Sun Yat-sen and the Xinhai Revolution: A pictorial journey

Between October and December 1911, fierce fighting broke out between the revolutionaries and the Qing troops. And by early 1912, China's 2,000 years of imperial rule was history. The Xinhai Revolution led by Sun Yat-sen had successfully united the Chinese people against the imperial system, and built the first Republic in Asia, changing the fate of China and East Asia. Hsu Chung-mao takes us on a visual journey through that period of chaos and upheaval.
Sun Yat-sen is widely regarded as the foremost revolutionary of his time.
Sun Yat-sen is widely regarded as the foremost revolutionary of his time.

At the beginning of the 20th century, Sun Yat-sen, a revolutionary leader from Guangdong, left his mark on the course of China’s destiny. Under him, the Republican revolution overthrew China’s imperial system that had lasted thousands of years, and Asia’s very first Republic was established, changing the fate of China and East Asia.

Beginning from the first Opium War in 1842 during the late Qing dynasty, China was invaded and colonised by various Western powers; after the second Opium War of 1860, China went on a modernisation drive, but lost the first Sino-Japanese War of 1895 to a similarly modernising Japan. This shook China’s confidence as an ancient power going back thousands of years.

jap attack
Two cannons at the Huangtu Plateau on the northwest coast of Weihaiwei, 22 February 1895. After the Japanese took Weihaiwei, they launched a land and sea attack on the Beiyang Fleet at Liugong Island.
sun and friends
Near the end of the Qing dynasty, Sun Yat-sen and three of his friends were collectively known to the Manchu government as the Four Bandits (四大寇). The picture shows the four friends (from left) Yang Heling, Sun Yat-sen, Chen Shaobai, and You Lie, with Guan Jingliang standing behind. This photo was taken at the Hong Kong College of Medicine for Chinese (香港华人西医书院), established in 1887, now the Li Ka Shing Faculty of Medicine at the University of Hong Kong.
study trip
In 1910, the Qing royal guards visited the Austro-Hungarian empire for the first time. This photo taken in Budapest includes Li Hongzhang's son Li Jingmai (first row, third from left) and Manchu prince Zaitao (first row, fourth from left). Zaitao was then the chief of army at the young age of 21, and represented the Qing royal court on overseas military study trips, only for the Xinhai Revolution to break out the following year.

In the Boxer Rebellion of 1900 and the Sino-Russian war of 1905, China’s very survival was threatened. The Qing government tried to salvage the situation through legislation, but the situation was fraught and morale was low, and the Qing administration was on the brink of dissolution. When the Empress Cixi died in 1908, three-year-old Pu Yi became the Emperor Xuantong, but the Qing line was no longer strong enough to hold everything together.

On 9 October 1911, the revolutionaries were exposed in Hankou. The leaders were arrested and executed the next day, triggering the revolutionary action to reach new heights, and kickstarting the major changes that happened between 1911 and 1912.

harsh measures
The bodies of the executed revolutionaries and the gathered crowd at Hankou, October 1911. After the Qing army entered Hankou, they executed many captured revolutionaries, but their harsh methods sparked a larger revolutionary wave.
A staff member of the Japanese embassy watches the fighting from the embassy rooftop. On 31 October 1911, Hankou was burning as the fighting raged on.

On that day, some of the New Army revolutionary recruits engaged in a fierce battle with the Qing soldiers at Wuchang. The revolutionaries attacked and captured the residence of Ruicheng, the Viceroy of Huguang. Ruicheng fled, leaving the Qing soldiers in chaos. The revolutionaries quickly took the cities of Wuchang, Hanyang, and Hankou in Wuhan, and established the Hubei military government with Li Yuanhong as the governor, and gave it a new name: the Republic of China.

Between October and December 1911, the Chinese and foreign media were all focused on Wuhan. The Wuchang Uprising stunned the Qing court, which quickly gathered its forces and deployed elite troops southward. The fighting between the revolutionaries and the Qing troops lasted from the latter half of October to late November. At first, the advantage lay with the revolutionaries, but when the main Qing forces arrived from the north, the revolutionaries retreated, and the Qing troops took Hankou. The revolutionaries, led by Huang Xing, retreated to Wuchang, where they were stuck in a deadlock with the Qing soldiers.

The Qing army artillery squad fires on the revolutionaries with 75-millimetre Krupp cannons, October 1911. This new weaponry was very damaging and posed a serious threat to the revolutionaries.
The artillery team of the revolutionaries, October 1911. They used small-caliber cannon, which gave the Qing army a clear advantage in terms of firepower.
A garrison of the Hubei New Army under Li Yuanhong is camped beside the Yangtze River, November 1911. When the uprising broke out, this was the only garrison defending Wuchang, and they quickly joined the revolutionaries.

And while the revolutionaries were fighting, the various provinces responded in support. Hunan, Shaanxi, Jiangxi, Shanxi, Yunnan, Zhejiang, Guizhou, Jiangsu, Anhui, Guangxi, Fujian, Guangdong, Sichuan, all declared that they were no longer part of the Qing dynasty. The major newspapers in Europe, the US, and Japan reported developments, while the pictorials of the time gave coverage to both sides through depictions of scenes of burned cities and government offices, damaged railways, and fleeing civilians, although the sheer number of reports and images favoured the revolutionaries. This was true for practically all the Western reports on China, around the time of the Xinhai Revolution.

