Sun Yixian Overthrows the Qing Dynasty

The Revolution of 1911, led by Sun Yixian, ended the two-thousand-year-old monarchy in China and introduced the ideas of democracy, independence, and social and economic justice to the Chinese people.

Summary of Event

In the nineteenth century, China was faced with a series of unprecedented problems—bureaucratic incompetence, widespread corruption, rebellions, and natural calamities that contributed to the precipitous decline of the once-robust ruling Manchu, or Qing (Ch’ing), Dynasty. At the same time, China was threatened from the outside as never before. Beginning with the Opium War (1839-1842), China suffered a string of military defeats at the hands of the Western powers. The Treaty of Nanjing, which ended the Opium War, and similar subsequent treaties imposed on China numerous debilitating conditions that in effect relegated it to near-colonial status by the end of the century. Qing Dynasty;overthrow
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Republic of China, establishment
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[kw]Sun Yixian Overthrows the Qing Dynasty (Oct. 10, 1911)
[kw]Qing Dynasty, Sun Yixian Overthrows the (Oct. 10, 1911)
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Revolution of 1911 (China)
Republic of China, establishment
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[g]China;Oct. 10, 1911: Sun Yixian Overthrows the Qing Dynasty[02880]
[g]East Asia;Oct. 10, 1911: Sun Yixian Overthrows the Qing Dynasty[02880]
[c]Wars, uprisings, and civil unrest;Oct. 10, 1911: Sun Yixian Overthrows the Qing Dynasty[02880]
Sun Yixian
Kang Youwei
Liang Qichao
Huang Xing
Yuan Shikai

The combination of these circumstances helped revive the dormant anti-Manchu sentiment among the Chinese (the Chinese regarded the Manchus as alien conquerors), as manifest in the Taiping Rebellion (1851-1864), Taiping Rebellion (1851-1864) which came close to toppling the dynasty. The eventual suppression of the Taipings, aided by the Western powers, who saw the rebels as a threat to their own interests, afforded the dynasty a respite in which feeble attempts were made to resuscitate dynastic fortunes in the 1870’s and 1880’s. Without the will and resolve on the part of its leaders to make fundamental institutional changes, the reform movement was short-lived and ineffectual. By 1895, when Japan handily defeated China in a struggle over Korea, it was clear that China’s decline could be arrested only by revolution to overthrow the monarchical system and replace it with a republican government attuned to the interests of Chinese citizens.

One of the first advocates of revolution was Sun Yixian. Born to a well-to-do peasant family in a village near Canton on November 12, 1866, Sun was sent at the age of thirteen to Honolulu, Hawaii, where his older brother had a small business. He was enrolled in the Iolani School, operated by Anglican missionaries, and then at Oahu College, from which he graduated in 1883. Concerned that Sun might be too susceptible to Christian influence, his brother sent him back to his native village. Soon, however, he was “banished” to nearby Hong Kong following an incident in which he was found desecrating village deities. After enrolling for a brief period at Queen’s College, a government high school, he was admitted to the newly founded medical college in Hong Kong. He graduated in 1894 and began his medical practice in Macao, a Portuguese colony west of Hong Kong, but was soon drawn to revolutionary activities.

During this time, like many of his contemporaries, Sun was a reformist. In the summer of 1894, for example, he journeyed north in order to petition Li Hongzhang (Li Hung-chang), the preeminent leader of the reform movement, to plead for educational and economic reforms. Only after he failed to elicit a positive response did he become convinced that revolution was the only recourse. Consequently, in the fall of that year, he returned to Honolulu, where, with the help of his brother, he founded his first revolutionary organization, the Hsing-chung Hui (Revive China Society), Revive China Society with about one hundred members. A branch was set up in Hong Kong the following year. Sun and his supporters launched an uprising in Canton in March, 1895, with arms smuggled from Hong Kong. It was a disaster, with several dozen rebels killed and Sun himself fleeing to Japan.

