Ideals of 1911 Revolution still echo today
Published: Oct 10, 2011 07:58 PM

Yu Heping (虞和平)

Editor’s Note:
China Monday marked the 100th anniversary of the 1911 Revolution.  The Xinhai uprising, inspired by revolutionary leader Sun Yat-sen,  saw the end of over 2000 years of imperial rule. What was the legacy of the 1911 revolution? Why has modernization taken so long in China? People’s Daily Online (PO) talked to Yu Heping (Yu), a researcher of Chinese modern and contemporary history with Chinese Academy of Social Sciences, on these questions.

PO: What’s the background of the 1911 Revolution? Why was it a revolution rather than a reformation?

Yu: Its background lies between 1895 and 1911. Before the Sino-Japanese War in 1895, attempts at national revival occurred mainly at the level of government and officials. After 1895, this became more popular.

In the beginning, some intellectuals hoped improvements could be made to change the political situation. Sun Yat-sen proposed an improvement scheme in 1895 but was rejected. And few of the following series of movements for reform showed effect, particularly in terms of political system. So Sun Yat-sen finally chose revolution. Under his guidance, more and more people began to support revolution.

Since it was a capitalist revolution, it is important to have a sound capitalist economy and capitalist class as the social basis. The new capitalist economy in China began to take shape after the Westernization movement of the late 19th century and developed rapidly after 1895.

Besides, after 1895, more and more Chinese chose to study abroad, particularly in Japan. Equipped with advanced knowledge and science, these overseas students became open-minded opinion leaders during the revolutionary period and some became the leaders of major military forces. 

PO: What is historically significant about the revolution?

Yu: I believe that the biggest change in Chinese society in the past century is that China has basically realized modernization. For me, the 1911 Revolution got the process of China’s modernization started.

For the China at that time, as well as industrialization and democratization, modernization also included national independence. A dependent country cannot have independent and complete modernization to meet its own demands even though it might develop in economy and politics.

The revolution worked as a driving force for all the three tasks. It sought national independence by toppling a decayed government and fighting against foreign aggression. And having seen the polarization in the developed capitalist countries, Sun put forward a policy for the equitable distribution of land so that there would be no big gap between rich and poor after the revolution succeeded.

PO: How has the revolution influenced China’s path afterward?

Yu: Sun Principle of People’s Livelihood actually includes socialist ideas and were aimed at the common good. He made efforts in this direction, but failed to realize them. But China’s industrialization began during that period, partially as a result of such ideas.

China had about 100,000 industrial workers at the end of the 19th century. The number rose to nearly 500,000 by 1911. By 1921 when China’s Communist Party was founded, the number was close to 2.5 million. The expansion of this group set a solid basis for the foundation of the Party. And the Party inherited Sun’s revolutionary strategy and started a new national revolution. The 1911 Revolution pushed the birth of the Party.

Besides, the emancipation of mind after the revolution brought about the new cultural movement, during which Marxism spread to China. In 1917, the success of the revolution in Russia also influenced China.

In addition, Sun stressed the exploitation of foreign resources in building China. He made speeches in Europe and the US, calling for the investment in China after the revolution succeed. He made plans to introduce foreign capital, talent and technology in China on a basis of equality. The idea of opening-up and using foreign resources is reminiscent of our reform and opening-up policy today.

PO: Why is China’s modernization taking so long?

Yu: China’s modernization is not like that of the US and UK. The UK’s modernization was domestically developed with time. But China’s is stimulated and influenced by developed countries. The process of learning from developed countries clashes with its traditional culture or system. The clash was not incompatible since the traditional factors include a potential to adapt to modern times. But there will be short-term friction. In addition, there is resistance from people with vested interest in the old system. Therefore, China’s modernization has inevitably been accompanied by constant reform and revolution in which the traditional forces and revolutionary forces competed with each other. It is a long process.

Besides, since China’s modernization is driven by exterior forces, it needs resources from outside. So China’s relationship with other countries counts for a lot. There have been twists and turns there too.

China’s modernization has been dependent on outside resources, pluralism, and its own inheritance. We can’t abandon everything traditional in the process. Traditional and modern ideas coexist, and so do domestic and foreign ones.

In a country like China, it is important to know how to treat tradition correctly and how to reform and use the rational parts of it. It is also a problem about how to continue modernization on the basis of China’s actual conditions.