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History of Chinese Revolutions

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The etymology of "revolution" is interesting and it can be defined in many ways.[1] As in a historical process, a revolution usually refers to a movement that destroyed an old regime and made a completed change in the fundamental institutions of society and/or nation. After the French Revolution of the eighteenth century, which deposed the monarchy and attempted to refashion society from top to bottom, revolution seemed to become synonymous with the radical overcoming of the past to achieve total transformation.

Revolution, in the eye of many, can be viewed as just a conventional term accustomed to the expression. People may think it is not necessary to explore the rhetoric meaning of the term "revolution." However, from the historical long-term observation, the effects of revolution on a country and/or society can be quite significant to their future generations. A revolution does not happen for the subjective result of a few people, but the objective situation of the past. Aristotle (b. 384 - d. 322 BCE), a Greek philosopher, logician, and scientist, interpreted revolution as political change (metabolê).[2] He once said, "Everyone agrees that justice involves treating equal persons equally, and treating unequal persons unequally, but they do not agree on the standard by which individuals are deemed to be equally (or unequally) meritorious or deserving."[3]  Pincus, after surveying theoretical literature on revolutions, focused much of his analysis on the notion that "revolutions occur only when states have embarked on ambitious state modernization programs."[4] Chiang Ching-kuo, the former president of Republic of China, believed that "the so-called revolution is to overthrow the old system and establish a new system. In order to overthrow the unreasonable old system, revolution is with a mission for creation. Therefore, 'the sacrifice of the revolutionaries is not destruction but regeneration.'"[5]

Two historical examples provided are the Japanese Meji Restoration of 1868 (Meji Ishin) and the Chinese Revolution of 1911 (Xinhai Revolution).

The Meji Restoration of 1868

The Meiji Restoration of 1868 marked the beginning of Japanese revolutionary from "feudal" system to monarchy constitutional government. The reform movement was motivated by the context of Western industrialization and capitalism. It is viewed as the beginning of the Japanese modernization with the establishment of modern political system and economic implementation, the promotion of Western technology and civilized social life, and the development of education. This reform made Japan the first county in Asia to embark for industrialization and become a powerful country in the world.

During the Tokugawa era (1600-1868), Japan was under the centralized "feudal" system in which the so-called "lords served an authoritarian government in Edo" for more than 200 domains. Although people's lives under the feudal system were stable, the thoughts of modernization for the country started to grow in some leaders' mind after the industrial revolution. When American Commodore Matthew C. Perry came to Japan in large warships with armament and technology to conclude a treaty, the Japanese realized that they were behind the European world.[6]  Change to further develop the country became a must; the Tokugawa Shogunate decided to "open Japan to the foreigners in 1854, in compliance with demands from the Americans;" as a result, the political life in Japan had irrevocably changed.[7] When the young Mutsuhito was enthroned on January 3, 1868, he claimed his power to begin the "Meiji Restoration."[8]

"On January 3, 1868, the Emperor made a formal declaration of the restoration of his power: The Emperor of Japan announces to the sovereigns of all foreign countries and to their subjects that permission has been granted to the Shogun Tokugawa Yoshinobu to return the governing power in accordance with his own request. We shall henceforward exercise supreme authority in all the internal and external affairs of the country. Consequently the title of Emperor must be substituted for that of Taikun, in which the treaties have been made. Officers are being appointed by us to the conduct of foreign affairs. It is desirable that the representatives of the treaty powers recognize this announcement. "- Mutsuhito, January 3, 1868

The word "Meiji" means "enlightened rule" and the goal was to combine "modern advances" with traditional "eastern" values.[9]  The Meiji Emperor announced in his 1868 Charter Oath that "Knowledge shall be sought all over the world, and thereby the foundations of imperial rule shall be strengthened."[10]  From 1868 to 1912, the Meji Restoration was successful in its unified centralized system for forty-five years. The Meji Restoration brought Japan to a rapid rise not only in Asia but also in Europe. Through its learning from the West, Japan was successfully reformed from the feudal system and moved forward to the path of developing capitalism.

The Meji government, in addition to overthrow the feudal system, it established and developed Japan to become the first modernized country based on the Europe model in Asia.[11] In social system, it abolished the "disabilities, agriculture, industry, business" identity system and established household registration law. In social and cultural aspects, it promoted Western culture and literature, and used regular calendar instead of lunar calendar (with exception of the year). The Government "replaced the traditional Confucian hierarchical order that had persisted previously under a dominant China with one based on modernity."[12] In order for the centralized state with a strong national identity, the government established a dominant nation dialect, 'standard language' (hyojungo) to replace the local and regional dialects that was based on the patterns of Tokyo samurai classes. This "hyojungo" then became "the norm in the realms of education, media, government and business."[13] During the Meji Restoration Era, the government adopted the Western industrial technology, reformed the land system to allow property sales, implemented new property tax policy, and unified currency. In 1882, the Bank of Japan was opened to promote the development of industrialization. Moreover, "the development of a national railway system and modern communication" was also established.[14]

The Chinese Revolution of 1911

The Revolution of 1911, so-called Xinhai Revolution, has its important status and role to the Chinese. It is the 1911 Revolution brought the Chinese to the rise of democracy that "overthrew the Qing government and two thousand years of monarchy."[15] The revolution ended with "the abdication of the six-year-old 'Last Emperor,' Puyi, on February 12, 1912 that marked the beginning of China's early republican era (1912-1926),"[16] It is the 1911 Revolution that made Dr. Sun Yat-sen a Chinese giant in the twentieth century and the National Father of all Chinese.

