On this date, the Xinhai Revolution, or the Hsin-hai Revolution, also known as the Revolution of 1911 or the Chinese Revolution, culminated with the overthrow of the Empress Dowager Longyu and the infant Emperor Puyi that marked the end of over 2,000 years of imperial rule and the beginning of China’s republican era.
The goal of the Xinhai Revolution, for its leaders, was to establish a democratic republic in China. In a speech given at a Tokyo gathering on 2 December 1906 (“The Three People’s Principles and the Future of the Chinese People”), Sun Yat-sen said:
As for the Principle of Democracy, it is the foundation of the political revolution…The aim of the political revolution is to create a constitutional, democratic political system…After the revolution in China, this will be the most appropriate political system. This, too, everyone knows.
However, the notion that the government should consist of representatives of the people rather than a tiny oligarchy and its closest families was a republican ideal no Chinese state since 1911, excepting Taiwan, has been willing to embrace. Is the absence of an emperor proof of the existence of a republic? It is arguable, therefore, that China’s current Communist regime, in power since 1949, is yet another dynasty in China’s long imperial era.
The Xinhai Revolution arose mainly in response to the decline of the Qing (or Manchu) dynasty, which had proven ineffective in its efforts to modernize China and confront new challenges presented by foreign powers, and was exacerbated by ethnic resentment against the ruling Manchu minority (see “The Revolutionary Army” by Zou Rong). The turning point of the revolution was the Wuchang Uprising in October 1911.
Dozens of uprisings against the Qing Dynasty had failed between 1895 and 1911, most the work of small secret societies. What distinguished the Wuchang Uprising was that it originated from inside the Empire’s “New Army.” The New Army had been created by the Emperor and his Manchu cabinet with the intention of putting down the many rebellions across China and protecting the country from foreign powers after the Boxer Rebellion.
The Army’s 8th Division, stationed in Hubei Province, differed from other divisions throughout the country for several reasons:
- First, the 8th Division was perhaps the most highly organized and cohesive.
- Second, it was stationed in a port city and major transportation hub, Wuhan, on the Yangtze River. Wuhan had been a cosmopolitan port. Thus, its members had access to foreign ideas and influence.
- Third, its officers were highly literate. Many had studied abroad or graduated from military university.
Many in the New Army’s 8th Division were also members of secret societies, the two biggest being the Literary Society and the Society for Common Advancement. The two underground organizations merged in September 1911, united by their opposition to the Manchu government. (Most of the Hubei army and the members of the secret societies were Han Chinese, who considered the Manchu as foreign as if they’d been European.)
Ultimately, the military that was supposed to strengthen the Empire against foreign powers and subversive ideas was the cause of its downfall. The uprising itself broke out largely by accident. Revolutionaries intent on overthrowing the Qing dynasty had built bombs and one accidentally exploded. This led police to investigate, and they discovered lists of Literary Society members within the New Army. At this point, the military revolted rather than face arrest and certain execution. The governor fled Hubei, and within two days the Division occupied the neighboring cities of Hanyang and Hankou. (Years later, Wuchang, Hanyang, and Hankou merged to form the modern city of Wuhan.) As word of the rebellion spread, other provinces followed suit.
Future President Sun Yat-Sen has often been called instrumental in the Wuchang Uprising, but he was in fact in the United States at the time, garnering support for the underground movements. He returned to China on 29 December 1911. By 1 January 1912, the revolutionaries had declared the new Republic of China. After the Qing court transferred power to the newly founded republic in February 1912, a provisional coalition government was created along with the National Assembly.
Today, both the Republic of China in Taiwan and the People’s Republic of China on the mainland consider themselves to be successors to the Xinhai Revolution and continue to pay homage to the ideals of the revolution including nationalism, republicanism, modernization of China, and national unity. October 10 is commemorated in Taiwan as Double Ten Day, the National Day of the Republic of China. In mainland China, Hong Kong, and Macau, the same day is usually celebrated as the Anniversary of the Xinhai Revolution.
Unfortunately, the overthrow of the Qing dynasty in China in 1911 ushered in 38 years of Civil War and warlordism, and provided an opportunity for a Japanese invasion. In 1949, the bloodbath of the interregnum gave way to a greater bloodbath as the Communists consolidated power under Mao Zedong, who died in 1976. When seen as a continuum, this phase of Chinese history was a 65 year nightmare which took some 75 million lives.
Matthew White says that the events in China during these 65 years are part of a larger global historical tragedy which he calls “The Hemoclysm” (Greek; hemo-blood, clysm-flood) – a “blood flood”, beginning in 1900 with atrocities in the Congo Free State and ending with the Congolese Civil War in 1999. Thus, the Twentieth Century was shaped by the willful killing of some 180 million human beings by other people in the world. This megadeath era constituted the hellish endgame of 18th and 19th century agendas. The Cold War was never an argument about war versus peace but about their paradoxical co-existence.
