Republic of China

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Republic of China
Traditional Chinese 中華民國
Simplified Chinese 中华民国

The Republic of China was an era of Chinese history that extended from 1912 until 1949. It was preceded by the Qing dynasty and followed by the People's Republic. The country was divided among rival warlord cliques in the 1920s, but reunited by the Nationalist Party, or KMT, in 1928. This party had been founded by Sun Yat-sen and was led by Chiang Kai-shek. Much of China was occupied by Japan from 1937 until 1945. The Republic was a pivotal era of Chinese history that included modernization of culture and gender roles, economic development, World War II, civil war, and Communist conquest. When the Communists gained control of the mainland in 1949, the Nationalist government fled to Taiwan.


Overthrow of the monarchy

Chinese soldiers in Wuhan mutinied in October 1911. In a panic, the regent recalled Yuan Shikai, who was supported by the army leaders. On January 1, 1912, a republic was proclaimed in Nanjing with Sun Yat-sen as president. Sun negotiated with Yuan, who was still premier in Beijing. In March, Yuan and Sun agreed to end the dynasty. Sun resigned as president in favor of Yuan.

Yuan Shikai: 1912-1916

History of China
Xia c. 2070–c. 1600 BC
Shang c. 1600 – 1046 BC
Zhou 1045–256 BC
Qin 221–206 BC
Han 206 BC – 220 AD
Three Kingdoms 220–280
Jin 265–420
  16 Kingdoms
Northern and Southern
Sui 581–618
Tang 618–907
Five Dynasties and
Ten Kingdoms

Yuan 1271–1368
Ming 1368–1644
Qing 1644–1911
Republic 1912–1949
People's Republic 1949–present

Sun's faction merged with several other groups to form the Nationalist Party. Nationalist ideology is based on Sun's "Three Principles of the People" (nationalism, democracy, and the livelihood of the people). The party gained a majority in the 1912 parliamentary elections. Backed by the army, Yuan assassinated parliamentary leader Song Jiaoren, dissolved the Nationalist Party, and ruled as a dictator. In 1915, Japan's Twenty-One demands aroused much public opposition. Yuan eventually accepted thirteen of these demands. Yuan proclaimed himself emperor in 1915. Yuan had reorganized the Chinese military for the Qing Empire, so many of the army leaders felt they owed their positions to him. But few looked forward to serving his playboy son, who was heir apparent in Yuan's empire. Zhang Zuolin was one of a handful of senior officers who supported Yuan's proclamation. In gratitude, Yuan made him military commander for all of Manchuria, a large frontier district in the northeast. At this time, Manchuria was thinly populated. But it would develop quickly in the years that followed. Faced with nearly unanimous opposition, Yuan renounced his imperial pretensions after only a few months.

The warlord era: 1916-1930

After Yuan died in 1916, the officers of the Beiyang army divided into rival cliques. Puyi, the former Qing emperor, was briefly restored in 1917. It took eleven days for Premier Duan Qirui, leader of the pro-Japanese Anhui clique, to defeated the imperialists and reinstate the republic. In 1920, the Zhili clique defeated Anhui's forces and Duan was ousted. Zhili warlord Cao Kun gained the presidency in 1923 by paying out bribes of 5,000 silver dollars each to members of the National Assembly. Not reconciled to Zhili's ascendency, the Japanese backed the rival Fengtian clique led by Zhang Zuolin, warlord of Manchuria. In October 1924, a Zhili commander defected, marched into Beijing, and evicted Puyi from the Forbidden City. The Beijing coup soon collapsed, but Zhili had lost its advantage in the war with Fengtian. The fighting in 1924 was far more destructive than earlier disputes among the warlords. In November, the reactionary Duan was made president. This time around, Duan was no longer a clique leader, but rather a stalking horse for Zhang. His appointment pleased the Japanese, but did not go over well in southern or eastern China. Public opinion was fed up with the militarists, as the success of the May Thirtieth protests in 1925 demonstrates. As China's internationally recognized government, Beijing still received the revenue of the Chinese Maritime Customs Service, which had international management. But Manchuria had long been massively overtaxed to support Zhang's adventurism, and the customs revenue was not enough to prevent an economic collapse in 1927–1928.

