Today marks the one-hundredth anniversary of the start of the Xinhai Revolution in China, which overthrew the country’s last imperial dynasty, the Qing, and eventually led to the founding of the Republic of China in 1912. It was on October 10, 1911, that revolutionary leaders in Hubei staged an rebellion against local Qing authorities in what is known as the Wuchang Uprising.
While the anniversary is of great historical, cultural and political significance to China (and of course to Taiwan), the main political messages of the revolution — democracy and equality — make treatment of the anniversary on the mainland a delicate matter for Chinese leaders.
To commemorate the anniversary, we have translated an interview that QQ History, the history-related section of the major Chinese web portal QQ.com, did earlier this month with Guangzhou historian Yuan Weishi (袁伟时). Some readers may remember Yuan as the writer of an article on the Boxer Rebellion that in early 2006 was one reason cited by propaganda officials for the suspension of the Freezing Point supplement of China Youth Daily.
Tencent History: We have a traditional saying that goes: The Xinhai Revolution overthrew a corrupt authoritarian Qing government, and toppled the system of feudalist authoritarian monarchy. But some scholars (such as Feng Tianyu) have pointed out that no such feudal system (封建制) existed from the Qin and Han dynasties on down. And other scholars (such as Hou Xudong) point out that ancient China was not an authoritarian society. The idea among people today that ancient China was a feudal system comes principally from language about China from the modern Western world. How do you see this? What the Xinhai Revolution overturned, was that a feudal authoritarian system?
Yuan Weishi: What kind of society was traditional Chinese society? This was debated fiercely in the 1930s. Among scholars, most believe that the Western Zhou (西周) was a feudal society. Relatively few people believe that society after the Western Zhou was feudal. Fan Wenlan (范文澜) and others propose this view. Feng Tianyu and others have restated some things from the 1930s. Of course they have new arguments, but already before this there were few scholars who believed this [that society was feudal]. Traditional Chinese society was an authoritarian society based on the patriarchal clan system (宗法专制社会), and not a feudal society. The Western Zhou was a feudal society, but the Spring and Autumn and Warring States periods were a period of transition, so that by the Qin an authoritarian society based on the patriarchal clan system (宗法专制社会) had already been established.
Tencent History: But now we talk about how it was a “feudal society,” and that’s still what we say.
Yuan Weishi: Yes. But to say it was not an authoritarian society, this view I’m afraid is a bit far-fetched, and not the conclusion made by historical scholars. I don’t know who has proposed this reading, but my impression is that they are not real historical scholars. As to true historical scholars who hold that view, I’m afraid there aren’t any. There is a trend of Confucian revivalism right now that wants to deny that political power [in China] over 2,000 years was authoritarian.
Tencent History: There are contemporary advocates of Confucianism who say traditional Chinese society was not an authoritarian society.
Yuan Weishi: This view is there simply to bolster their goal of advocating and beautifying Confucianism. I don’t think this is right. Because it falls so far short of the reality of Chinese society. Those who advocate Confucianism, including some historians, really want to cast about within traditional Chinese culture looking for something legitimate, and they believe that calling it authoritarian means negating it entirely. And so there are those who research the powers of the [ancient] chancellors (宰相权), believing that chancellors could check the power of the emperor, that ministers could check the emperor’s power. Huang Renyu (黄仁宇) is also of this view.
Tencent History: Huang Renyu (黄仁宇) has said that the emperor was just something symbolic and abstract.
Yuan Weishi: I’m afraid that’s just not how it was. This is really taking it too extremes. I’m afraid this is because Mr. Huang Renyu focuses his research on the 48 years of the Wanli Emperor’s reign, during which time imperial power was for a long time disregarded. But as he has said himself: “The Wanli Emperor is an exception in history not equalled before or after.” Not long after the death of Zhang Juzheng (张居正), [the 47th chancellor of the Ming Dynasty], as the family’s property was ransacked, some of its elders committed suicide and other family members were starved to death, the power of the emperor was demonstrated once again. And there’s another saying, that China has a “system of orthodox [Confucian] teachings,” that it has a spiritual [or moral] system outside the orthodoxy of imperial power.
Tencent History: A political orthodoxy and a moral orthodoxy?
