The Xinhai Revolution refers to the bourgeois-democratic revolution that took place in 1911 (the third year of the Xuantong reign of the Qing dynasty) which ended the Chinese autocratic monarchy of over two thousand years. The revolution overturned the Qing government and ushered China into a new era of democracy and republicanism. The revolution was named after the year 1911, which, in the Chinese calendrical system, is designated xinhai.
Sun Yat-sen (1866–1925), a pioneer of China’s democratic revolution and modernization, played an indispensable role in the Xinhai Revolution. Born to a poor family in Guangdong province, Sun went abroad at the age of twelve with his elder brother. Having received a Western education in Honolulu and Hong Kong, he was concerned about state affairs and sought to make changes for the better.
In 1894, Sun Yat-sen established China’s first revolutionary organization, the Revive China Society, in Honolulu. He launched the Guangzhou Uprising in 1895, then the Huizhou Uprising. When these failed, Sun escaped to Hong Kong, Japan, the United States, and Britain where he continued his revolutionary activities. Western powers, taking advantage of the decline of the Qing government, continued their encroachment on China in the early twentieth century. This prompted the emergence of various revolutionary organizations all over the country. To promote cooperation, Sun Yat-sen strove for the alliance of these revolutionary groups and founded the United League, comprised of the various revolutionary parties.
Sun Yat-sen set forth his revolutionary guidelines as the “Three Principles of the People”: nationalism, democracy, and the people’s livelihood. These principles advocated for national sovereignty, government by the people, and economic development. Under the guidance of the “Three Principles,” the Xinhai Revolution succeeded in replacing China’s monarchy with republicanism, marking China’s first step into the modern age.
In November 1910, Sun Yat-sen with members of the United League planned the Guangzhou Uprising (also known as the Yellow Flower Mound Uprising). It failed like earlier armed insurrections, but served as a prelude to the upcoming Xinhai Revolution.
In the autumn of 1911, the Literary Society and the Progressive Association, two revolutionary organizations in Hubei, jointly planned another rebellion. By this time, revolutionaries in Hubei had already won the trust and support of the locals through long-term public relations efforts. Many soldiers and low-ranking officers, especially in the New Army, were sympathetic to the revolutionaries. They provided grassroots support to the movement. The uprising was discovered when revolutionaries making bombs accidentally set off an explosion in Hankou. Ruicheng (1863–1915), viceroy of Hubei and Hunan, ordered the search and arrest of revolutionaries. Forced to act ahead of schedule, Xiong Bingkun (1885–1969) and other revolutionaries of the New Army’s Eighth Engineering Battalion fired the first shot on October 10, 1911. Ruicheng fled. Within days, the revolutionary army took control of the tri-cities region of Wuhan. Following the establishment of the Republic of China’s Hubei Military Government on October 11, revolts erupted one after another in other provinces; these uprisings portended the collapse of the Qing dynasty.
The Republic of China was established on January 1, 1912, with Sun Yat-sen sworn in as provisional president in Nanjing. However, the new government failed to win support from Western countries, who colluded with the Qing government in the suppression of the revolution through Yuan Shih-kai (1859–1916)—a seemingly powerful man who embodied bureaucrat, politician, and warlord in one. In February, after the Qing emperor’s abdication, Sun Yat-sen tendered his resignation to the provisional senate, and Yuan Shih-kai succeeded as provisional president in Beijing.
The Xinhai Revolution advanced China’s social development in both political and ideological terms and ushered in enormous changes. The revolutionary achievement, however, was soon undermined by warlords, bureaucrats, and politicians who conspired with Western powers. The Republic of China was eventually reduced to a nominal existence. Sun Yat-sen’s last words were, “The revolution has not yet succeeded. All our comrades must strive on.”