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Republican Era (1912~1949)

Early Republic (1912~1916)

The Republican Era derives its name from “Republic of China”, the name of the newly-proclaimed state that succeeded the Qing Dynasty in 1912. The Imperial China came to a formal ending on Feb. 12th, 1912 when the Qing court signed the abdication paper. The months prior to that had been eventful and dramatic. Most southern provinces declared independence following the Wuchang Uprising (Nov. 1911), and elected Dr Sun Yat-sen in Nanjing as the Provisional President of the Republic of China. However, Sun was soon to relinquish the presidency to Yuan Shikai, the powerful founder of Beiyang Armies (the Qing government’s main force), upon the latter’s promise to “persuade” the Qing court to abdicate. Thus, China was united under a Beijing government headed by Yuan on March 10th, 1912.
Republican Era (1912~1949), Modern History of China

Sun Yat-sen (front) at the inauguration ceremony as the first Provisional President of the Republic of China.

Much to the chagrin of the revolutionaries, Yuan Shikai went on to expand his Presidential power at much destruction to the Provisional Constitution, and at a point, proclaimed himself emperor of a new Empire of China in end 1915. This backsliding from a republic to a monarchy was no longer tolerable to the Chinese. Rebellions soon broke out. Yuan was forced to step down 82 days later, reinstating the republican system to China, and died soon thereafter in June, 1916.

A Decade of Warlords (1916~1928)

Yuan’s death plunged China into an era when regional warlords fought for control of the Beijing government. Warfare was constant, though mostly short, between the warlords. Amid the political chaos, the change of government was swift, dominated alternatively by Anhui Clique, Zhili Clique, and Fengtian Clique from 1916 to 1928. The Republic was in name only, to speak nothing of the constitutional democracy envisaged by Dr Sun Yat’sen.
Republican Era (1912~1949), Modern History of ChinaRepublican Era (1912~1949), Modern History of China

Warlord troops transported by train. Factions within the Beiyang bloc vied for control of Beijing government after Yuan Shikai's death.

A weak country finds it hard to defend its interests in diplomacy. At the Paris Peace Conference, 1919, the Chinese delegation refused to sign the peace treaty, in protest against unfair treatment to China as a victor of W.W.I.

Meanwhile, Dr Sun Yat-sen garnered support from a few warlords in southern China, and made Guangdong and Guangxi his base to carry the revolutionary course forward. With Russian support, he regrouped the Kuomintang (KMT, Nationalist Party of China), allied with the Communists, and built up a National Revolutionary Army, determined to overthrow warlordism and unify China by force. After Sun’s death in early 1925, his successor Chiang Kai-shek launched the Northern Expedition in July 1926. The campaign went on generally smoothly as the revolutionary armies crushed the forces of the warlords and seized one city after another. By end-1928, with the Fengtian Clique under general Zhang Xueliang declaring allegiance to the KMT Government based in Nanjing, China was nominally unified, and Nanjing was quickly recognized as the sole legitimate government of China.

Nanjing Decade (1928~1937)

Despite the nominal unification under the KMT, large areas of China remained under semi-autonomous rule by local military leaders or warlord coalitions. Massive wars were fought with the new KMT regional warlords who challenged Chiang Kai-shek’s supremacy, with generally favourable outcomes to Chiang’s central government. Chiang was also plagued by rebellions by the Communists, KMT’s former ally who now launched uprisings and set up a separatist Soviet regime backed by a sizeable Red Army, and by the Japanese, who kept pressing ahead with infiltration into inland China. Japanese troops seized the Northeastern Provinces in the autumn and winter of 1931, and invaded Shanghai in early 1932 (known as the Jan. 28 Shanghai Incident).
Republican Era (1912~1949), Modern History of ChinaRepublican Era (1912~1949), Modern History of China

A monument in Shenyang, in memory of the Sept. 18 Incident in which Japan seized the Northeastern Provinces.

Floods were constant in the 1930s; poor relief system made matters worse. 

While Chiang was preoccupied with suppressing the Communist rebellion, nationwide patriotism fermented against Japan’s aggressive plan in East Asia. A coup d’etat was staged jointly by generals Zhang Xueliang and Yang Hucheng on Dec. 12th, 1936 (known as Xi’an Incident). Chiang was imprisoned, and agreed in the subsequent negotiations with the Communists to bury the hatchet and forge a national united front against Japanese invasion.

