The Rise and Fall of China’s Short-lived Republic

FROM THE LECTURE SERIES: THE FALL AND RISE OF CHINA

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

The collapse of the old imperial order in 1911 led to Dr. Sun Yat-sen’s bold, but ultimately ill-advised, attempt to create a new republican order in China. Even though the young republic showed promise, it turned out to be a short-lived one. Starting out on a promising note, the decade of the 1910s ended grimly for China.

Bronze Statue of Sun Yat-sen.
Sun Yat-sen’s Three Principles of the People consisted of nationalism, democracy, and people’s livelihood. (Image: brize99/Shutterstock)

How Did the Nationalist Party Rise to Power?

Shortly after the inauguration of the new Republic in China in February 1912, the victorious revolutionaries of Sun Yat-sen’s Tung Meng Hui reconstituted themselves as a Western-style political party. They called it the Guomindang, meaning ‘Nationalist Party’ (abbreviated usually as GMD).

Their platform consisted of an elaboration of Sun Yat-sen’s Three Principles of the People: nationalism, democracy, and people’s livelihood.

Named to run the new party was Sun Yat-sen’s long-time ally, Song Jiaoren. He was an outspoken advocate of Western-style parliamentary government. With Song Jiaoren leading the Guomindang’s electoral campaign, China’s first parliamentary elections were held in December 1912 under the rules of a new provisional republican constitution.

The party won a resounding majority of seats and capped its victory by naming Song Jiaoren as prime minister. But Yuan Shikai had other ideas.

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

The Fall of the Guomindang Party

Portrait of Song Jiaoren.
Song Jiaoren fell victim to an assassin’s bullet. (Image: Unknown/Public domain)

On March 20, 1913—before members of the newly elected parliament could even be certified and seated—Song Jiaoren fell victim to an assassin’s bullet at the Shanghai railway station. There was little doubt that Yuan Shikai had engineered the assassination, but no hard evidence ever came to light, and the GMD ultimately swallowed this bitter pill with only a mild protest.

With Song Jiaoren’s death, the Guomindang became virtually rudderless. And when parliament finally convened in April 1913, Yuan Shikai’s supporters shamelessly tried to bribe the Guomindang’s majority legislators, offering them each 1,000 British pounds to resign from the party.

Some accepted; some refused. But those who refused soon found themselves being hounded by the police. With that, the door began to shut on China’s short-lived republican experiment.

Yuan Shikai now set about trying to augment his personal power and undermine that of his rivals. The national police openly harassed Guomindang lawmakers and their supporters, Yuan Shikai unilaterally revoked the credentials of the remaining GMD-affiliated members of parliament. When lack of a legal quorum prevented the parliament from convening, Yuan Shikai did what any self-respecting autocrat would do; he dissolved the parliament.

With Song Jiaoren dead, with parliament dissolved, and with the Guomindang now branded as an outlaw party, Sun Yat-sen found himself being forced into exile once again. In August 1913 he fled to Japan, bringing with him hundreds of his fellow Guomindang Party activists.

Learn more about the splendor that was China, 600–1700.

Sun Yat-Sen’s Revival Attempts

While in Japan, Sun Yat-sen, who was already married with two grown children, took as his second wife the middle daughter of one of his key political supporters, a man named Charlie Soong. Born to a Hakka merchant family on Hainan Island in Southern China, Charlie Soong migrated to America at the age of 15. Seeking employment as a laborer, he was given food and lodging by a group of Methodist missionaries, who soon converted him to Christianity.

Returning to China to work as a missionary, Charlie met Sun Yat-sen quite by chance in 1894 at a Sunday church service in Shanghai. The two men took an instant liking to each other, and soon Charlie Soong quit his mission to join Sun’s anti-Manchu crusade. Charlie Soong had three daughters and two sons—all of whom now called Sun Yat-sen “uncle”. Charlie’s eldest son, T.V. Soong, was educated at Harvard and Columbia universities.

After he returned to China in the 1920s, his father’s political connections enabled him to rise quickly in Guomindang financial circles.  In  1928,  he became governor of the Central Bank of China, and later he served as Minister of Finance and Foreign Minister in the Nationalist government of Chiang Kai-Shek.

Learn more about the self-strengthening movement, 1860–1890.

The Powerful Soong Sisters

When Sun Yat-sen went into exile in Japan in 1913, Charlie Soong and his three daughters accompanied him. In Tokyo, Sun hired Charlie’s middle daughter, Soong Ching-Ling, as his secretary. Despite a 27-year gap in their ages, the relationship quickly blossomed into a romance. 

Evidently, Sun Yat-sen’s attachment to Western values was somewhat flexible and pragmatic, for there were some Western moral conventions—such as marital fidelity and monogamy—that he evidently found inconvenient.

Sun and Soong Ching-Ling carried on a secretive three-year affair in Tokyo. When her father found out about it, he was livid. And when Sun took Soong Ching-Ling as his second wife a bit later on, Charlie was so angry that he cut off all contact with his dear friend. 

Learn more about the end of the empire, 1900–1911.

The Soong Family’s Legacy in China

A photo of Soong family.
The influence of the Soong family endured long after the death of the patriarch. (Image: WikiLaurent/Public domain)

The influence of the Soong family endured long after the death of the patriarch. Ching-Ling and Mei-Ling, went on to become the two most influential women in modern China.

In 1925, Soong Ching-Ling was widowed by the death of her illustrious husband. A few years later, her sister Mei-Ling married Sun Yat-sen’s Republican protégé, General Chiang Kai-Shek.

When Chiang Kai-Shek subsequently abandoned many of Sun Yat-sen’s cherished republican principles, the Soong sisters had a very bitter falling out. 

Ching-Ling cast her lot with Mao Zedong’s Communist revolutionaries. Eventually, she rose to become Vice President of the People’s Republic of China. Meanwhile, her younger sister, Mei-Ling, was the first lady of the Republic of China. Thus, China’s long and destructive Civil War eventually came to mirror almost precisely the family quarrel of the Soong sisters.

Common Questions about the Rise and Fall of China’s Short-lived Republic

Q: What was the Guomindang political party?

The first party to take control of the short-lived republic of China, their leader Sun Yat-sen had three principles which they adopted: nationalism, democracy, and people’s livelihood.

Q: What led to the fall of the Guomindang party?

With Song Jiaoren’s assassination, the party started to break down. Eventually leading to the fall of the Guomindang party.

Q: How did Yuan Shikai’s coup d’etat go?

After Song Jiaoren’s assassination, Yuan Shikai and his supporters tried to bribe the members of the Guomindang party. Those that did not take the bribe were harassed by the police. After that, he dissolved the parliament and effectively ended the short-lived republic.

Keep Reading
The British Fleet in China and the Treaty of Nanking
The British Mission to China: Imperial Hubris in a Time of Agrarian Crisis
Factors behind China’s Historical Dominance