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China > Culture and festivals > The Revolutionary Years

 China History : The Revolutionary Years 

Dr. Sun Yatsen

Sun Yatsen

Dr. Sun Yatsen is regarded as the Father of Modern China. He is also known as Sun Zhongshan (the Chinese translation of his Japanese name, Nakayama, which means Middle Mountain).

Sun Yatsen was born in
Guangdong province and was then schooled around the globe, including a stint in Hawaii and medical training in Hong Kong. He soon developed an interest in politics and a firm belief in reform. After a failed uprising in Guangzhou in 1895 Sun fled to Europe, the US and Japan, acquiring funds and followers
as he moved along.

In 1905 he formed the Tong Meng Hui, or Revolutionary Alliance in Japan. His vision of modern China was based on the three principles of democracy, nationalism and livelihood and was modelled on the USSR, upon which the Nationalist Party (KMT) became increasingly dependent.

After founding the republic, Sun was promptly deposed and fled the country. In 1915 he married Soong Qingling (whose sister, Meiling, married Chiang Kaishek in 1927). Returning to China in 1917, he finally gained control of the country in 1923, priming the way for Chiang Kaishek to ascend to the KMT’s top spot.

Sun Yatsen

Sun died of cancer in 1925 and is still fondly remembered on both sides of the Taiwan Straits. Almost every town has a Zhongshan Road dedicated to him.


The leagues of visitors to his mausoleum in Nanjing are further testimony to his significance in modern Chinese history. 


The KMT (National People’s Party) 


With the idealistic principles of Dr. Sun Yatsen at the helm, the future initially seemed bright for the republic, but continued Russian interference and China’s failure to successfully unite against Japanese aggression meant that a rocky few decades lay ahead for the new China. After Yuan Shikai deposed the last emperor, a constitution was drawn up and elections were scheduled for 1913, but it soon became clear that Yuan wanted to establish his own power base.  


Rather than provoke civil war, Sun Yatsen stepped down from his position as head of the newly formed Kuomintang (KMT or Guomindang in Pinyin, National People’s Party in English) and once again was forced into exile.  


Yuan scoffed at Sun Yatsen’s withdrawal and in 1914 he made himself president for life. He died two years later and Dr. Sun Yatsen eventually returned to power, albeit heavily reliant on Soviet support. But foreign intervention in China continued to hinder stability and the humiliating terms of the 1919 Treaty of Versailles ignited protests in Tian’anmen Square which became known as the May Fourth Movement. Sun appointed his protégé, Chiang Kaishek (1888-1975, known in China as Jiang Jieshe), as his successor shortly before his death. Under Chiang, the KMT developed into a military dictatorship catering to the social elites, but did little to improve the lot of the rural majority or remove foreign control from the country. 


The Emergence of Communism 


Nationalism certainly wasn’t the only ideology that emerged from the collapse of the imperial age but communism, showcased by the recent Russian revolution, was the only one that offered serious competition to the KMT. 

You can still visit the building in
Shanghai where the Chinese Communist Party was founded in 1921. The CCP initially comprised two groups, the first of which was led by Li Dazhao and included Mao Zedong among its numbers, while the second was headed by Zhou Enlai and was guided by Russian advisors.

One of the most iconic figures of the 20th century, Mao Zedong
(aka Mao Tse Tung) was born in
Hunan into a comparatively wealthy
grain-dealing peasant family. He was schooled in
Changsha and then continued his education in Beijing. In response to the humiliating
terms of the 1919 Treaty of Versailles, Mao became involved in the
anti-foreign May 4th Movement (see above). 

     Mao Zedong in 1931

                                                                                                         Mao Zedong in 1931

’s Bolshevik Revolution and sponsorship of communist cells in China helped to convince Mao that socialism was the way forward. Mao’s time teaching at Guangzhou’s Peasant Training Institute in the early 1920s reinforced his socialist principles, but also convinced him that revolution must come from the rural masses.

In 1923, following Russian advice, the CCP and the KMT united to form the National Revolutionary Army, which headed north to remove the threat posed by warlords. The expedition was a success but the unity between communism and nationalism was short-lived. In response to a Communist strike Chiang executed many of the CCP’s top leaders in 1927, leaving the rest, including Mao Zedong, to flee for the hills. Mao retreated to establish a Communist Red Army base in Jinggang Shan in Jiangxi and managed to hold out until 1934.


