Xinhai Revolution 1911 (辛亥革命) Overview

At the beginning of the 20th Century, China, the most populous nation in the world was still ruled by an emperor. The Manchus, an ethnic minority with customs different to that of the majority Han Chinese, had been in power since 1644. All men were forced to wear the Manchu ‘queue’ hairstyle that consisted of a shaven front head with long braid at the back as a symbol of solidarity with the ruling elite. The Qing’s grip on power peaked in the 18th century but they came face to facec with Western imperial powers that watned to trade with China. Lacking the technological capabilities of western nations, they eventually had to concede to the creation of foreign concessions whereby nations such as England, France the United States and Russia had legal jurisdiction in treaty port cities, mostly along China's coastline.

Meanwhile, the Qing Dynasty was beset with internal rebellions. In 1900, the Empress Dowager Cixi, who was de facto ruler of China, supported what became known as the Boxer Rebellion (an allusion to Chinese martial arts). As Hogge (2011) notes:

'Cixi was personally condemned by the West for inciting the Boxers to attack foreign residents and Chinese Christians, and for standing in the way of China’s modernization. Restricted contact with foreigners increased the impression that the court was aloof, arrogant, and hostile to foreigners'.

When the Boxer Rebellion was suppressed, Cixi launched government reforms in an attempt to appease both foreign powers and economically suffering Chinese citizens who were questioning the Qing mandate of heaven, or God-given right to rule. Cixi herself suffered from an image problem. Indeed, Source 1 depicts the Empress in traditional attire complete with extravagant nail guards. Cixi, however, was certainly aware of the need to address the shortcomings of Qing rule. Her reforms included the abolition of civil service entrance exams whilst industry was promoted through chambers of commerce. Cixi also studied the concept of a constitutional monarchy and launched elected provincial assemblies, although they had little power.

Source 1 Xunling (1903-4) Empress Dowager Cixi (photograph)

Source 1 Xunling (1903-4) Empress Dowager Cixi (photograph)

With hindsight, these reforms were quite radical in a nation that had been an empire for over 2000 years. However, Esherick (2012:4) notes some important factors that undermined the success of Cixi’s reform program:  

‘The New Policy reforms required new taxes, always unpopular, and reforms were slow to produce visible results, leading to widespread discontent and violent outbreaks such as the Changsha rice riot of 1910. Inflation in copper cash prices was pronounced and unpopular. Then in the spring of 1911 came railway nationalisation and financing from foreign loans.’

Foreign investment in China’s railways was a pivotal factor in the fall of the Qing Dynasty. After over half a century of foreign concessions operating on Chinese sovereign territory, the Qing were proposing to grant Western imperial powers even greater access to China. It was feared that foreign control of railways would make it easier for nations to colonise vast swathes of Chinese territory. Source 2 parodies the popular discontent with this new policy, a Manchu official being run over by a foreign-owned train. A group known as the ‘Railway Protection Movement’ in Sichuan protested against the foreign control of the railways and was met with armed retaliation from Qing forces, which further incensed local rulers.


Source 2- Ma Xingchi 馬星馳, (1910) The Expansion of Railways (across the body of a Manchu official),  (Cartoon)

Source 2- Ma Xingchi 馬星馳, (1910) The Expansion of Railways (across the body of a Manchu official), (Cartoon)

At the same time as Cixi’s new policies were disseminated, an alternative to monarchical rule was born. In 1905, Sun Yat-sen, a western-educated physician who had lived abroad in Hawaii, founded the Tongmenghui, a revolutionary alliance grouping together many opponents of the Qing regime. As Jonathan Spence (1991:261) aptly summarises, ‘Most were completely committed to the idea of a republican revolution. They implacably opposed the Manchus and as ‘Nationalists’ they sought China’s release from what they considered the economic stranglehold of the West and Japan. Some were also determined socialists who wanted to move China away from what they saw as its feudal past into a new and advanced level of development that would avoid the ills of a capitalist system.’  Sun would later accept the admission of Communists into the Nationalist party and he is to this day revered as the ‘father of China’ by both Nationalist Taiwan and the Communist mainland. Due to his radical beliefs and calls for armed insurrection against the Qing, Sun directed many Tongmenghui activities from abroad, as shown in source 3 taken in Singapore.

 Source 3 Anon (1906) Sun Yat-Sen’s Revolutionary Alliance Tongmenghui

Source 3 Anon (1906) Sun Yat-Sen’s Revolutionary Alliance Tongmenghui

Sun’s greatest contribution to Chinese thought is undoubtedly his ‘Three Principles of the People’, squarely aimed at undermining the legitimacy of Cixi’s new reforms. The concept was first formulated by Sun in 1905, six years prior to the overthrow of Qing. The concept has been related to Abraham Lincoln’s seminal definition of ‘Democracy’ as being ‘of the people, by the people and for the people.’ Source 4 is a video from China Central Television which outlines Sun’s three principles. The first principle is ‘nationalism’ which entailed the overthrow of the Qing Dynasty and the influence of foreign imperialists alongside the unity of all ethnicities in China. The second principle is ‘the rights of the people’, which centres on the ability of the people to hold their government accountable through elections. The final principle was that of people’s livelihood which hinted at land reform and fairer taxes on peasants. Whilst these ideas were theoretical and abstract, they were certainly palatable to citizens who felt increasingly alienated by the Qing Dynasty.