But raw numbers are probably not enough to understand what happened. White took all the episodes of mass brutality of the 20th Century and calculated the percentages killed of the national populations where each occurred, then displayed the 25 highest countries as a histogram. He was amazed to discover that there was no pattern!
If you look carefully at the chart with the intention of determining which race, religion or ideology has been the most brutal, you’ll see a pattern emerge. It’s quite a startling pattern…I had no predetermined point to prove. I did the math and let the chips fall where they would.
That’s why I was so startled to discover that there is absolutely no pattern to the chart. If I had simply picked 25 countries out of a hat, I could not have gotten a more diverse spread than we’ve got here. We’ve got rich countries and poor countries; industrial and agrarian; big and small. We’ve got people of all colors – white, black, yellow and brown – widely represented among both the slaughterers and the slaughterees. We’ve got Christians, Moslems [Muslims], Buddhists and Atheists all butchering one another in the name of their various gods or lack thereof. Among the perpetrators, we’ve got political leanings of the left, right and middle; some are monarchies; some are dictatorships and some are even democracies. We’ve got innocent victims invaded by big, bad neighbors, and we’ve got plenty of countries who brought it on themselves, sowing the wind and reaping the whirlwind…
In a way, it’s rather disheartening to realize that we can’t smugly blame the brutality of the century on the Communists, or the imperialists, or the Moslem fundamentalists, or the godless. Every major category of human has done it’s share to boost the body count, so replacing, say, Moslem rulers with Christian rulers, or white rulers with black rulers, is not going to change it at all.
Interestingly, Larissa Douglass argues that our understanding of The Hemoclysm finds initial expression not in journalism, nor in social scientific analyses, nor in the writing of history — but in art and popular culture. She cites New York Times writer Shaila Dewan, who in 2000 asked whether horror films filter the horrors of history. Dewan found that they do. Just as those who had witnessed the carnage of the Vietnam War returned to make the slasher flicks of the 1970s, those who remained at home portrayed the increasingly postmodern domestic mindset in Catholic-themed horror films. Subsequent decades saw the two lines of experience — of military personnel who have participated in war during the Pax Americana and of civilians whose lives have become relativistic, solipsistic, and counter-intuitive — merge together in a fusion of gore and the occult.
Douglass gives as a good example of this fusion the 1980s classic horror film, Hellraiser, based on a 1986 novella, “The Hellbound Heart”, by British horror writer Clive Barker. She writes:
The film’s memorable invitation, “What’s your pleasure Sir?” only superficially refers to modern primitive sadomasochism. Really, the line reminds us that recent history is still being digested and strained through the popular imagination.
The back story of Pinhead, the central antagonist in the Hellraiser series, is a symbolic snapshot of 20th century history. He was originally a British army captain whose soul was destroyed by World War I. Deadened by the extremes of war, he pushes further and further into the realms of violent experience to regain some feeling — or even lost empathy — until he becomes a monster, then a demon, driven by the credo, “there are no limits.”
The identity of Pinhead as the fictional Elliot Spenser, a captain in the British Expeditionary Force suffering from post traumatic stress disorder and survivor guilt, was alluded to in Hellbound: Hellraiser II and revealed in Hellraiser III: Hell on Earth. After having participated in one of the Battles of Flanders, Spenser lost faith in humanity after witnessing its cruelty to itself and lost faith in God, whom he believed had failed humanity. The disillusioned and jaded Spenser wandered Earth indulging in a hedonistic lifestyle, turning to the baser methods of gratification for satisfaction and pleasure until finding the “Lament Configuration” in British India in 1921. The Lament Configuration is a puzzle box which, once opened, allows a portal from our world to Hell.
This torturously back-ended morality is another suggestion from Barker that we all now occupy two worlds — the hell of war and the rot of peace. One brings the horror of beheadings, raped refugees and white phosphorus to our home computers. The other brings the infinite vanity of personal branding to the online global marketplace: for some, self-promotion is the new badge of conspicuous consumption.
Hellraiser III: Joey Meets Captain Elliot Spenser (alias Pinhead)
- Matthew White. The Great Big Book of Horrible Things: The Definitive Chronicle of History’s 100 Worst Atrocities (New York, NY: W. W. Norton & Company, 2011).
- Julie Lee Wei, Ramon Hawley Myers, and Donald G. Gillin, eds. Memoirs of a Lost World: Selected Writings of Sun Yat-Sen (Hoover Press, 1994).