The Long March 


Chiang Kaishek perceived the Communists as a more significant threat than the encroaching Japanese and focused on trying to obliterate the CCP, forcing them deep into the countryside, where their support was strongest. 


By 1934 nationalist forces had surrounded Mao Zedong’s mountainous Jiangxi base and it seemed as if the Communists were on the verge of defeat. Instead, Mao led 100,000 troops on a year-long, 6,000-mile escape, which became known as the Long March. They traversed numerous mountain ranges, some of which were snowcapped and only 10,000 made it all the way to Yan’an in Shaanxi province. Although thousands died, the march became a symbol of the grit and determination of Mao and the Zunyi Conference along the way firmly established him as the leader of the CCP. 


Japanese Encroachment & Civil War 


The 1919 Treaty of Versailles had ratified all of Japan’s claims to Chinese territory and they were just waiting in the wings to swoop down on China.  China’s division presented this opportunity and the Japanese seized Manchuria in 1931, renaming it as the supposedly independent state of Manchukuo and installing the last Qing emperor, Puyi, as its puppet leader. 


Anti-Japanese sentiment ran high and in 1936 Chiang Kaishek was seized by his own officers (which became known as the Xi’an Incident) and forced into forging another doomed alliance between the KMT and the CCP.  However, Manchuria was just a prelude to full-scale invasion and in 1937 Japanese forces swept into China and captured much of the east coast by 1939, forcing the government to mountainous Chongqing, from where they were reliant upon US and British airdrops.  


By 1940 the Japanese controlled Beijing, Shanghai, Nanjing and Guangzhou, while Chiang Kaishek’s failure to distribute mutual arms to the Communist Red Army resulted in the collapse of the KMT-CCP alliance. Up to 20 million Chinese are thought to have died during the Japanese invasion and the atrocities committed during the infamous 1937 Rape of Nanjing are reviled to this day. 


Allied & Communist Victory 


The Allied victory in World War II and the devastating Hiroshima and Nagasaki bombs spelled the end for Japanese rule in China and, in spite of US support for the KMT, in 1945 it was the Communists who were better placed and prepared to stake their claim on the country. Although the KMT managed to retake the cities, the rural bulk of the country lay in the hands of the Communists. When the People’s Liberation Army (formerly the Red Army) captured a US arms consignment they had not only the weaponry, but the public support and determination to win and the KMT crumbled.   


Chiang Kaishek fled to Taiwan, along with much of the treasure from the Forbidden City. In Taiwan he established the Republic of China (ROC) with the now inconceivable aim of regrouping to return and reinstate the KMT in China.


The PRC under Chairman Mao 


The Early Years of the PRC 


When Mao Zedong stood atop Tian’anmen in Beijing and announced the foundation of the People’s Republic of China, the world’s most populous Communist state was born. Soviet experts were brought in, five-year plans introduced and, although the country was in ruins, an air of optimism prevailed, especially once industry had been nationalized, revitalized and peasants granted land.  


The Korean War (1950-53) was an unneeded distraction at this crucial time of reconstruction, but China’s victory reaffirmed faith in the Communist party and the mood was buoyant. 


The Hundred Flowers Movement (1956) 


However, while all outwardly appeared well, Mao feared that the revolutionary zeal of the party was flagging and he sought to rock the boat a little.  His famous slogan “let a hundred flowers bloom, let a hundred schools contend” was intended to draw intellectual criticism of the bureaucracy, but resulted in a torrent of direct attacks on the Communist system itself. 


Posters criticizing officials and policy were plastered on democracy wall near the Forbidden City. Mao responded with an anti-rightist campaign that labeled intellectuals as enemies of socialism. Thousands of people were persecuted and sent off to labor camps. 


The Great Leap Forward (1958-60) 


Having rattled the bureaucracy, Mao set his sights on agriculture and industry. While industry was already thriving with the help of Russian aid and expertise, agriculture was lagging. The Great Leap Forward was introduced in 1958 and was intended to increase both agricultural and industrial efficiency with a goal of matching British steel output within 15 years.  Industry was to benefit from seasonal workers and the introduction of rural industry, while agriculture was to be improved through collectivization.  


Mao Zedong

But this utopian plan was flawed from the start as the peasantry, who had only just acquired their land, were reluctant to collectivize.

Poor management, overplanting, unachievable quotas and the focus on steel rather than food all contributed to the Great Leap Forward’s outright failure.

