China’s 1911 Revolution


Dutt, Vidya Prakash. “The First Week of Revolution” p. 383-416 in China in Revolution: The First Phase, 1900-1913 (1968)


In chapter 9 of China in Revolution, Vidya Prakash Dutt describes the events of the Wuchang Uprising, which kick-started the Revolution of 1911. The author’s thesis is that the New Army was instrumental in the success of the rebellion; without army membership the effort would have certainly failed. Dutt’s purpose is to illuminate the steps taken that led to the army playing a major role in the conflict, and to reveal how that fact makes this rebellion distinct and remarkably successful. The chapter introduces rebels leaders, from the initial organizer Huang Hsing to the reluctant leader Li Yuan-hung, and chronicles the formation of groups that organized the movement, such as the Literary Institute. It also mentions multiple failed rebellions that preceded the one in Wuchang.

The author then describes the beginning and the end of the violence in Wuchang, when the republican forces wrestle control away from Qing soldiers. The differences Dutt found between this conflict and previous ones from China’s history are startling. Secret societies did not play a large role, power in Wuhan was given to an assembly made up of constitutionalists without republican leanings, and the army began crushing the Manchu city by city, until even the capital fell. It fascinating to note that low ranking soldiers, not their commanders, instigated the revolution. Dutt’s sources, according to the footnotes, include multiple autobiographies of participants and other documents provided by the victors, but also many biographies and secondary works written in the 1940s by various scholars. Based on the evidence provided and the excellent, straightforward writing, the author makes a convincing case.

I find it ironic that the Manchu almost bring about their own destruction. They send many students, such as Wu Lu-chen, to Japan for military education, where the students are exposed to radical, revolutionary ideas. The desire to survive in a modernizing, industrializing world will eventually come back to haunt the Qing leaders. I find that to be quite humorous.

I was struck by the fact that the rebels aimed to turn over power to those who were not even revolutionaries. To me, that is unheard of and somewhat counterintuitive. I understand that they needed a well-known leader, someone who could turn public opinion in favor of the rebels, but still. Li Yuan-hung was so hesitant and uncooperative; I am surprised the army continued pushing him into the leadership role for as long as they did. His conversion from a puppet to the actual leader of the Hupeh Military Government is equally fascinating, and something I would like to study further. Dutt does not go into much detail on how he changes his mind and begins working for the republican cause. To me this seems like a missing piece of the puzzle in Dutt’s narrative.