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Xinhai remembered: from Han racial revolution to great revival of the Chinese nation

Xinhai remembered: from Han racial revolution to great revival of the Chinese nation

Martin Lavicka16 Apr 2015Leave a comment


Written by Adam Horálek

James Leibold (2014): Xinhai remembered: from Han racial revolution to great revival of the Chinese nation, Asian Ethnicity, 15:1, 1-20.

The Xinhai Revolution is a milestone of Chinese modern history recognized by both the PRC and Taiwan. Even though it is now mostly interpreted by politicians on both sides of Taiwan Strait as a revolution against authoritarianism, feudalism, and corruption of the Qing Dynasty, the author James Leibold goes back to the past and looks at different perspectives the governments had. The comparison of three historical perspectives – the revolution in 1911, the half-centennial commemorations in 1961 and the centennial one in 2011 – is used as the matrix of the paper. It not only follows the major speeches in these events but also the major shifts in Chinese society in the past century which reflect World War One, the Anti-Japanese War, the Cold War as well as China’s central place in the world economy. As the author shows, the ethnic issue, however, remains a constant in all interpretations, though in different ways.

The Xinhai Revolution was not only an anti-Qing revolution, it was indeed a very racial anti-Manchu revolution incorporating European and Japanese ideologies of modern nationalism and chauvinism. There is no doubt about the author’s argument that the Xinhai Revolution was very much Han-centred, and which had as its only aim to restore the political as well as racial and cultural rule of the Han majority over the minorities. However, this original aim of the revolution was gradually reimagined through time to include and inculturate the peripheries and their minorities into the centralized national self-identification. “As a part of this creative act of selective forgetting and remembering, the racial violence and vitriol associated with Wuchang and other uprisings has been swept under the ‘national carpet’ (although never fully removed) and replaced with the commemoration of the collective spirit and determination of the Chinese nation/race (…) in its heroic struggle for redemption and revival against foreign (that is extra-territorial) enemies” (Leibold 2014: 2).

The Xinhai Revolution of 1911 started with the initial October 10 revolt in Wuchang at Chang Jiang which was generally based on hate against the Manchu government. Slogans such as “butcher the Tartars” or “revive the Han, exterminate the Manchu” used in the revolt do not leave us unaware of the racial context of the uprising. It was hardly a pro-democratic, republican or Chinese (in contemporary understanding of zhonghua minzu 中华民族) uprising. It was anti-Manchu, anti-extraterritorial governmental or generally the Han’s or Yellow-Emperor-descendants’ claim for their “right” to govern themselves (and others as well). The change of calendar from the 3rd year of Emperor Xuantong to the 4,609th year of the Yellow Emperor was a very clear proclamation of these ideas of the revolution. “Given the virulent nature of this language, and the way it permeated the movement’s revolutionary literature, the level of racial violence is not surprising” (Leibold 2014: 4). It was clearly a nationalistic movement and its celebration articulated and described it in the nature of pre-WWI nationalistic ideologies, influenced by “…the introduction of Social Darwinism and the new neologism minzu (民族) among Chinese students studying in Japan” (Leibold 2014: 4).

The half-centennial commemoration ceremonies in the PRC were held in very virulent times as well. China had just got out of the disastrous Great Leap Forward which caused tens of million casualties. At the main ceremony held in the Great Hall of the People in Beijing, the main figure of the PRC Mao Zedong was missing, so as to avoid any correlations between his unsuccessful reform and the bloody Xinhai Revolution. The revolution was celebrated as a “bourgeois democratic revolution”, which enabled further “democratic revolution”, led by the CCP. It was inevitable and most desirable for the CCP and the government that these celebrations of the great unification of the peoples of China under one democratic government were to be held in every corner of the realm. The CCP’s major propaganda stressed the progress they had made on the way from wuzu gonghe (五族共和) towards tongyi de duominzu de guojia (统一的多民族的国家) policy.

The centennial celebrations in 2011 were in a very much similar situation. Not only because of the fact that by the end of the 2000s, China faced several ethnic struggles in Tibet (2008), Xinjiang (2009), or in Inner Mongolia (2011), but also because the general understanding of and commitments to the Xinhai Revolution remained almost unchanged. There was a significant stress on equality of all ethnic groups of the Chinese family, probably just because of the fact that Han chauvinism (dahanzhuyi 大汉主义), so vigorously rejected for the whole 20th century, had remained very much present in the daily habitus and government’s policy. The anti-Manchu dimension of the Xinhai Revolution was hardly mentioned at all. It was described and celebrated as a united people’s voice against injustice, authoritarian government and suppression of the Qing Dynasty. “In PRC classrooms today, however, these acts of so-called anti-Manchuism (…) are rarely discussed, where the focus is on foreign imperialism and the awakening of Chinese nationalism” (Leibold 2014: 4-5). President Hu Jintao described the Xinhai Revolution as “social transformation” (shehui biang 社会变革). The events of 1911 and 1949 were described as a revival of “zhonghua minzu” and as interrelated, inevitable and consequent historical movements towards China’s democratic and united society. Both the PRC’s and Taiwan’s celebrations reflected the legacy of Sun Yat-sen and the quest for China’s united destiny. However, in the context of the post-1911 (and especially post-1949) developments, the interpretations diverted.

The Xinhai Revolution resulted in the very first republic in the whole of Asia. It was six years before the Great proletarian revolution in Russia, seven before the end of the World War One. It is and it will remain one of the most important milestones of modern Chinese history. However, it is still a much politicized and highly sensitive topic on both sides of the Taiwan Strait. There has been only a little discussion about its impact on Chinese ethnic policies. Whereas the Taiwanese government has reassessed its approach towards the ethnic groups of Taiwan, the PRC’s government, despite the facts and recent developments, continues its policy which is based on ethnic classification and nationalistic perspectives that the Xinhai Revolution and later China’s mainland governments were based on. A proper discussion on the real nature and consequent impacts of the Xinhai Revolution on China and its modern society, whether socialist or capitalist, is worth discussing. Therefore, the topic elaborated by James Leibold has its accurate and up-to-date relevance and the chosen three historical perspectives show that there is much more to discuss and research.

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