Culture and fashion

China in the 1920s and early 1930s was more than squalid tales of greed, corruption, and betrayal among the militarists. This was also the “high modern” period when all things modern and “scientific” were revered. Writers such as Lu Xun abandoned the classical style of Confucius in favor of idioms and constructions closer to contemporary spoken Chinese.[1] The shift from Classical Chinese to Mandarin can be compared to the shift from Latin to vernacular that occurred earlier in Europe. There were campaigns against footbinding, concubinage, and other abusive practices toward women. By the 1930s, the politically-oriented "New Woman" had been displaced by the fashion-conscious "Modern Girl."[2] The product of mass advertising, women's magazines, and the influence of Japanese fashion, she had unbound feet, wore her hair bobbed or permed, and sported a tight-fitting qípáo.[3] Was she looking for romantic love, or an opportunity to work her feminine wiles and con a sap out of his life savings? Opinion was divided among writers of the time. The international city of Shanghai was the epicenter of high modern culture.[3] In the early 1930s, the Modern Girl outfit grew in popularity until it was practically a uniform. She could be from any class, rich or poor. Even young women in destitute Shanghai districts were somehow able to come up with money for cosmetics and clothing, although their families could barely afford to eat.[3] In rural China, cultural norms changed more slowly. The arranged marriage was still cherished, the focus of family remained the production of children who would worship the ancestors, a woman was told to be a "good wife and a wise mother."

Nationalist China: 1925-1971

Nationalist Revolution: 1923-1928

Meanwhile in the South, the Soviets built up Sun's Nationalist Party, revived in 1917, and supplied it with money and weapons. A "United Front" was formed between the Nationalists and the communists in 1923. The Whampoa Military Academy, established in 1924, trained a new generation of officers to put nation before clique. Sun died in March 1925. He was succeed by a triumvirate that included leftist Wang Jingwei and conservative Hu Hanmin. In July, the party proclaimed the Guangzhou regime a "national government," i.e. an alternative to the Beijing regime. In the Northern Expedition of 1926-1928, Chiang Kai-shek led the Nationalists to a surprisingly easy victory over the far larger, but now bankrupt, forces of the Beiyang warlords.

By the time the Nationalists arrived in Shanghai in April 1927, communist attacks on "class enemies" and foreigners had provoked a backlash. Shanghai's communist-led labor unions prepared a seizure of the French Concession and the International Settlement, protected by Britain. The French and British were Russia's enemies, not China's. Fearing a military response, Chiang initiated a bloody purge, not only against leftists in Shanghai, but in other urban centers as well. Hu supported Chiang, but Wang continued the United Front in Wuhan. After the Wuhan Nationalists intercepted a message from Moscow authorizing a coup, they too purged the communists in July. The two wings of the Nationalist Party were reunited and the capital was moved to Nanjing in September. The communists fled to the countryside where they staged the "Autumn Harvest" uprisings in August and October. There was a brief but savage coup in Guangzhou in December. By the end of year, most of the communists had been killed or defected. The rest had been driven into the mountains or the interior.

The Beijing government dissolved in late May 1928 as Chiang's forces approached, and Zhang fled to Manchuria in early June. Furious with his failure to stop Chiang’s advance, the Japanese murdered Zhang when he arrived in Mukden. The United States recognized Nationalist China in July, the first nation to do.[4] The U.S. also signed a treaty with Nanjing restoring China's tariff autonomy. In December, Zhang Xueliang, Zhang Zuolin's son, agreed to fly the Nationalist flag in Manchuria and China was reunited, at least nominally.

The Nanjing decade: 1927-1937

Under the Nationalists, China experienced industrialization and modernization, but there was also conflict between the government in Nanjing, the Communist Party, remnant warlords, and Japan. The warlords were finally brought to heel in 1930 when Chiang put down a brief but bloody revolt in central China. One party rule, described as "political tutelage," was established. In Nationalist ideology, this was explained as a period in which the nation would be educated and prepared for full democracy. The Japanese seized Manchuria in the "Mukden Incident" of 1931. They created a puppet state to administer this region with Puyi as emperor. In May 1933, General Hans von Seeckt arrived in Shanghai and submitted a plan to reorganize the Chinese army with German advisers and weapons. The Nazis saw Nationalist China as a fellow anti-Communist state. Economic and military cooperation continued even after the "anti-Comintern Pact" was concluded with Japan in 1936. In 1935, Seeckt was replaced by General Alexander von Falkenhausen. Both generals advised a drastic cut in the size of the army and higher standards of training. The Chinese were not anxious to adopt such reforms. A commander with fewer soldiers lost status and political clout. Regardless of the quality of training, Whampao had a track record of producing officers loyal to Chiang. However, an elite corps of 80,000 soldiers was recruited and trained to German standards. A "Three Year Plan" was adopted in 1936 to turn China into an industrial powerhouse with German loans and German-educated technocrats. Leftists asked why Chiang focused on the Communists instead of the Japanese occupying Manchuria, but an anti-Japanese policy would have undermined the rationale for Sino-German collaboration.

