It’s Double Ten day, 10/10, a day that marks the beginning of the end for the Qing dynasty of China. The rebellion that was sparked on this day in 1911, was the impetus for widespread uprisings all over China, ending the rule of a Manchu dynasty that had ruled China for two and a half centuries.
The Manchu are often lumped together as ethnically the same as the Mongols, and, yes, historically the two peoples have overlapped a great deal, Mongolia and Manchuria after all are neighbors. Initially, the Mongols were definitely the stronger cultural force, notably during the Empire of Genghis Khan and the Yuan dynasty of Kublai Khan. After Kublai Khan died, his Yuan dynasty eventually fell to the Ming, who were ethnically Han — the Han are essentially ‘the Chinese’, currently they make up 94 percent of the population of Mainland China. The Ming dynasty lasted for a little longer than two and a half centuries and its demise came about due primarily to widespread crop failures, combined with inflation caused by the Chinese economy suddenly being flooded with silver due to increased trade with European powers in the 16th century. Ming mismanagement led to uprisings among the people at which point the Ming invited the Manchus of Manchuria to come down and help put down the rebellions, which they promply did, establishing themselves as the new rulers of China — the Qing Dynasty.
As the Mongols before them had done, the Manchus integrated themselves into the imperial machinery already in place — they adopted the bureaucracy of Chinese civil service, keeping the complex examination system in place. They maintained the worldview put in place by Confucian teachings which placed all social relationships into vast stable network based on the key virtue of submission to the Emperor. Unfortunately for them, the Qing managed to become so conservative in this quest to perfect the ‘Chineseness’ of their empire, that they inherited a basic flaw of the Ming dynasty — an inability to see the danger posed by the European powers. According to the guiding principles of Dynastic China, the Emperor was a divine figure, the absolute ruler of the world, with China the focal center of the heaven and earth. Foreigners might be ignorant of this and therefore rude and annoying but they must eventually learn to accept their duty as subjects of China, and surely it couldn’t hurt to sell them some tea and porcelain.
It’s very easy to see the Qing rulers as cartoonish figures — arrogant and puffed up with their assumed superiority. At which point we ought to step back and recognize the western powers as similarly arrogant and superior — but lucky enough to be in the position of victors. The scrappy little countries of Europe had taken two important innovations, originally invented by the Chinese, gunpowder used in firearms as well as paper and the process of block printing and beginning in the 1500’s used these technologies to dominate vast, lucrative colonial empires. China, with its vast territories and legendary wealth, seemed like a force to be reckoned with, but gradually the Europeans learned that they had the advantage and were soon imposing more and more upon the sovereignty of the Qing.
The British, who had come to be particularly fond of tea, tired of having to do all their business with China in silver; Qing officials felt that the foreign devils couldn’t possibly produce anything of worth to trade with them and so insisted on hard cash. The British, however, found one thing that the Chinese market couldn’t resist — black market opium produced in British ruled India. The Qing made the opium trade illegal but couldn’t stop an explosion of demand for the drug. The British, to protect their lucrative but illegal trade with China, fought two wars in the early to mid 1800’s, quickly demonstrating how outclassed the Chinese military was compared to European weapons and tactics. The concessions granted the western powers after these disastrous encounters left China pretty much at the mercy of Europe with the USA and Japan right behind waiting to get in on the action.
Japan’s entry into the competition to see who could bully China into giving up territory and trade concessions was particularly humiliating to the Qing, particularly, as the Japanese had managed to modernize and industrialize their country at lightning speed, having started out far more backwards and isolationist just a few short decades before. The Qing dynasty finally seemed to accept the need for a ‘self strengthening movement’, and this too-little too-late attempt to modernize its military actually wound up being the action that signaled the demise of the Qing dynasty, the 10/10 rebellion started among members of the Xinjian Lujun, the ‘Newly Established Army.’
The soldiers of the New Army were trained along western lines and many of its officers were sent abroad to study — they frequently picked up all sorts of political views that led to a feeling that the Manchus just had to go. No matter what their individual ideologies, anti-Manchu feeling became so overwhelming in the army that a constant game of cat-and-mouse developed between the Manchu authorities a near-infinite array of secret societies, such as the Society for the Daily Increase of Knowledge and the New Association for the Promotion of Public Good. These revolutionary groups were seemingly always just at the brink of declaring open rebellions and yet were also constantly procrastinating, waiting for a more opportune moment to arise.
On the 9th of October, in Wuchang, Hubei province police responded to a large explosion which turned out to have been an accidental detonation of the bombs being built by members of the ‘Literary Society’ and the ‘Mutual Advancement Society.’ Their hideout was thus discovered and lists of the members wound up in the hands of the authorities, leading to a need for a sudden all-or-nothing rebellion the next day. The revolution spread to all parts of China and more and more members of the Newly Established Army threw in their lot with the rebels. In less than two months the Qing were forced to begin negotiating with the victorious army factions, and by the start of 1912 the Republic of China was declared. The work of unifying the country under one ideology was far from complete, in fact, once the Manchus were no longer the focus of resistance and resentment the victorious Han found themselves plunged into confusion and fractious civil violence, not just between the Nationalists and the Communists but also involving all sorts of regional war lords, a Soviet incursion, ethnic revolt in Tibet and among the Muslim Uyghurs, and finally, outright invasion by the Japanese.
My music for this week’s installment is a piece traditionally played on the guqin zither, called Autumn Meditations at Dong Ting Lake, that can be found in manuscripts dating back as far as the Ming dynasty.