1900-1931  Battles for Power

Battles for Power section


As the Qing empire declined, new leaders and old warlords rebelled against their government's submission to foreign dominance. In 1911, after thousands of years of imperial rule, a bitter Chinese revolution led to the overthrow of the Qing Dynasty and the establishment of the Republic of China. The new republic was split into rival factions, however, so the next 20 years were marked by economic chaos, war, and savagery.

New revolutionaries rose to power - Sun Yat-sen, Chiang Kai-shek, and Mao Zedong (Tse-tung) - who struggled to bring China into the modern world by revising educational and legal systems, constructing railroads and highways, and expanding agriculture and industry. But the age-old traditions of poverty for the masses versus privilege for government leaders tainted any progress that was made.

As warlords, former Imperial generals, and revolutionaries vied for control of Beijing (formerly Peking, the capital city of China), Marxist theory was introduced to the Chinese populace. Into this complex situation, Japan added the threat of invasion. When the world slipped into economic depression in the late 1920s, the Chinese people divided their loyalties between the two powers still standing: the Nationalists and the Communists.

Jump to one of the following subjects or scroll down to view all sections:

Click on any image for an enlarged view



needlework made by the Empress Dowager
Needlework - on paper, believed to have been done by the Empress Dowager.
--Artifact on loan, courtesy of the Dwight Eisenhower Presidential Library and Museum, Abilene, Kansas

The United States had become a strong force in the Pacific in the first decade of the 20th century, and manipulated a balance of power between Russia, Japan, and America in the Far East. The Qing Dynasty struggled to survive, but after 267 years of Manchu rule and thousands of years of living under the imperial system, Chinese revolutionaries were victorious in 1911.

After the International Relief Expedition subdued the Boxer Rebellion in 1900, the Qing Dynasty was forced to accept foreign troops on Chinese soil - a majority of them were from America. In 1906, President Theodore Roosevelt mediated a war between Russia and Japan over competing claims to the Chinese territories of Manchuria and Korea. Anxious for an ally against the Russian empire, Roosevelt secretly recognized Japanese control over these regions and also sent American battleships around the world in a show of U.S. sea power.

The death of Empress Dowager Ci Xi in 1908 brought her three-year-old nephew, PuYi, to the Chinese throne. It was a short reign. Uprisings led by Sun Yat-sen expanded into a full-fledged revolution that brought together revolutionaries, military officers, and reformers to fight the imperial government. Savagery from both sides was reported throughout China. Severed heads were piled high in city squares, flanked by long rows of ears strung from the rooftops.

In 1911 Sun was able to unite the various factions. Within two months, 15 of 24 Chinese provinces declared themselves independent from the Qing Dynasty. The empire soon collapsed.



exhibit section showing artifacts

Poster - Chinese Nationalist leaders
--Artifacts on loan, courtesy of the Hoover Institution on War, Revolution, and Peace, Stanford, California

Chinese Flag and Anthem - collected by a missionary 1917-1926.
Pamphlet "Outline of the New Life Movement" - written by Generalissimo Chiang Kai-shek.
--Artifacts on loan, courtesy of Yale Divinity School Library, New Haven, Connecticut

Chaos reigned as control of the Chinese capital see-sawed between several groups: generals of the former Imperial Army, territorial warlords, and the Nationalists (also called Kuomintang or KMT). Japanese claims to Chinese territory caused explosive demonstrations that witnessed the rise of Marxism and a new revolutionary named Mao Zedong (formerly spelled Tse-tung).

After the 1911 revolution, the new republic split into three primary factions: 1) Sun Yat-sen's Nationalist Party, based in Nanjing (formerly Nanking); 2) Yuan Shih-k'ai's former Imperial Army whose seat of power was in Beijing (formerly Peking); and 3) warlords in northern China who continued to reign over several provinces.

A fourth power arose after World War I. To finance the war in Europe, Western money had been pulled out of China and Japan stepped into the void, granting massive loans to the government of Yuan Shih-k'ai. Chinese students protested. When the Versailles Treaty ceded German territory in China over to Japan, 10,000 students rose in a massive demonstration called The May 4th Movement. One of its leaders was a librarian-turned-Marxist named Mao Zedong, who founded the Chinese Communist Party in China with only 57 original members.

The death of Sun Yat-sen six years later brought General Chiang Kai-shek to the height of Nationalist power. Chiang launched The Northern Expedition that conquered the warlords and unleashed "the Green Gang" mobsters against the growing Communist movement. Thousands of workers in Shanghai were slaughtered. Escaping to the countryside, Mao and other Communist leaders began to form peasants and workers into a Red Army guerilla force.

By the 1930s, the Nationalists were recognized as the sole legitimate government of China. American companies invested millions of dollars towards China's modernization and to support Chiang. Japan, meanwhile, began to creep across the Chinese territory of Manchuria while Chiang was preoccupied with anti-Communist campaigns.



exhibit section showing artifacts

Booklet - "Report of the Commission of Enquiry Appointed by the League of Nations"
Telegram - from David Yui to the U.S. Secretary of the Interior Ray Lyman Wilbur regarding the Manchurian Crisis, 1932.
Report - "Appeal from the Chinese Government under Article 15 of the Covenant," 1932
Photograph - President Herbert Hoover, 1932
--Artifacts from the collection of the Herbert Hoover Presidential Library and Museum, West Branch, Iowa

Quicker to adopt Western systems than the Chinese, the Japanese emerged into the 20th century as a modernized country with a strong military. Japan sided with the Allies during World War I and earned support from the West to claim more Chinese territory. Dominance in Manchuria seesawed back and forth, but by 1931 the Japanese invasion had begun.

During WWI, Britain, France, Italy, and the U.S. secretly acknowledged Japanese claims to Chinese territory in exchange for Japan's hounding of German forces in the Pacific. The Versailles Treaty ceded German territory in China to Japan. The Japanese also demanded Manchuria and Inner Mongolia, where its commercial interests included 800 Japanese-owned factories and production centers for their silk industry.

Several skirmishes erupted over the years, and in 1927 Japan claimed that 300 Japanese residents in China were massacred in Shandong … 13 actually died, caught by the Chinese while smuggling opium. In retaliation, Japanese reinforcements killed 1,000 Chinese soldiers and civilians. Then they bombed railroads in Manchuria, putting the blame on "Chinese bandits."

In 1931 Japanese forces invaded Manchuria. The League of Nations called for Japan to withdraw, but the Japanese merely walked out of the League meeting. President Herbert Hoover and Secretary of State Henry Stimson responded with the Stimson Doctrine, calling for nonrecognition and nonintervention, but that did little to deter the Japanese who pushed south, further into China.


You are currently exploring "The Political Evolution of China"
choose a sub-section below to learn more

BATTLES FOR POWER (you are here)

Highlights of the Exhibit



return to main exhibits page
return to hoover library home page