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Revolution Youth

Over a hundred years ago they shaped a movement that transformed China


Revolution Youth

Over a hundred years ago they shaped a movement that transformed China


“The young are forever revolutionary,” 20th century scholar Wen Yiduo once wrote. “Revolutionaries are forever young.”

After all, what is revolution but a great turning from the old to the new—or in human terms, the young? Young people not only have the audacity, imagination and fearlessness to foment revolution, they have the least to lose and the most to gain. And they have the tinderbox-like ability to set the world on fire with the help of a single spark.

In 1911, that spark was an accidental explosion set off by a group of young revolutionaries building bombs in the city of Wuchang. The detonation drew the attention of authorities, leading the caged-in revolutionaries to stage an early coup. It was this that led to the Wuchang Uprising—the event that touched off the Xinhai Revolution, and brought down millennia of imperial rule. With one bomb, the group set off shock waves that toppled a dynasty and continue to be felt today.

For the generation born in the 1880s and 90s, nothing would ever be the same. In honor of them and the 100th anniversary of the revolution we share four of their stories.


The Tragic Idealist—Song Jiaoren 


Song Jiaoren (宋教仁) was preparing to board a train at the Shanghai Railway Station late at night on March 20, 1913, when shots rang out. He called out to friends, who came running, but it was too late: Song had been assassinated at the age of 30.

It was a violent end to a youth spent in political tumult. Born in 1882, Song Jiaoren was one of the youngest major leaders of the Xinhai Revolution and the first president of the Kuomintang. He spent his early years in his native Hunan studying the Confucian classics, but after moving to thriving Wuchang (in present-day Wuhan), he began to study Western science and ideas, and joined the young intellectuals in the city clamoring for revolution.

Song fled to Japan in 1905 and remained 36 a fugitive there until 1910, refining his ideas about how best to overthrow the Qing Dynasty and run the country afterwards. Returning to China as a full- edged rebel, he edited a revolutionary paper in Shanghai. Sick in bed at the time of the Wuchang Uprising, Song was cured instantly on hearing of the events and their successes.

After the Republic of China was established, Song was appointed to reform China’s legal system, and soon began to organize the Kuomintang in preparation for the nation’s first parliamentary elections. In December 1912, the Kuomintang won huge majorities, and many suspected that Song would become the premier of the new government. It was the closest thing to a democratic election ever conducted on the Chinese mainland.

Trying to work out a new arrangement for sharing power, Song planned a visit to Peking to discuss matters with China’s provisional president, Yuan Shikai, a notoriously shady figure whose alliances shifted with the political winds.

Song never made it; he was killed en route. Many have assumed that Yuan was behind the killing, but since all of the assassination conspirators were either killed or disappeared, the mystery remains unsolved to this day.


The Blueblood—Prince Zaifeng



For a man whose family believed that heaven had installed them as supreme rulers at the center of the universe, Prince Zaifeng (载沣) was a worldly fellow. He was one of the first members of the Chinese imperial family ever to leave the Middle Kingdom—his early “apology tour” of Germany was a chance for the royals to express regret for the murder of the German ambassador during the Boxer Rebellion.

Although no one’s idea of a “youth” at the time of the Xinhai Revolution, Zaifeng was only 28 when, on his watch, the curtain came crashing down on 2,000 years of dynastic rule. Empress Dowager Cixi had planned to use him as her next docile puppet, appointing his son Puyi as the imperial successor. But her death just one day later on November 15, 1908 left Zaifeng suddenly in charge of a sinking ship.

Foreigners liked the well-traveled Zaifeng. When Beijing banker E. G. Hillier learned that Zaifeng would be regent, he called the new ruler “a serious-minded young fellow, of clean life and irreproachable integrity, and full of sincere zeal for the good of his country.”