Sun cut off his queue (the braid of hair symbolic of submission to Manchu rule), donned Western clothes, and sailed for the United States to seek financial support from the Chinese communities there. The Chinese business community was generally sympathetic to Kang Youwei and his disciple, Liang Qichao, who had formed the “Protect the Emperor” Society “Protect the Emperor” Society[Protect the Emperor Society] to promote constitutional monarchism. Kang, a former imperial adviser who was instrumental in the ill-fated reforms of 1898, was a traditional scholar of national reputation, and Liang was a prolific and effective writer widely respected for his progressive political views. Together, they vigorously advocated the institution of a constitutional monarchy along the lines of Meiji Japan. Until 1905, they enjoyed the support of the majority of Chinese businesspeople in the United States and the thousands of Chinese students in Japan. By contrast, Sun’s support came mainly from the poorer Chinese overseas, missionaries, Chinese Christians, and members of the secret societies, all on the fringes of Chinese society.

Sun Yixian.

(Library of Congress)

In the fall of 1896, Sun was in London. On October 11, he was kidnapped by the Chinese legation and held captive for almost two weeks. He would have been shipped back to China and been executed for his revolutionary activities had not the British government intervened and secured his release. This event, publicized by the British newspapers, propelled Sun into the international limelight. Returning to Japan almost two years later, he gradually won the support of the Chinese students and of some well-known Japanese politicians. It was through these Japanese politicians that he finally came to an agreement with Huang Xing to form a broad revolutionary coalition by bringing together all revolutionary groups under an umbrella organization, the T’ung-meng Hui (Revolutionary Alliance) Revolutionary Alliance on August 20, 1905. Huang, a native of Hunan Province, had led an abortive uprising in 1900 and had sought refuge in Japan. He was influential among the large contingent of students from that province. The new alliance made Sun its chair and adopted his ideas as the program for the revolution. Branches of the alliance sprouted in China, claiming many well-known literary figures as members and many revolutionary organizations as allies. The pace of the revolution accelerated.

Between 1905 and the fall of 1911, Sun had launched at least half a dozen uprisings in the south. After these failures, the Revolutionary Alliance leaders shifted their focus to the central provinces. Their opportunity came early in 1911, when the government announced the nationalization of railway construction that had been financed through private investment. As the projected railways were in Sichuan, Hunan, and Hubei Provinces, the opposition of bondholders there was most vehement. In Sichuan, it became an insurrection. The government was compelled to transfer some of the troops from Wuchang, an important political center in Hubei, to quell the mounting riots there. Sensing the vulnerable government position at Wuchang, the revolutionary leaders, many of whom were officers in the New Army units, decided to act by late October. In the evening of October 9, however, a bomb exploded accidentally at revolutionary headquarters in the neighboring city of Hankou. Police raids led to the arrest of some thirty conspirators and seizure of documents containing the names of others. On the morning of October 10, units of the New Army, heavily infiltrated by the revolutionaries, attacked government offices and quickly seized control of Wuchang. In rapid succession, fifteen provinces seceded from the central government. The Revolutionary Government was established in Nanjing in early December and elected Sun provisional president on December 29, on his return from the United States.

Meanwhile, in desperation the Qing government turned to the only man who had the power to deal with the revolutionaries, Yuan Shikai, the creator of the New Army, who had betrayed the reformers of 1898. Yuan had been retired in 1908. In early November, 1911, he was invested with full powers to control the imperial administration and command the army and navy. With his superior forces, he scored some quick victories and convinced the revolutionaries that he had to be appeased. After weeks of secret negotiations, Sun agreed to resign as provisional president in favor of Yuan if the latter could arrange the abdication of Puyi Puyi (P’u-i), the last emperor, and pledge his support to the Republic of China. Yuan, using threats and tactful persuasion, wrenched an abdication decree from the court on February 12, 1912. He was elected provisional president two days later. The 268-year-old Qing Dynasty came to an end barely four months after the uprising in Wuchang.


The Revolution of 1911 was an epochal event in Chinese history. Not only did it overthrow a two-thousand-year-old monarchy, but it also destroyed the ideological system that had perpetuated the monarchy. The inauguration of the Republic of China was an irrevocable break with the past.