The Sino-Japanese War: 1937-1945

A determined campaign of assassination and coup attempts by ultranationalist junior officers left the Japanese leadership cowed by 1936. The budget for fiscal year 1937 proposed a 40 percent increase in spending, and a war was required to justify this increase to the Japanese public. Despite the alliance with Germany, the army leaders had no stomach for war with the Soviets. Instead, they suggested war with China, whose army was not nearly as formidable. The Nationalists and the Communists responded to the threat by forming a "Second United Front" in December 1936.

Despite the preparation, China was quickly overwhelmed when the Japanese finally launched their offensive in July 1937. Japan overran a vast region and cut off China's access to seaports. When Nanjing was captured, Japanese soldiers ran amok in a notorious episode and many Chinese were slaughtered. The Nationalists retreated to Chongqing in the southwest, the Communists to Yan'an in the northwest. A puppet state led by Wang was set up in Nanjing in 1940.

Anxious to counter the Japanese threat so he could focus on Hitler, Stalin signed a non-aggression pact with Chiang in August 1937. Stalin had no desire to repeat the bloody betrayals and double crosses of 1927. Chuikov, Stalin's man in China, was instructed to follow the agreement strictly.[5] At this point, the Nationalists had about 2 million soldiers, the Chinese Communists about 100,000.[6] Bowing to Moscow's pressure, Communist leader Mao Zedong mounted the "Hundred Regiments Offensive" in late 1940. The Japanese responded with the savage "three all" reprisals ("kill all, burn all, and destroy all"). The Communists never seriously challenged them again.[7]

The Chinese cause received much sympathetic attention in the U.S. press, and the Flying Tigers, a volunteer squadron of American aviators led by Claire Chennault, was lionized. First Lady Song Meiling, a U.S.-educated Christian, was even more admired as a resistance leader. The Burma Road was built to allow U.S. "lend-lease" aid to reach the Chinese army. After the Japanese conquered Burma in 1942, supplies were flown over the Himalayas until the Ledo Road was completed in January 1945.

U.S. General Joseph Stilwell was given nominal command of the Chinese army in 1942. His disagreements with Chiang were many and epic. Like Seeckt and Falkenhausen before him, Stilwell wanted a smaller force trained to the standard of his own country's soldiers. He also accused Chiang of hording supplies for later use against the Communists. There is little evidence to support such claims. Some 98 percent of the supplies flown over "the Hump" went to U.S. forces in China.[8] The U.S. reequipped and retrained two elite Chinese armies, the X Force and the Y Force. The rest of the Nationalist army received a pittance, only a few hundred guns.[8] The Y Force drove back the Japanese in Yunnan during a May–June 1944 offensive. Aside from this modest success, the U.S. had little to show for its extensive involvement in China.

The war ended victoriously all the same. Japan surrendered in August 1945 after a U.S. submarine campaign in the Pacific cut off the country's fuel and other supplies, and atomic bombs were dropped on two Japanese cities. Americans were left with sharply divided views of China. Stilwell's rivalry with Chiang and Chennault was a prelude to years of poisonous political dispute.

Chinese Civil War: 1946-1949

The Soviets had supported the Nationalists in the war against Japan and maintained a friendly attitude for some time even after Japan surrendered. They signed a "Treaty of Friendship and Alliance" concerning the status of Mongolia in August 1945. But as the Cold War between the U.S. and the Soviet Union developed, this policy was reversed. The Soviets occupied Manchuria in August 1945, where the main Japanese forces and supplies had been maintained. This region was systematically looted, with entire factories transported to Russia. The Chinese Communists were based is the North at this time, while the Nationalists were in Chongqing in the southwest. These two factors gave the Communists the advantage in picking up the spoils of war. The communist army had been a minor factor during the war with Japan, but its manpower expanded dramatically as soldiers from the puppet armies defected.

In 1947, the Constitution of the Republic of China replaced the Organic Law of 1928 as the country's fundamental law. In 1948, "Temporary Provisions" were added to the constitution to allow for emergency rule during the period of "communist rebellion."

Hostilities between the Nationalists and the Communists resumed in March 1946. In late 1947, the military initiative shifted to the Communists. The Nationalists lost some 550,000 soldiers in the Huaihai campaign of 1948-1949, the climax of the war.

Nationalist resistance collapsed in January 1949. Beijing fell without a fight and refugees began fleeing to Taiwan. By the end of the year, 600,000 soldiers and 2 million civilians had fled from the mainland. The government fled from Nanjing to Guangzhou in January. In February, China's gold reserves were transferred to Taiwan. Nanjing fell in April, Shanghai in May. Neither city offered resistance. At Tiananmen Square in Beijing, Mao proclaimed the People's Republic on October 1, 1949. Guangzhou fell on October 15.