War against Japanese Invasion (1937~1945)

Japan’s full-scale invasion of China began on July 7th, 1937 (Marco Polo Bridge Incident) in the suburbs of Beijing. The Chinese endured numerous hardships in fighting back the Japanese troops who were militarily stronger though short of resources in the long term. The KMT was forced to relocate the capital to Wuhan, and soon later to Chongqing. Countless atrocities were committed by the invaders during the War, the most famous being the Nanjing Massacre, 1937. The War of Resistance against Japan (1937~1945) was to become part of World War II as China was to ally with the US, Britain, and the Soviet Union.
Republican Era (1912~1949), Modern History of ChinaRepublican Era (1912~1949), Modern History of China

Chinese troops in defense at Marco Polo Bridge, July 7th, 1937. Japanese agression on that day marked the beginning of the full-scale invasion of China.

The War against Japnanese Invasion involved the whole Chinese people. The picture illustrates a scene of rurual guerilla warfare in which Chinese peasants dug complex underground tunnel-based defense system.


Civil War (1946~1949)

Japan lost the war and declared surrender in mid-August 1945. However, euphoria did not last long following the hard-won triumph. Despite initial efforts to form a coalition government, civil war proceeded from 1946 to 1949 between the Communists, having built up both its mass base and military strength through the war against Japan, and the ruling KMT. The Communists’ rural land-reform policy proved favourable with the peasants, while the KMT became notorious with its undisciplined troops, infighting within the leadership and the generals, and widespread corruption. Though in a weaker position at the start, the Communists triumphed, finally, forcing the remnant forces of the KMT to flee to Taiwan. On Oct. 1st, 1949, the People’s Republic of China was proclaimed.
Republican Era (1912~1949), Modern History of ChinaRepublican Era (1912~1949), Modern History of China

The KMT forces were better equipped than, and outnumbered, the Communists at the beginning of the Civil War. Yet it was the latter who triumphed. The reasons deserve quite some thinking.

Peasants pushed carts to deliver supplies to the front. The Communists did much better in mobilizing the masses in the Civil War.

The Republican Era makes a hot topic on Chinese history. The period is very close to modern day. In the political aspect, the present ruling Communist Party of China was founded in 1921, and spent the most difficult (and “epic”) near-three decades until a final revolutionary victory. The Republican Era marked the first time the Chinese tasted democracy and a modern political life which differs greatly from the previous monarchial system. And at the popular level, many of today’s older generation (in their 70’s or above) in China were born and lived in the Republican Era. All these factors give the topic certain degrees of delicacy.

For the Chinese populace, the substitution of an empire by a republic was immediately reflected in people’s looks. Chinese men cut off the long queues that they had been forced to wear under Manchu rule. The long gown was to be gradually replaced by the Mao suit (more popularly known in China as Zhongshan suit as is named after Sun Yat-sen who popularized this dressing style) and Western business suit. Urban fashion saw the popularity of the qipao as a standard female dress. An old practice, foot-binding for Chinese women, was forbidden right after the founding of the Republic of China.
Republican Era (1912~1949), Modern History of ChinaRepublican Era (1912~1949), Modern History of China

Typical dressing style during the Qing Dynasty. Men used to wear a long queue, and dressed in long gown covered by a jacket.

Typical dress style in the Republican Era. Mao suit for men, and qipao for women, looking neat and tidy.

More old customs came under challenge in an intellectual campaign known as the New Culture Movement. Confucianism bore the brunt of blames for China’s reduced circumstances; Western science and technology, individuality, equality, and democracy were promoted to replace obsolete feudal superstitions and autocracy.
Republican Era (1912~1949), Modern History of China

A tram carrying passengers amid other means of transport such as hand-pulled carts. Modern city life in metropolises like Shanghai benefited greatly from Western technologies.

The Republican Era falls in the early period of China’s modernization which had began since late 19th century. The Chinese found their own lifestyles increasingly subject to Western influence, especially in urban areas. Changes covered a broad spectrum, appreciable in people’s clothing, food, accommodation, travel/transportation, leisure activities, and so on. Modern public utilities and services such as modern postal system, supply of electricity and tap water, railways, trams, modern public education, etc, reshaped the Chinese life in various ways.【For more details on the changes in Chinese lifestyle in the Republican Era, please see Modernized Lifestyle from Tradition and Travel and Leisure. 】


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