Sun Yixian has been revered by many Chinese as the “father of the republic,” and his ideas have been enshrined as an infallible guide for national reconstruction by his followers in the Kuomintang (Nationalist Party). Outside China, the revolution was a source of inspiration for nationalist movements in Korea, Indochina, and Indonesia.

The objectives of the Revolution of 1911, as originally conceived by Sun, remained unfulfilled. Sun’s ideas on democracy were largely borrowed from the West and introduced to a society with a different ethos and tradition. Very few of Sun’s compatriots understood them, and they were not shared even by most of his colleagues in the Revolutionary Alliance, who, after all, hailed from different backgrounds and whose interest in the revolution did not go beyond the overthrow of the monarchy. The traditional political order was destroyed, but the traditional social elite remained ensconced throughout the country, presaging the rise of regional militarism in the following decades.

Sun had envisaged a period of political tutelage following the overthrow of the dynasty, a period in which all social ills—such as opium smoking, foot binding, and bureaucratic abuses—would be eradicated and local self-government by popular elections under a provisional constitution would be instituted. Then, in no more than six years, a permanent constitution would be adopted, creating a truly democratic government based on the separation of powers. The political turmoil of the decades following the revolution prevented this part of Sun’s program from being put into practice. Perhaps Sun’s most important idea was his third Principle of the People—“people’s livelihood,” or socialism, which aimed at the regulation of capital and equalization of landownership.

The decade preceding the fall of the monarchy was marked by widespread and spontaneous popular movements against imperialism, arbitrary taxation, and bureaucratic corruption. Although the Revolutionary Alliance and its successors failed to provide any direct organizational and intellectual leadership to harness these forces to serve the wider revolution, the Revolution of 1911 nevertheless gave these movements new impetus. The process of disintegration set in motion by the fall of the monarchy enabled revolutionary ideas to penetrate all strata of Chinese society. The May Fourth Movement May Fourth Movement (the cultural revolution that developed out of a protest on May 4, 1919, against the unfair treatment of China at the Versailles peace conference) was in large measure the convergence of these forces, which paved the way for the rise not only of radical political ideologies but also of new patterns of social behavior and cultural values. These earlier developments in no small way contributed to the even more radical revolution undertaken by the Communist Party of China after its successful seizure of control of the Chinese mainland in 1949. Qing Dynasty;overthrow
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Further Reading

  • Bergère, Marie-Claire. Sun Yat-sen. Translated by Janet Lloyd. Stanford, Calif.: Stanford University Press, 1998. Comprehensive, balanced biography places Sun Yixian in the context of his times. Includes photographs, maps, bibliography, and index.
  • Fairbank, John King. The Great Chinese Revolution, 1800-1985. New York: Harper & Row, 1986. An interpretive analysis of modern Chinese history by an acknowledged authority.
  • Franke, Wolfgang. A Century of Chinese Revolution, 1851-1949. Columbia: University of South Carolina Press, 1970. Excellent account by a German sinologist. Includes a useful introduction and a bibliography.
  • Hsü, Immanuel C. Y. The Rise of Modern China. 6th ed. New York: Oxford University Press, 2000. Comprehensive history of modern China provides a detailed account of the Revolution of 1911. Includes maps, illustrations, and index.
  • Schiffrin, Harold Z. Sun Yat-sen and the Origins of the Chinese Revolution. Berkeley: University of California Press, 1970. Describes Sun Yixian as a revolutionary leader before 1905.
  • Sharman, Lyon. Sun Yat-sen: His Life and Its Meaning. 1934. Reprint. Stanford, Calif.: Stanford University Press, 1968. Biographical work by an American writer, daughter of a missionary in China. Criticizes the Sun Yixian cult that emerged after his death.
  • Wright, Mary C., ed. China in Revolution: The First Phase. New Haven, Conn.: Yale University Press, 1968. Collection of essays by leading historians on different facets of the revolutionary movement in modern China. Includes an excellent introduction by the editor.

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