The revolutionaries did not take such a magnanimous view. Wang Jingwei, later a turncoat and Japanese collaborator, began to plot against Zaifeng along with a small assassination corps. The group decided to plant a bomb beneath a bridge that Zaifeng crossed every day. Because of technical problems, the hapless group labored for three nights to set up the bomb, and on the third night, police discovered it.

Arrested and brought before Zaifeng, the melodramatic Wang waved revolutionary newspaper articles in the air and declared that they were written in ink, but “I wanted 37 to translate them into blood.” Zaifeng spared his life.

Though indecisive, Zaifeng did make some progress during his brief three-year regency. He convened the rst meeting of the National Assembly in 1910, and some think that if the revolution had not occurred, China might have become a constitutional monarchy under his leadership. But at the first meeting, the assemblymen failed to kneel in his presence, and according to a biographer, “thereafter life was never again the same for Zaifeng.”

Zaifeng, like everyone else, was caught by surprise by the success of the Wuchang Uprising. Imperial forces put up a fight, but could not contain the spread of revolution, and the Qing Dynasty soon abdicated. Less than a year later, Zaifeng announced that he formally accepted the Republic of China. For this he was spared a life of humiliation, and was well treated even by the Communists in his final years, even as his hapless son remained a revolutionary punching bag.


The Shanghai Lady of Taste—Soong Ai-Ling



“There were three sisters,” goes an old Maoist saying. “One loved power, one loved money, and one loved China.” But the Soong sisters were more complicated than that. Ai-ling, the “money lover,” began her career as a devoted supporter of the Republican revolution, only later embracing the good life.

Soong Ai-ling (宋霭龄) was born into a Shanghai merchant family in 1890, the daughter of a self-made, American-educated banker and printer. The family were staunch Christians, and Ai-ling made her rst trip to America at the age of 14 in the company of missionaries. On the way, she was detained in San Francisco by the immigration authorities and shuf ed between various boats for several weeks. President Theodore Roosevelt later asked her what she thought of America, and she described her experience with the authorities. “Why should a Chinese girl be kept out of a country if it is so free?” she asked a ustered TR.

Determined that his children should get both Chinese and American educations, Ai-ling’s father sent her to Wesleyan College in Georgia. She was one of the first Chinese women ever to be educated in the United States. Returning to China, Ai-ling found that her American experience aroused suspicion, and in the words of a biographer, she “fell victim to a sort of stage fright that would accompany her for many years.”

After the Wuchang Uprising brought Sun Yat-sen back from America, Soong Ai-ling became his secretary, and she spent the Xinhai Revolution at the center of the evolving government. Ai-ling soon married a banker who claimed descent from Confucius, her sister Ching-ling married Sun Yat-sen himself, and the third sister Mei-ling married— who else—Generalissimo Chiang Kai-shek.

By 1942, the three Soong sisters were the glamorous face of Republican China. When their youngest brother finally tied the knot in 1942, Life Magazine called them “one of the greatest families in the world …with a reputation for marrying wisely and well.” China’s troubles later pulled the family apart, with Ai-ling living a lavish life in America and Ching-ling defecting to the PRC. Mei-ling, the youngest, lived out her days as “Madame Chiang,” painting in New York City and dying peacefully in 2003 at the age of 105 in her Manhattan apartment.


The Warlord—Cai E

Cai E (蔡锷) was every inch the dashing young military man in 1911. He looks the part in his photos, decked out in brassy regalia and topped with a flamboyant feathery plume. But far from a conservative Qing loyal, Cai was a visionary who dedicated his life to revolution.

Born in Hunan, Cai imagined as a young man that his home province would carry China into the future, “giving new life to China, just as England and France have done for the Roman Empire,” according to a letter he published in 1903. “Hunan is a province, and England and France are countries, but that is the only difference between them.”

Cai believed that Hunan’s strong military would make such marvels possible, and later he decided the army should be used to reform all of China. He studied abroad at a famous military academy in Tokyo, and was inspired by the German example. Back in China, Cai became a general and found himself leading units in Yunnan in 1911.

