Reviewed by Daniel Curzon (Ohio State University)
Published on H-War (December, 2016)
Commissioned by Margaret Sankey
"A Journey of a Thousand Miles..."
Liu Heung Shing, a renowned photojournalist, has created a fascinating visual history of the fall of imperial China. For this coffee table-sized book, Liu gathered three well-known historians, Joseph W. Esherick, Max K. W. Huang, and Zhang Haipeng, to summarize an old debate concerning the 1911 Revolution. The three essays each touch on a different aspect of the decades preceding the downfall of the Qing Dynasty. Esherick covers the political facet of events, while Huang and Zhang discuss the intellectual currents of the revolutionary thinkers, showing how they understood and influenced the revolution. Liu uses the three historians to provide context for the pictures and the depiction of how humiliation and imperialism inspired the first revolution. The book is an exceptional pictorial exploration meant for a general audience.
In his introduction to the volume, Liu argues that humiliation and imperialism were the two prominent reasons for the Wuchang Uprising, the military mutiny which set off the 1911 Revolution. Those phenonmena were intertwined, as every imperial act was usually marked by some humiliation for the Chinese. For instance, the sacking of the Summer Palace at the end of the Second Opium War (1856-60, also called the Arrow War) was one such example. Liu's implicit argument is that once a sufficient level of pent-up mortification was achieved it erupted in a revolution, which took forty years and drastically reshaped Chinese society. The photographs following the historical essays are supposed to tell this story; however, pictures without analysis tell different stories to different viewers.
This collection of pictures was put together to celebrate the centennial of the 1911 Revolution with significant support from the Beijing World Art Museum. It is a varied collection of images gathered from three continents (North America, Europe, and Asia) and juxtaposes social scenes with political and military ones. Pictures are accompanied by short quotes from key figures of the period and brief blurbs usually describing the location and the people, but the quotes are sometimes out of context and only tangentially related to the pictures. An example of this issue is a quote from Anson Burlingame, a nineteenth-century American diplomat, advocating the preservation of China's autonomy being featured within a section dedicated to Jiang Jieshi (Chiang Kai-Shek) and the Northern Expedition to subdue Chinese warlords in 1928. Overall, the combination of photographs with quotes is a magnificent artistic journey, and the timeline of events is well suited to exploring China's downfall and rebirth.
Esherick documents the decline of Qing power as European nations, especially Great Britain, and nations who embraced Western norms and technology, such as Japan, exposed and took advantage of the weaknesses present in the Chinese system. The epiphanic moment for China was not the Second Opium War, but rather its loss to the Japanese in 1894-95. China's collective self-conception as a superior civilization was shattered by this defeat. In light of that perception shift, it is surprising that Esherick does not reference S. C. M. Paine's The Sino-Japanese War of 1894-1895: Perceptions, Power, and Primacy (2005). Esherick follows Edward Rhode's Manchu and Han (2000) in describing how race relations between the ethnic Han Chinese and their Manchurian overlords fragmented with the current failings of state, which was blamed squarely on the Manchurians. The resultant revolution and republic, although short-lived, provided a touchstone for revolutionaries, who concluded that if a revolution was to succeed it needed to be more thorough.
Huang contextualizes the intellectual ferment around the revolutionary process through the discourse of the two main sides, the constitutionalists and the revolutionary party. The constitutionalists aimed to reform China's governmental practices and policies, including ideas of constitutional monarchy. The revolutionaries wanted in the nearer future a remade China, and after the failure of reforms in 1898, they started to believe that only extreme measures would succeed.
Huang highlights a string of philosophers to explain how new intellectual ideas from abroad changed perceptions of governance and freedom. Those intellectuals were Yan Fu, channeling Thomas Huxley's Evolution and Ethics and how the fittest survived, Tan Sitong, describing "the spirit of the martyr" and the need to change China's relationship-based social system in his Renxue (Treatise on Benevolence and Commonality), and Liang Qichao, discussing how to reform private morality and citizenship in Xinmin Shuo (Theory of the New Citizen) (pp. 30-31). China's intellectuals built platforms upon which reformers and revolutionaries with limited shared goals could stand. When those goals diverged, so did cooperation.
Haipeng's essay discusses how the intellectual genesis for the reforms came not from China's culture, but from Europe's. Haipeng describes how a China awakened by foreign invasions and buffeted from all sides by imperial demands, slid away from gradual reform into revolution with the failure of the 1898 policies. Reformers and constitutionalists like Kang Youwei and Liang Qichao were replaced by Sun Yet-sen and others who sought to "blame the tartar" and demanded the expulsion of the Manchurian foreigners who made China weak. The Boxer Uprising and ensuing Boxer Protocol broke China's collective spirit. The various clauses of the protocol effectively co-opted governmental power, including the examination system. Revolutionaries saw the psychological effects of the treaty and believed that to "rejuvenate China" they needed to overthrow the Qing and to strengthen social progress in China. It is surprising that James Hevia's English Lessons: The Pedagogy of Imperialism in Nineteenth-Century China (2003) is not cited as a part of the discussion concerning how the imperial powers used the Boxer Uprising to break the Qing Dynasty's control of China.
The book fits poorly into defined historiographic categories. In regard to military history, the limited discussion in the essays of the wars that shaped Qing China's downfall are not significant; however, the pictures from a few of the wars, especially the Boxer War, serve as a worthwhile insight into the realities of the conflict. As a history of the 1911 Revolution, the work appears to be constructed for a general audience, and historians would be better off reading Esherick's Reform and Revolution in China (1998) or his edited volume, China: How the Empire Fell (2013). The potentially best historiographic fit for Liu's work is digital history. Many digital historians, though, would wonder about the book's structure, and its limited use of the photographic data for analysis and insight into China's progress toward revolution.
China in Revolution: The Road to 1911 is an interesting photographic journey that runs parallel to a trio of historical essays. Liu should be praised for collecting a diverse set of photographs, arranged to explore China's changing circumstances, while the historians reduce the complexity of the 1911 Revolution into navigable thoroughfares, leading to simple conclusions for mass audiences.
If there is additional discussion of this review, you may access it through the network, at: https://networks.h-net.org/h-war.
Daniel Curzon. Review of Liu, Heung Shing, China in Revolution: The Road to 1911.
H-War, H-Net Reviews.
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