Yuan Weishi: That’s right. Which is to say that in the past intellectual elites could check imperial power, which was called “doing the bidding of morals, not of monarchs” (从道不从君), there was a saying like that. But there is a problem it’s quite difficult for this idea of “moral authority” (道统说) to deal with. In imperial times there were a small number of intellectual elites who dared to uphold certain principles and oppose imperial power, what might more politely be called laying down one’s life for a just cause (舍生取义). Any society will have a handful of such people. But they did not constitute a power network (权力系统). They had no way of providing real opposition to the emperor, and with a word the emperor could end their lives. This so-called moral “moral authority” is more imaginative than anything else. Some people say that the system of moral authority began as early as King Wen of Zhou (文武周公), and was passed on through Confucius, Mencius, Zhu Xi and right on down to Sun Yat-sen (孙中山). Some people have even now added Dong Zhongshu (董仲舒) into the mix. But one such man comes along every few hundred years or every thousand years — could their influence really check that of the emperor?
Tencent History: So we could say that the phenomenon of so-called “moral authority” checking “imperial authority” isn’t something systematized, but maybe just about a number of strong personalities.
Yuan Weishi: Really, it’s about the influence of Confucian thoughts. But from the Qin and Han dynasties on, China has been an authoritarian society based on the patriarchal clan system (宗法专制社会). What Confucianism sustained, whether we’re talking about institutional or cultural influence, was a governing system in which the ruler governed his subjects (君为臣纲). Economically, it was an agricultural natural economy (自然经济式的农业经济).
Tencent History: An economy based on small-time farming.
Yuan Weishi: In any case, the pre-modern agricultural economy, and the pre-modern natural economy, relied on an authoritarian imperial system. Of course, the degree of authoritarianism in any dynasty or rule differed. In the Ming and Qing dynasties, the authoritarianism of imperial power reached new heights. In the Qing dynasty there weren’t even chancellors, and the emperor directly dealt with political affairs, both big and small. And so, what they wanted to overturn [during the Xinhai Revolution] was this sort of authoritarian political power. Another question involved here is: What was the objective of the revolution? We couldn’t say that previous over-turnings of dynasties or rules brought the building of any new social systems. Previous instances were resoundingly things like . . .
Tencent History: Hong Xiuquan (洪秀全) and the Taiping Rebellion.
Yuan Weishi: That was fundamentally not any sort of revolution, but it was a peasant war (农民战争) of the kind we had seen throughout the past. It didn’t seek revolution, but rather the rebuilding of the system on the old pattern. Hong Xiuquan‘s so-called “land system of the heavenly kingdom” (天朝田亩制度) was quite a reactionary program, a program of extreme authoritarianism. He called for the abolishment of private property, and the building of an authoritarian political system based on religious authority.
Tencent History: Politics and religion as one.
Yuan Weishi: Politics and religions as one, a system of religious authoritarianism. Later on, through the self-strengthening movement (洋务运动) [or “Westernization movement”], the fostering of new economic forms in China was encouraged. Naturally, this economic activity was run by the government, and later morphed into a system whereby the government supervised the actions of merchants, so that the role of merchants grew, then some private capital was invited in and at the same time the door to China was opened, allowing for foreign investment.
Many factors working all together encouraged the development of a capitalist economy in our country. In some areas, particularly along rivers and coastal areas, along the Yangtze River and in the Pearl River Delta, places with convenience of transport, a capitalist economy developed quite strongly. So-called foreign-invested enterprises in some areas were actually in many cases Chinese investments happening under the auspices of foreign investment, fake foreign devils, if you will, that were posing as foreign investment or cozying up to it. By doing this they could enjoy tax benefits. Foreign-invested enterprises could pay less tax by paying a 50 percent duty, in which case there were exempted from paying taxes [NOTE: The terms in Chinese here are 厘金 and 子口税. Those interested are encouraged to check our translation with the original, as our knowledge of 19th century Chinese trade policies is insufficient].
Domestic enterprises could not enjoy these favorable policies. So called “lijin” (厘金), [or ‘tax levies’], referred to the various tolls and taxes set up by various local authorities in China, which severely inhibited the development of a capitalist economy in China. But nevertheless new economic sectors and a free economy continued to develop, and a new class of urban residents emerged. This was similar to what has been seen in other countries. As for the Xinhai Revolution, it was mostly not about resolving economic issues, but about solving the authoritarian system in politics, about demanding democracy, about protecting the freedom and equality of citizens. These were at the heart of modern revolutions, and they were the most basic demands voiced during the Xinhai Revolution.