Prompted by the railway crisis and armed with the revolutionary ideals of Sun Yat-sen, 1911 marked the beginning of popular uprisings against the Qing Dynasty. The first uprising was in Wuchang and began on the 10th October 1911 instigated by armed soldiers in collaboration with the Tongmenghui. In a sense, this uprising was made possible by Qing New Reforms which had overhauled the military as McCord (1993:46) notes: ‘One irony of late Qing military reforms was that the Western-style New Armies created to strengthen the dynasty contributed to its demise. The republican revolution that forced the abdication of the Manchu emperor began with an uprising by the Hubei New Army.’ Source 5 depicts the ruins of a Yamen burned by revolutionaries. A Yamen was the residence of a high ranking official in imperial China and hence a highly symbolic building. The Wuchang Uprising had taken many revolutionaries by surprise. On October 9th a bomb was accidentally detonated in the Russian concession and police discovered several documents and paraphernalia that proved an attack was in the pipeline. As such the army had no choice but to immediately proceed or face arrest. Sun Yat-sen was abroad in the United States at the time seeking financial support.  


Source 5 -Wuchang Uprising Stanley Wyatt Smith (1911) The Hubei Viceroy’s yamen, burned by revolutionaries

Source 5 -Wuchang Uprising Stanley Wyatt Smith (1911) The Hubei Viceroy’s Yamen, burned by revolutionaries

The revolutionary fervour quickly spread, and telegrams were sent by revolutionaries to encourage uprisings in other cities across China (Source 6). In order to suppress the uprisings, the Qing Dynasty now turned to a powerful army general Yuan Shikai. The Empress Cixi had passed away in 1908 and the Emperor Puyi was only five years old with decision making controlled by a regent and advisors, which further contributed to the public perception of the Qing as weak. Yuan Shikai initially suppressed the revolutionaries but instead of attacking their stronghold of Wuchang began to negotiate with them instead.

Source 6. Anon. Map of uprisings during the Xinhai Revolution

Source 6. Anon. Map of uprisings during the Xinhai Revolution

Yuan Shikai quickly formed an alliance with Sun Yat-sen. It became clear to Sun that Yuan Shikai would be key to toppling the Manchu rulers. As Marie Claire-Bergère notes (1998:211) : ‘The rallying of the general would also make it possible to put an end to civil disturbances that were likely to encourage redoubtable intervention on the part of foreign powers.’ Source 7 denotes their alliance symbolically through the army flag at the left, Sun Yat-sen’s flag to the right and the five-coloured first national flag of China in the centre. The five coloured flag was intended to represent unity between the five major ethnic groups in China: the Han (Red), Manchus (Yellow), Mongols (Blue), Hui (White) and Tibetans (Black).

Source 7: Anon (1911) Yuan Shikai and Sun Yat-Sen Alliance (Poster)

Source 7: Anon (1911) Yuan Shikai and Sun Yat-Sen Alliance (Poster)

Sun Yat-Sen was briefly the president of the Chinese republic, but it was soon handed over to Yuan Shikai as the fulfilment of a promise. Bergère (1998: 218) states: ‘The Revolutionaries were agreed on giving the function of president to Yuan Shikai in the event of his deciding to turn against the dynasty.’ Yuan called for the abdication of the Qing emperor which took place on February 12th 1912 (Source 8) before being formally sworn in as president just three days later. As such, China would hence be ruled by a military general and not an intellectual. How then did Yuan Shikai persuade the Qing to renounce the mandate of heaven? Yuan Shikai had been an old advocate of constitutional monarchy and supported Cixi’s reforms but had been denounced by the new prince regent Zaifeng who ruled on behalf of Puyi. Yuan, having been simultaneously favoured and then outcast by the Qing adopted a middle ground. Many foreign states and merchants, weary of the economic situation, were pressing for abdication. Yuan decided to push for the favourable treatment of the dynasty as Shan (2018: 162) notes: ‘Puyi would retain his title, enjoy a subsidy of $4 million and continue to live in the imperial palace.’ 


Source 8 Abdication Edict Feb 12th 1912 (Tianjin Postcard)

Source 8 Abdication Edict Feb 12th 1912 (Tianjin Postcard)

In short, the Xinhai Revolution marked the beginning of a century of regime change in China. Within the space of a century, China would experience fledgling democracy, a Japanese puppet government, civil war and a Communist revolution. The Xinhai Revolution was brought about by a multiplicity of factors that ensured the ruling Qing Dynasty’s demise; notably, unrelenting foreign intervention, the patchy success of Cixi’s new reforms, an increasing movement of republicanism adopted from western ideals and, most ironically, a powerful army, initiated by the Qing’s very own new policies that were designed as concessions to shore up their ability to rule. Sun Yat-sen and Yuan Shikai, respectively, represented both the intellectual and military aspects of the 1911 revolution but in the years to come it would be Yuan’s military rule that would usher in a decade of acute instability and, ultimately, the scourge of warlordism.


Bergère, M. (1998) Sun Yat-Sen Stanford, Calif.: Stanford University Press.

Esherick, J. W. (2012) 'Reconsidering 1911: Lessons of a Sudden Revolution'. Journal of Modern Chinese History 6 (1), 1-14.

Hogge, David. (2011) ‘The Empress Dowager and the Camera: Photographing Cixi 1903-1904’ MIT Visualising Cultures Project Available online at:

McCord, E. A. (1993) The Power of the Gun: The Emergence of the Modern Chinese Warlordism. Berkeley; Los Angeles; London: University of California Press.

Shan, Patrick Fuliang. (2018) Yuan Shikai: A Reappraisal.  Vancouver: UBC Press.

Spence, J. D. (1991) The Search for Modern China New York: W.W. Norton & Company.







Xinhai Revolution Overview