On 21 October 1911, British newspaper The Graphic carried a supplement on the Xinhai Revolution. The commentary was about how the revolution had directly impacted 250 years of Manchu rule, and Sun Yat-sen was likely to be the first president of the Republic. Just 11 days after the Wuchang uprising, the British newspapers predicted how the revolution would go, while many in China had not heard of Sun. The cover shows Prince Zaizhen (inset, left), Sun Yat-sen (inset, right), Prince Chun/Zaifeng (seated), Pu Jie (in arms), and Pu Yi (standing).
On 4 November 1911, The Graphic ran a report on news of the Xinhai Revolution reaching the UK, including how young revolutionary society members who supported the Chinese revolution received news of the Xinhai Revolution. Sun Yat-sen was active in fund-raising in Europe and the US, where he had a wide Chinese base who were excited at news of the revolution. Sun was in the US when the Wuchang uprising suddenly broke, and only learned of it through the newspapers.
On 5 February 1911, Le Petit Journal carried an article on people cutting off their queues in China, titled "China modernising: Chinese in Shanghai cut off queues in public". Before the Xinhai Revolution, some places in China had people cutting off their queues. The artist depicts some people losing their queues and changing into Western clothes, and being praised by other Chinese in Western clothes, while some conservative elderly are shocked.
The Illustrated London News of 2 March 1911 ran an article on social changes in the early days of the Republic. When the Manchus came into power, they forced the Hans to keep their hair in queues in order to keep their heads. Queues were part of the image of Chinese to foreigners, and was once an euphemism for being uncivilised. For many people, the first thing to do after the Republic was established was to cut off the symbol of the Manchus. Others had not adapted to the Republic and unwillingly had their queues cut off by the police.
In this issue of The Graphic dated 6 April 1912, a young boy cuts off the queue of his young companion.

Sun Yat-sen's struggle

In his youth, Sun Yat-sen was influenced by the revolutionary Hong Xiuquan, and learned about modernisation through contact with Western culture, which planted in him the idea of overthrowing Manchu rule.

In 1894, Sun established the Xingzhonghui (兴中会, Hsing Chung Hui or Revive China Society) in Honolulu, Hawaii. Initially, the objective was to overthrow Manchu rule and restore a Han government. In 1905, Sun and Huang Xing established the Tongmenghui in Tokyo, which spread the revolution by attracting many Chinese youths in Japan. They sparked armed uprisings in China, while moving through different countries to gain international support for the revolution in China.

report 1
On 31 October 1896, The Graphic in England reported on Sun Yat-sen's release after being held for 14 days at the Chinese Embassy in England. The Globe was the first to report on Sun, when he had already been held for 10 days. The incident reached the newspapers through a Dr. James Cantlie, and with public sentiment on Sun's side, he was given over to Scotland Yard at 5pm on 24 October 1896, and subsequently released. This was the first time Sun was given attention by the Western media.

When the Wuchang Uprising broke out, Sun was in the US, giving speeches to raise funds. After he received the news, he continued on to Europe, to convince these foreign governments to support the revolution. On 24 November, Sun arrived back in Shanghai by ship. He moved on to Nanjing, and was elected by provincial representatives as the interim president of the Republic of China.

news 2
On 29 December 1911, French illustrated daily newspaper Excelsior ran a report on Sun Yat-sen's revolutionary efforts. It notes Sun's arrival in Shanghai after passing through New York, London, and Paris, and that he is the favourite to be president of the Republic of China. The report adds that Sun founded the Chinese revolutionary committee in Europe, which makes him the undisputed leader of the Republican movement, and that Yuan Shikai - despite wanting to be the supreme leader even as he defends the Manchu dynasty - will no doubt give way to Sun's authority. The main photo shows Sun with his revolutionary colleagues in Europe. (Inset, right: Yuan Shikai; left: Sun Yat-sen)
je sais tout
On 15 February 1912, French magazine Je Sais Tout ran an article on the Xinhai Revolution, with the first known colour portrait of Sun Yat-sen.

Around the same time, Yuan Shikai, the commander of the New Army tasked with suppressing the revolutionaries, took a two-pronged approach. On one hand, he threatened the Qing royals that if they did not step down, they would suffer the same tragic fate as King Louis XVI and his wife Marie Antoinette during the French Revolution of 1789; on the other hand, he claimed credit from the revolutionaries for threatening the Qing royals.

Subsequently, the North-South Conference (南北议和) was held, and the infighting among the Qing royals intensified. Coupled with Yuan Shikai’s manoeuvring, on 12 February 1912, the Emperor Xuantong abdicated, officially ending over 2,000 years of imperial rule in China.

The provisional national council is established, 28 January 1912. 

As the north and south reached a consensus, Sun Yat-sen proposed his resignation. He was willing to work on building China’s railways during peacetime, with Yuan Shikai as president of the Republic of China, to deliver a unified system. Sun resigned in February, but Yuan claimed to have much to do in the north and declined to go south to Nanjing to take office, remaining in Beijing instead. The capital of the Republic of China was thus moved northward.

sun yat sen
This portrait of Sun Yat-sen was taken in 1914, when he was exiled in Tokyo and establishing the Chinese Revolutionary Party.

The Wuchang Uprising happened quickly, but it was, in fact, the result of over ten years of hard work by Sun Yat-sen and the revolutionaries. The revolution itself was about removing Manchu rule and restoring the Han Chinese to their place.

After the revolution, the Tongmenghui became the Kuomintang, committing itself to bringing together the five ethnic groups - Hans, Manchus, Mongols, Huis, and Tibetans - adopting the five-colour flag to represent the Republic of China, and bringing the Chinese into the modern world.

(All photos courtesy of Hsu Chung-mao.)