The 1911 Revolution and the Last Emperor of China


After nearly a century of foreign intervention, nationalist forces seized control of China from the Emperor and the Qing Dynasty.

After years of foreign intervention into Chinese domestic affairs as well as the continued corruption of the nation’s government, the imperial Qing Dynasty, a revolution in politics and society occurred in 1911. Known popularly as the Xinhai Revolution, the conflict involved military campaigns and a change in governmental power. Though the actual revolution lasted from October 10, 1911 until February 12, 1912, the event set the framework for continued upheaval in the Chinese way of life over the next decades until the Communist takeover in 1949.

Foreign Intervention in China

During the 1800s and early 1900s, China was essentially colonized by foreign powers such as Japan, Britain, France and the United States. Through a controlled system of trade and ongoing warfare, the nation was divided into territorial sections managed by other nations and the Qing Dynasty. Most notably, the opium trade helped dismantle the previous aristocracy through addiction. This was accompanied by a series of conflicts, both internal and external.

The Opium Wars established the dominance of the British Empire in the affairs of China as well as giving the West dominion over ports of call such as Hong Kong. The Taiping Rebellion was a civil war between Christians in the South and the Qing Dynasty in the North. And the Boxer Rebellion nearly forced all foreigners from its borders before it destroyed the nation’s sovereignty in 1901.

Factors that Caused the 1911 Revolution

Other factors also led to the 1911 Revolution, most notably social and environmental issues. During the previous decades, China was subject to a series of droughts and floods, which destroyed hundreds of thousands of acres of farmland and set the stage for the exploitation of migrant workers and forced labor.

In addition, the fact that the Qing Dynasty was dominated by the ethnic minority, the Manchus. They forced their power over the ethnic majority of the nation, the Han. This created a situation of distrust and rivalry that ultimately led to political change.

The Wuchang Uprising

In 1911, a single event caused a chain reaction that altered the history of China forever. In the city of Wuchang, revolutionaries in the Russian sector of the city accidentally exploded a bomb while it was under construction. Upon investigation, police discovered the existence of the rebels known as the Literary Society operating within the military. After a few panic-filled weeks, the military seized control of the city, stimulating 15 provinces to secede from Qing control.

The Revolutionary Alliance

The uprising itself broke out by accident. Revolutionaries in the Russian concession of the city had been building bombs, one of which accidentally exploded. This led police to investigate, and they discovered lists of Literary Society members within the New Army. Facing arrest, and certain execution, they staged a coup. The local officials panicked and fled, and the army took over the city in less than a day.

The revolutionaries then telegraphed the other provinces asking them to declare their independence. Within six weeks, fifteen provinces had seceded. At the same time, the Yangtze River flooded, killing 100,000 people. The Qing Dynasty failed to address either issue, allowing the newly-formed Revolutionary Alliance to establish its own government.

Aftermath of the 1911 Revolution

Over the next few months, the Alliance consolidated its power and forced the abdication of Emperor Puyi from the imperial throne in 1912. The new government proved to be ineffective over the course of time. A Second Revolution occurred in 1913, but failed. The monarchy was briefly reinstalled in 1917 before being overthrown again.

At this point, the nation was divided amongst number of military leaders, a situation commonly referred to as the warlord era. Finally, a new nationalist republic was established in 1928, but soon became entrenched in the Sino-Japanese War with Japan and eventually a civil war after World War II that split the country between mainland China and the island nation of Taiwan.