In 1901, the Empress Dowager, who moved to Xi'an from Beijing because of the Battle of the Eight Power Allied Force, announced a "reform." The late Qing government, in order to consolidate the precarious regime, still concentrated to centralize its power and strengthened the government military and political forces. A new government administration was launched and the government strategic priorities focused on the official people's lives, imperial examinations, and military and political changes. With a reform in progression, the Qing government still stressed that the Reform Movement of 1898 was illegal. There was no strong intention to make the reform happen for the country. Moreover, the Qing government joined forces with the Western allies to suppress the Boxers. In 1904, Sun Yat-sen announced his mission "to expel the Tatar barbarians, to revive Zhonghua, to establish a Republic, and to distribute land equally among the people (驅除韃虜, 恢復中華, 創立民國, 平均地權)."[17] The following year, "Sun Yat-sen successfully united the Revive China Society, Huaxinghui and Guangfuhui in the summer of 1905, thereby establishing the unified Tonmenghui (United League) in August 1905 in Tokyo."[18] In 1906, the imperial examination was abolished and the Qing government established new schools and encouraged students to study abroad. Many young people attended the new schools or went abroad to study in places such Japan.[19] During the time, Sun Yat-set received the overseas Chinese support that people "actively participated in the funding of revolutionary activities, especially the Southeast Asia Chinese of Malaya (Singapore and Malaysia)."[20] Many of these groups were reorganized by Sun, what was referred to as the "father of the Chinese revolution."[21] Beginning in 1908, the revolutionaries started to shift their calls to the new armies. Sun yat-sen and other revolutionaries infiltrated the New Amy.[22] On April 27, 1911, the Guanzhu Uprising took place in Huanghuagang (黃花岡), known as the second Guanzhu Uprising (辛亥廣州起義) or Yellow Flower Mound Revolt (黃花岡之役). The Uprising fails and only seventy-two bodies were found; the "72 revolutionaries were remembered as matyrs."[23] Lin Juemen, one of the revolutionaries, wrote the legendary letter "A Letter to My Wife" (與妻訣別書), was viewed as a masterpiece in Chinese literature.[24] On November 1, 1911, the Qing government appointed Yuan Shikai as the Primary Minister of the imperial cabinet.[25]

The Revolution of 1911 failed in the ultimate sense due to the historical limitation of the Chinese social nature and people's living conditions.  The impacts of the revolution were significantly recognized by the Chinese and the Western power. It created a profound impact on the Chinese modern world history.  First of all, the Revolution successfully destroyed the over two thousand years of monarchy.  Secondly, the Revolution was considered as a far-reaching enlightenment movement. The concept and the existence of the republic system engraved in people's mind. Although the Revolution did not directly facilitate the development of capitalism, the establishment of republic system effected the modernization for the country.  Lastly, the Revolution of 1911 opened the door for the Chinese to interact with the world. Politically, it created a new chapter for Chinese democracy. Economically, it paved a way for Chinese industrialization. Cognitively, many highly educated Chinese were able to overcome the confusion and frustration from the failure experience and continued to proactively move forward to fulfill their mission for China's true modernization.


[1] According to Merriam-Webster Incorporated 2017, "a sudden, radical, or complete change;" "a fundamental change in political organization;"  "activity or movement designed to effect fundamental changes in socioeconomic situation;" "a fundamental change in the way of thinking about or visualizing something;" and/or "a changeover in use or preference especially in technology" Merriam-Webster, Incorporated. 2017. https://www.merriam-webster.com/dictionary/revolution (accessed date: March 10, 2017).

[2] Miller, Fred. "Aristotle's Political Theory." The Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy . 2012. https://plato.stanford.edu/entries/aristotle-politics/ (accessed March 11, 2017).

[3] Ibid.

[4] (Pincus 2009, 33)

[5] (Qi 1991, 258)

[6] (Lynn Hunt, Thomas R. Martin, Barbara H. Rosaewein, R. Po-chia Hsia et al. 2009)

[7] (Huffman 2003) The Tokugawa promised the newly arrived Westerners demanding trade, showing off new customs (including the scandalous tendency of women to accompany men to public events), practicing the forbidden Christian religion, and taking sides in Japan's political dispute.

[8] (Satow 1968, 353)

[9] (Lynn Hunt, Thomas R. Martin, Barbara H. Rosaewein, R. Po-chia Hsia et al. 2009)

[10] (Kissinger 2011, 79)

[11] (Shih 2011, 2)

[12]  Ibid.

[13] Ibid.

[14] (Yamamura, Success Forgotten The Role of Meji Militarism in Japan's Technological Porgress 1977)

[15] (Li 2007, 13)

[16] Ibid. 26-27

[17] (Qiufeng Ji, Qingbao Zhu 2001, 468)

[18] Ibid.

[19] (Fenby 2008, 96)

[20] (Gao 2009, 156) Issue of 25 of "Historical Dictionaries of Ancient Civilizations and Historical Ear"

[21] Ibid. 29

[22] (Spence 1990, 250-256)

[23] (王恆偉 2006, 195-196)

[24] (Langmead 2011, 5-6)

[25] (Rhoads 2000, 183)


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