Nationalists on Taiwan: 1949-present

On December 10, 1949, Chiang flew from Chengdu, the last Nationalist bastion on the mainland, to Taiwan and proclaimed Taipei a provisional capital. Despite its vastly reduced territory, Chiang's regime continued to receive diplomatic recognition from the United Nations and from most non-Communist states. The U.N. Security Council has five permanent seats, one of which is assigned to the Republic of China. In 1971, Taipei was expelled from the U.N. and the ROC seat was reassigned to Beijing.

In 1991, the Temporary Provisions were terminated, the claim to territory on the mainland was withdrawn, and legislators selected in the 1940s to represent mainland districts retired.[9]


  1. Lu Xun's vernacular novel The True Story of Ah Q was published in 1921.
  2. Ma, Yuxin, Women Journalists and Feminism in China, 1898-1937 (2010). The term "modern girl" was popularized by the Japanese novel Naomi (1924) by Tanizaki Jun’ichirō.
  3. 3.0 3.1 3.2 Dong, Madeline Y., "Who is afraid of the Chinese Modern Girl?", The Modern Girl Around the World: Consumption, Modernity, and Globalization (2008).
  4. China White Paper: August 1949, p. 12.
  5. "Relevant treaties were concluded with Chiang Kai-shek's government," Stalin told Chuikov. "You will act in strict accordance with them." (The Soviet Union and Communist China, 1945-1950: The Arduous Road to the Alliance by Dieter Heinzig, p. 21. "Any delivery of weapons from the USSR to the special region would be in violation of the agreement with central government in Chungking and would lead to the collapse of the anti-Japanese alliance," as Petr Vlasov, the Soviet representative in Yan'an explained.
  6. Heinzig, p. 21.
  7. Hienzig, p. 30.
  8. 8.0 8.1 Jay Taylor, Stilwell's The Generalissimo: Chiang Kai-shek and the Struggle for Modern China, pp. 271.
  9. "The authorities on Taiwan in 1991 abandoned their claim of governing mainland China, stating that they do not "dispute the fact that the P.R.C. controls mainland China." ("Taiwan (10/00): Profile, U.S. Department of State.) The map on the presidential website makes no claim to territory on the mainland. The long-form name of the country is given as "Republic of China (Taiwan)."

Further reading

  • Bergere, Marie-Claire. Sun Yat-Sen (1998), 480pp, the standard biography, based on rigorous modern scholarship
  • Boorman, Howard L., ed. Biographical Dictionary of Republican China. (Vol. I-IV and Index. 1967-1979). 600 valuable short scholarly biographies excerpt and text search
  • Boorman, Howard L. "Sun Yat-sen" in Boorman, ed. Biographical Dictionary of Republican China (1970) 3: 170-89, excellent starting place. complete text online
  • Dreyer, Edward L. China at War, 1901-1949. (1995). 422 pp.
  • Eastman Lloyd. Seeds of Destruction: Nationalist China in War and Revolution, 1937- 1945. (1984)
  • Eastman Lloyd et al. The Nationalist Era in China, 1927-1949 (1991) excerpt and text search
  • Fairbank, John K., ed. The Cambridge History of China, Vol. 12, Republican China 1912-1949. Part 1. (1983). 1001 pp.
  • Fairbank, John K. and Feuerwerker, Albert, eds. The Cambridge History of China. Vol. 13: Republican China, 1912-1949, Part 2. (1986). 1092 pp.
  • Gordon, David M. The China-Japan War, 1931–1945. The Journal of Military History v70#1 (2006) 137-182; major historiographical overview of all important books and interpretations; in Project Muse
  • Hsiung, James C. and Steven I. Levine, eds. China's Bitter Victory: The War with Japan, 1937-1945 (1992), essays by scholars; online from Questia; also excerpt and text search
  • Hsi-sheng, Ch'i. Nationalist China at War: Military Defeats and Political Collapse, 1937–1945 (1982)
  • Hung, Chang-tai. War and Popular Culture: Resistance in Modern China, 1937-1945 (1994) complete text online free
  • Rubinstein, Murray A., ed. Taiwan: A New History (2006), 560pp
  • Shiroyama, Tomoko. China during the Great Depression: Market, State, and the World Economy, 1929-1937 (2008)
  • Westad, Odd Arne. Decisive Encounters: The Chinese Civil War, 1946-1950. (2003). 413 pp. the standard history
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