Yuan Shikai’s Conditions

On October 27, 1911, Yuan was appointed commissioner in full charge of the imperial army and navy. However, Yuan was still not satisfied. He further demanded that the regime also agree to promulgate a full set of constitutional principles, and that he himself should be named as the emperor’s prime minister.

With Yuan Shikai now in effective command of what remained of both the imperial army and the Chinese government, he cautiously sounded out Sun Yat-sen’s revolutionaries about a possible power-sharing arrangement.

Learn more about the Manchu dynasty.

Birth of the Provisional Republic of China

A calendar commemorating the first year of the Republic and the election of Sun Yat-sen as the provisional President.
China’s new regime elected Sun Yat-sen as provisional president by a near-unanimous vote of 16 to 1. (Image: Unknown/Public domain)

Sun, who had been in the United States, returned to China in December 1911, just in time to preside over the birth of the Provisional Republic of China.

Meeting in Nanjing on December 29, representatives of the new regime elected Sun Yat-sen as provisional president by a near-unanimous vote of 16 to 1. Three days later, on the first of January, 1912, Sun was inaugurated.

Power Struggle between Sun and Yuan

Sun’s election as provisional president deeply offended Yuan. He had political ambitions of his own, and in a fit of pique, Yuan ordered his lieutenants to break off all negotiations with the republicans.

Recognizing that the provisional republic could not survive without the support of a loyal army, Sun sought to appease Yuan Shikai to bring him back into the fold.

Learn more about China’s descent into political chaos.

Arrangement for Transfer of Power

In early January of 1912, Sun proposed an arrangement that would ensure a mutually satisfactory transfer of power: in exchange for Yuan’s public confirmation of the Manchu Dynasty’s abdication, and his personal declaration of support for the new republic, Sun Yat-sen would resign as provisional president, thus clearing the way for Yuan to accede to that highly-coveted post.

Satisfied with these arrangements, Yuan agreed, and on January 30, the imperial regent, Prince Jun, advised Princess Jun, Puyi’s mother, that there were no feasible alternatives to imperial abdication.

On February 12, the abdication was publicly announced. With that, the 268-year-old Manchu dynasty came to an end, exiting the stage with barely a whimper.

A National Government in China

As one of their first official acts of governance, the republicans formally moved the seat of Chinese national government from Beijing to Nanjing.

With the abdication now a fait accompli, Yuan Shikai formally announced his support for the new regime. One day later, on February 13, 1912, Sun Yat-sen fulfilled his part of the bargain by resigning as provisional president of the republic.

And, one month later, Yuan Shikai was duly sworn in as president.

Common Questions about the Birth of the Provisional Republic of China

Q: How is the seizure of Hankow on October 10, 1911 celebrated in Taiwan?

The seizure of Hankow on October 10, 1911 is celebrated in Taiwan as ‘Double Ten Day’—China’s National Day, the day that Sun Yat-sen’s Republican ‘David’ slew the hated Manchu ‘Goliath’.

Q: What conditions did Yuan Shikai put for his return to military duty?

Yuan Shikai asked to be granted full power of command over the entire Manchu army and navy and a substantial enlargement of the imperial military budget. He further demanded that the regime also agree to promulgate a full set of constitutional principles, and that he himself should be named as the emperor’s prime minister.

Q: What happened on February 13, 1912?

On February 13, 1912, Sun Yat-sen fulfilled his part of the bargain with Yuan Shikai and resigned as provisional president of the republic.

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