An Encyclopaedia on Chinese History, Literature and Art

Republic of China 中華民國 (1912-1949)

The Republic of China (Zhonghua minguo 中華民國, 1912-1949) was the official designation of the state that succeeded the last imperial dynasty, the Qing 清 (1644-1911). The Republic was founded in the hope to establish a modern state able to shake off the image of a decadent and antediluvian form of government and to enter the sphere of the international community.

Yet from the beginning the Republic was beset with internal struggles. President Yuan Shikai 袁世凱 and others tried to revive the monarchy, while the professional revolutionary, Sun Yat-sen (Sun Zhongshan 孫中山), was only able to control his home province of Guangdong. In the north of China, several groups of warlords contested with each other for power.

While the European states and the USA plummeted into the catastrophe of the Great War (1914-1918), and then in the economic depression of the 1920s, Japan used this power vacuum to gain more and more influence over China, and in particular the northeastern region of Manchuria.
The political liberation of China from its past failed, but at least, the May Fourth Movement (wusi yundong 五四運動) contributed to the creation of a modern form of literature, a critical stance towards the fossilized form of Confucianism (that was seen as the main cause for China's backwardness), and a new national consciousness. Young writers and students protested against the Versailles Treaties that consecrated Japan’s influence in China.

Sun Yat-sen's ideology of the "three principles of the people" (sanmin zhuyi 三民主義) envisaged a "tutelage phase" before the introduction of democracy. Accordingly, his party, the Kuomintang 國民黨 (KMT) never considered direct democracy as the first option. While all other Western powers refused to support him, he found help with the new state of the Soviet Union. Communist advisors helped him to transform his party into a profession cadre party, and to found the Whampoa Military Academy (Huangpu junxiao 黃埔軍校), yet at the cost of a political union with the young Communist Party (gongchandang 共產黨) that had been founded in 1921 in Shanghai.

After Sun's death, his political heir Chiang Kai-shek (Jiang Jieshi) 蔣介石 realized Sun's dream of a reunited China, undertook the more or less successful Northern Expedition (beifa 北伐) in 1926 and 1927, and forced the various warlords into submission or alliance. He established a one-party government in Nanjing. The intra-party opposition of the left wing, residing in Wuhan, was soon pacified. During the so-called Nanking decade (from 1927 to 1937) Chiang Kai-shek refused any reforms and instead ruthlessly suppressed opposition, and decided to exterminate the the Communist Party.

Being driven out of Shanghai, the Communists founded soviets in the rural areas of the province of Jiangxi. They survived several extinction campaigns and in 1936 escaped in the so-called Long March (changzheng 長征), which ended in the "liberated zone" in Yan'an 延安, Shaanxi. During the Long March, party member Mao Zedong 毛澤東 became the undisputed leader of the Communist Party.

In 1937 the incident at the Marco Polo Bridge 盧溝橋, whether provoked by the Japanese militarists or not, directly led into the second Sino-Japanese war (in China called Kang Ri zhanzheng 抗日戰爭 "war of resistance against Japan"). The Japanese occupied the eastern coast and many cities along the main waterways. The most famous atrocity of the Japanese occupation army took place in the capital Nanjing in December 1937. The Chiang Kai-shek regime withdrew to Chongqing 重慶 (at that time part of Sichuan province), from where it orchestrated the joint war of the National Army and Communist troops against the Japanese occupants. This was possible because of a second united front against in Japan which had been founded in December 1936, after the so-called Xi'an incident (Xi’an shibian 西安事变), when Chiang was arrested by the "Young Marshal" Zhang Xueliang 張學良. The Japanese founded the puppet state of Manchuguo 滿州國 in Manchuria and found a willing collaborator in Wang Jingwei 汪精衛, a former party colleague of Chiang Kai-shek.

In 1945 the Japanese surrendered. The American envoy General George Marshal was unable to reconcile Chiang Kai-shek and Mao Zedong. A bloody civil war erupted in which first the National Army of the Kuomintang prevailed, but from 1947 on the so-called Liberation Army of the Communist Party. On October 1, 1949, Mao Zedong proclaimed the People's Republic of China (Zhonghua renmin gongheguo 中華人民共和國). Chiang Kai-shek and many of the Kuomintang elite fled to Taiwan, where the Republic lived on, in the hope to reconquer the mainland one day.

China's economy suffered badly under the continuing civil war, and only gradually modernized, with Wester-style banks and industrial enterprises. The Kuomintang operated with the banking institutions it needed to survive, but neglected reforms in the countryside. The largest part of the population remained part of the agricultural sector. Literature and art were influenced by the great changes that took place after the ruin of the traditional society and its delayed transformation. Expressions of "modernity" were only seen in the city of Shanghai.

This chapter of the encyclopaedia gives an overview of the political history of the Republican period, the geography of China during that time, and its surroundings, provides a list of statesmen, describes the administration and political structure, and gives insight into the development and changes in fine arts, economy, literature and philosophy. In addition to that, lists of the nearly independent provincial governors are provided, as well as the statesmen of the "illegal" governments.