Critical Essays Modern Chinese History


China's history is both rich and turbulent. This is especially true in the twentieth century, a time marked by violent social, political, and economic upheaval in China. During the first decade of the century, Chinese students, merchants, and others who were dissatisfied with Manchu rule began to rebel. On February 12, 1912, the arch revolutionist Sun Yat-sen, who had been ruling as president from his quarters in Nanking, stepped down, and, two days later, General Yuan Shih-k'ai was elected the first president of the Republic of China. In April, the government was transferred to Peking.

The Chinese Republic maintained a fragile hold on the country until 1949. Yuan died in 1916, and the provincial warlords governed the country for more than a decade, ever changing the political map of the country. During World War I, when Europe was absorbed with its own troubles, Japan sought to conquer China; in 1915, it issued the so-called "Twenty-one Demands," which would have reduced China to a Japanese protectorate. China agreed to many of the demands, including the transfer of some land to Japan. China's belated entry into the war in 1917 was an attempt to check Japan's encroachment. Leaders fully expected America to support China against Japan, but they were mistaken. At Versailles, President Woodrow Wilson withheld America's support for China's restoration of autonomy because of 1917 agreements between Japan and the European allies and because Japan withdrew its demands for a racial-equality clause in the League of Nations. Chinese intellectuals were shocked by what they judged to be Wilson's betrayal. Increasingly, they turned to the ideals of the former Soviet Union and communism — despite the fact that China was granted membership in the League of Nations.

The Chinese Communist Party was formed in 1921. Among its original members was Mao Zedong. Two years later, the Communists helped Sun Yat-sen reorganize the crumbling Kuomintang. In 1926, the strengthened Kuomintang, under the leadership of Chiang Kai-shek, tried to unify China under Kuomintang rule and rid the country of warlords and imperialists. Chiang purged the Communists and relied increasingly on foreign intervention. In 1928, he established a new government, but his rule was unstable. He failed to unify the country, and the Communists soon began to marshal the opposition. Mao Zedong rallied the peasants and set up opposition governments. Increasing Japanese aggression chipped away from the North and Manchuria.

On September 18, 1931, the Japanese exerted their control throughout Manchuria. The following spring, they set up the puppet government of Manchukuo and installed Henry Pu-yi, the last of the Manchu dynasty, as its puppet ruler. The Communists continued to fight their way across the country on the so-called "Long March," and by 1936, they had established a strong base in the northwest. In 1937, the Kuomintang formed a united front with the Communists against the Japanese.

In 1937, Japan and China plunged into war. The following year, Japan seized control of most of northeast China, as far inland as Hankou, and the area around Canton on the southeast coast. World War II saw a serious erosion of power for the Kuomintang, while the Communists expanded their membership, military force, and territory. The Kuomintang was split into factions. Severe inflation, official corruption, and loss of morale further weakened the government. Meanwhile, the Communists continued to build strength.

On August 8, 1945, the former USSR declared war on Japan and armed the Chinese communists. In 1945, shortly after Japan surrendered, tension between the Communists and Kuomintang erupted over Manchuria. The U.S. tried to mediate but failed. In 1949, the Communists seized control and established the People's Republic of China. Mao Zedong became the head of state and Chou En-Lai (Zhou Enlai) seized the legislature. In 1954, Communism became law, and China began the transformation to a socialist society. Through extensive Marxist-Leninist propaganda, people were reeducated. Concubinage, polygamy, sale of children, and interference with the remarriage of widows was banned. Women were assured equal rights with respect to employment, property ownership, and divorce. Religion was controlled; missionaries were expelled. These changes were achieved through terror; between 1949 and 1952, more than two million "counterrevolutionaries" were executed.

Private industry was abolished and land reforms followed. Under the leadership of Chiang Kai-shek, the island of Taiwan off China's coast resisted Communist control and set up a rival government. In 1965, Chou En-Lai declared his intention to liberate Taiwan. The Communists sought to achieve their goal through air and naval raids but proved unsuccessful due largely to American intervention. Until the early 1970s, the U.S. supported the Nationalist government. In 1979, however, the U.S. began formal diplomatic relations with the People's Republic of China, ending its ties with Taiwan.