Both the 1959 and 1960 crops failed and the resulting famine left millions dead and the economy in pieces.  




The situation was worsened when Mao’s distrust of Khrushchev’s brand of communism led to the breakup of Sino-Soviet relations and Russia’s withdrawal of aid. Mao’s political reputation was ruined and critics within the party elite, including Deng Xiaoping and Liu Shaoqi, voiced their opinions. Following the failure of the Great Leap Forward, the commune policy was diluted and by the middle of the 1960s the economy had recovered. 


The Cultural Revolution (1966-69) 


Liu Shaoqi and Deng Xiaoping favored a liberal approach to the economy to encourage private enterprise, an attitude that Mao saw as dissension. Mao sought to crush the so-called “Pragmatists” with the 1966 Great Proletarian Cultural Revolution which was designed to rid China of the “four olds” – old culture, old customs, old habits and old ideas.  


Red Guards in Beijing Under the guidance of Mao, students in Beijing formed a political militia that became known as the Red Guards.

They terrorized the country, brandishing the allempowering Little Red Book of Mao’s thoughts and quotations.

The Red Guards set about erasing anything connected with
China’s history and thousands of buildings, books and businesses were destroyed.

Zhou Enlai
managed to save a few monuments from Mao’s purge, but much of
China’s greatest art and architecture was lost forever during the Cultural Revolution.

Society was turned against itself as quotas were set for the denouncing and re-education of those who were corrupting communism and this ultimately even led to Red Guards reporting one another.

Red Guards in Beijing 


Fifteen million people are thought to have died as a result of the Cultural Revolution and millions more were traumatized. While the Cultural Revolution was disastrous in almost every way conceivable it only served to reinforce Mao’s seemingly omnipotent cult status. The Cultural Revolution’s inextricable link with the Great Helmsman resulted in a failure to address its tragic legacy and even now it is only spoken about in hushed tones. 


Broadening the Power Base 


In the years prior to his death Mao Zedong was rarely seen and was often represented by his third wife, Jiang Qing and her radical supporters, who became known as the Gang of Four. Lin Biao had been Mao’s strongest supporter during the Cultural Revolution and was primed for leadership, but lost some of his power base as the army became less important.  


What followed is not exactly clear, but in 1972 it was reported that he had died the previous year in a plane crash en route to the Soviet Union. This might be true, but it is more likely that Lin Biao attempted a coup, was executed and then the story created in order to highlight his treachery.  


With his closest ally gone, Mao sought to expand his power base and Zhou Enlai’s protégé, Deng Xiaoping, veteran of the Long March and victim of the Cultural Revolution, returned to office, while Hua Guofeng was preened as Mao’s successor. Zhou Enlai had been pragmatically limiting the worst extremes of Mao Zedong’s ideological policies since the party’s inception and his tact and political skill helped China gain a seat in the UN in 1971 and establish trade links with the US after Nixon’s visit in 1972. 


Mao’s Death & the End of the Gang of Four 


However, in early 1976 Zhou Enlai died and, when radicals removed wreaths placed on the Heroes Monument in remembrance of him, a riot ensued. This became known as the Tian’anmen Incident, for which the recently returned Deng Xiaoping was ostensibly blamed and once more removed from office.  


The radicals quickly capitalized on this and gained ground, but this was to be short-lived. Two months after the massive Tangshan earthquake in Hebei, Chairman Mao died and the Gang of Four had lost their helmsman. Just a month after Mao’s death they were arrested; in 1981 they were tried and each sentenced to 20 years in prison.  Jiang Qing killed herself and the other three all died under lock and key.  The Gang of Four were blamed for the worst excesses of the Cultural Revolution, a factor that helped to keep the Mao cult strong.

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China history : a reference guide
China history : the dynastic age, part 1 (2100BC - 960 AD) - The Three Dynasties, Qin Dynasty, Han Dynasty, Three Kingdoms, Sui Dynasty, and Tang Dynasty
China history : the dynastic age, part 2 (960 -1911) - Song Dynasty, Yuan Dynasty, Ming Dynasty, and Qing Dynasty
China history : the reform era (1976 - present) - Deng Xiaoping, Jiang Zemin, and Hu Jintao

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China History : The Revolutionary Years (1911 - 1976) : Dr. Sun Yatsen, Yuan Shikai, Chiang Kaishek, Mao Zedong, China travel guide