How should the People’s Republic of China, founded and ruled by the Chinese Communist Party (ccp) since 1949, remember and categorize the Revolution of 1911, led by the nationalist visionary Sun Yat-sen, that overthrew the Qing monarchy?footnote1 Before the Reform Era started in the late 1970s, Maoist orthodoxy labeled it a ‘bourgeois revolution’ that failed to lift Chinese people and the nation out of their misery, a task awaiting the ccp to accomplish. In recent decades, waves of rebellion among disenchanted intellectuals and party cadres against ‘grand narratives’ of any kind have swept away this position. Along with them, however, warns the iconoclastic Chinese thinker and scholar Qin Hui in his new book, some intellectual standpoints that are nevertheless essential risk being discarded. The two top endangered species on his list are any long-term historical perspective on the past and present, and any firm resistance to the spread of a complete relativism in historical judgement. These tendencies have resulted in presentations of the Xinhai Revolution of 1911 as a drama in which—as he characteristically puts it in the title of his first chapter—‘The Actors Are Clearer and Clearer, while the Script Becomes Hazier and Hazier’.
As Taiwan celebrated the centennial of the revolution in 2011, of which it defines itself as the legitimate heir—claiming the proud title of the ‘first Republic’ in Asia as the roc (Republic of China)—how to treat the upheaval of that year posed tricky problems for the People’s Republic of China. Nowadays the ccp no longer offers a systematic ideological script, but it still needs to be able to justify its own revolution thirty-eight years later—and for that matter its own coming into being in 1921, a decade after the first revolution—without risking any question of a further revolution against itself. In response, party supporters advanced various new explanations of why the 1911 Revolution was a failure; while many liberal intellectuals condemned it, on the contrary, as unnecessary—wrecking the peaceful transformation of the country under way as the Manchu court embarked on constitutional reforms in 1908. In fact, calls in the late Qing period for the introduction of a constitutional monarchy, and leading thinkers like Kang Youwei (1858–1927) who issued them, have become a very fashionable topic among scholars in recent years, along with reviving interest in Confucianism.
Qin Hui’s own view of 1911 differs from all of these. Proposing a long-term historical interpretation of it, set in broad comparative framework, he argues that there is no reason for holding that the Revolution ‘failed’, let alone that it was ‘unnecessary’. On the contrary it should be regarded as a success for at least one decisive reason, that it put an end to two thousand years of imperial rule in China. Hence the title of his book, which could roughly be translated as Exiting from the Empire—so forming a nice parallel to Advancing to the Republic, a controversial tv series in 59 episodes covering the 1890–1910s, that was removed from programming after its first run in 2003. The literal sense of the two titles is, respectively, ‘walking out of’ and ‘walking towards’. Qin Hui’s defence of the revolution, unlike at least the final episodes of the tv series—earlier parts of it, in which the conservative monarchist Li Hongzhang features as a noble patriot, and Sun Yat-sen as a brittle intriguer, were more ambiguous—does not depend on projecting the republic it created as any kind of ideal. His case for the upheaval rests on research into the history that led to it. The book was an immediate success with the public, arousing heated discussions. Released in October 2015, by the end of November the authorities had ordered it to be removed from the shelves of all booksellers, before it had even reached its nominal date of publication in 2016. The identity of its author certainly had something to do with this. Originally trained as a historian of rural society and the peasantry in early imperial China, for over two decades Qin Hui has been an independent-minded public intellectual, and an often outspoken critic of the regime, publishing widely on urgently debated contemporary issues. (Readers of this journal can consult the interview with him in nlr 20 for an extended profile.)
Composition of this latest book began when Qin Hui was invited to write a column for the liberal periodical Southern Weekend in 2011 on the centennial of the Xinhai Revolution. Some more academic essays on the centennial of the New Culture Movement of 1915, which culminated in the May Fourth protests of 1919, followed. He then wrote new sections to cover broader ground for the book. The work that has resulted is a collection of fifteen chapters that essentially fall into two parts. The first of these, comprising eight chapters, sets out his interpretation of the revolution in the longue durée of Chinese history, and the ways in which it differed from the two late Qing upheavals which preceded it, the Taiping and Boxer Rebellions. The second part, taking up another seven chapters, measures the legacies of the revolution in the light of the ‘Three People’s Principles’ proclaimed by Sun Yat-sen as the founder of the Republic, and enshrined in the successive constitutions of the roc: minzu (national sovereignty), minquan (civil rights) and minsheng (popular livelihood). The whole forms a complex construction, in which there are significant differences between the two parts of the book, and also markedly within the second part, held together by a common intellectual ambition.
Known for his wide range of reading and surprising information, Qin Hui writes with a free-wheeling vigour, moving with ease and brio between the central thread of his ideas and interesting illustrations of them. He is argumentative, witty and swift. More often than not, his digressions are little ‘expeditions’ away from his main case to counter some popularly held notion. To read him is to get a glimpse of the broader intellectual landscape in China today, albeit sometimes through a glass darkly. One also senses how much he enjoys routing opponents with a tightly constructed logic, cornering them into extreme hypothetical situations. The drawback of this kind of exercise is also obvious. Too ready a resort to reductio ad absurdum can lead to historical over-simplification. These characteristic strengths and weaknesses are both on full display in his new book. Brimming with fresh ideas and provocations, and dealing with many normally separated topics, it calls for local as well as general consideration.
The best part of Zou chu dizhi are the first five chapters, which form a powerful and original argument for the historical ‘inevitability’ of the 1911 Revolution. Traditionally, the question has been formulated the other way round, as the problem of why constitutional monarchy didn’t succeed in China. Like many of those before him, Qin Hui compares China to Britain as the prototype of a constitutional monarchy—but also to Poland (a ‘republic with a king’) and Russia (a ‘semi-feudal’ society that missed becoming a constitutional regime), and in Asia to the trajectories of Japan and Thailand. Again like some of those before him, he locates the key difference in the fact that China had left a genuinely ‘feudal’ society behind long ago, whereas all the countries which produced (more or less) successful constitutional monarchies had strong feudal elements in their ancien régime before they made the transition to modernity. Unlike other scholars, however, Qin Hui does not stop here. Reversing the question with a diagnosis of the internal dynamics of the Qing, he proposes four major factors pitching the Chinese imperial polity towards an inevitable end, with or without Western intervention.
The first of these was a centralized power whose rule rested on the fear of its subjects. This, he contends, was the Legalist system introduced in defiance of Confucian principles by the first emperor Qin Shihuangdi in 220 bc, and which remained unchanged for over two thousand years. He calls this the ‘Qin polity’ (Qin zhi). In consequence, or concomitantly, the imperial throne changed hands dozens of times over the course of its history. But with extremely rare and short-lived exceptions, each ‘lasting’ royal court had no blood relation or marriage ties to its predecessor, and no royal clan lasted for much more than three centuries after the Han (202 bc–220 ad). A constitutional monarch content with his ceremonial duties alone (invariably a ‘he’ since the ninth century) was thus always improbable.