When the revolution broke out, Cai E declared Yunnan’s independence, becoming the leader of an authoritarian government there at the age of 29. For a while he wanted to turn Southwest China into a “new Prussia,” but eventually he submitted to the authority of the central government, returning to a ceremonial post in Beijing.

Legend says that a lovely Beijing prostitute, Xiao Fengxian (小凤仙), helped inspire Cai E to oppose Yuan Shikai, the President of the Republic of China, when he attempted to revive the monarchy with himself as emperor. Cai E escaped from Beijing, declared Yunnan’s independence again, and led a series of military maneuvers that “liberated” province after province from Yuan’s government, finally leading to its downfall.

In a letter dated 1915, George E. Morrison, the famed Peking correspondent for The Times of London described Cai as “an intelligent young man, educated in Japan, whom many of the Young China Party regard as a future President of China.” It was not to be—Cai E fell ill in 1916, and died in Japan that same year.


The Foreigner—Arthur de Carle Sowerby

For today’s expats, the China of the 1990s seems like pioneer times. Oh, those quaint souls who thrilled at the taste of imported iceberg lettuce, who shopped at old-timey trading posts with names like “Friendship Store!”

Foreigners like Arthur de Carle Sowerby, born in Taiyuan in 1885 to Baptist missionary parents, had to contend with more serious problems—for example, the threat of being massacred. Sowerby himself narrowly escaped this fate as a child: his Baptist missionary family was on furlough in England during the Boxer Rebellion, and so he was not among the 8,000 Christians killed in Taiyuan at the time.

Returning to Taiyuan in 1905, young Sowerby was determined to explore the vast, desolate expanse of north China. Few foreigners at the time ever left their designated Treaty Ports, but Arthur was different. “He is one of those men for whom the old country has insufficient elbow- room,” wrote a colleague in 1913. “He is essentially a man for wide spaces and untrammeled ways.” On his first journey into the Ordos Desert, he discovered a new species of kangaroo rat. Empress Dowager Cixi died while he was away on a pioneering expedition in Gansu, an ominous sign of events to come.

In the autumn of 1911, 26-year-old Sowerby was preparing an expedition to Mongolia for the Smithsonian Museum, gathering provisions and ammunition as word of the Wuchang Uprising arrived. Revolutionaries in the provinces were unprepared for insurrection. The resulting chaos in Shaanxi Province presented an opportunity for a shadowy group called the Elder Brother Society, which shared little with the revolutionaries apart from fierce hatred of the Manchu Dynasty.

Violence, looting and anarchy took hold in Shaanxi, trapping the area’s many Christian missionaries, who feared for their lives. Manchus in the capital of Xi’an were massacred, and their ears were delivered in baskets to mercenary headquarters to be counted.

Sowerby, a pathological optimist, decided to rescue Shaanxi’s foreigners, and set off into the hostile country with a motley band of nine men. Rumors circulated ahead of the group, until the Chinese believed a column of 2,000 British troops were advancing to avenge the deaths of foreigners already killed. “The effect of all this,” wrote Sowerby, “was to keep the road ahead of us clear of all bandits, and whenever we approached a walled city the local militia would turn out and salute us as we rode by.”

The group advanced through burned-out villages, picking up stragglers and rescuing missionaries and damsels in distress. Just like today’s foreigners, on Christmas Day they put together a pathetic celebration that included an improvised tree and “a very fair imitation of a plum pudding.” Narrowly skirting hostilities between revolutionaries and imperial forces, the group somehow reached a Peking-bound train, ending a 49-day adventure. The missionaries cast gold medals for each of the nine brave, lucky men who had taken part in “Sowerby’s Light Horse.”

So much adventure left Arthur immobilized by arthritis at a young age, so in 1922 he settled in Shanghai and, along with his wife, founded The China Journal, a magazine aimed at foreigners that hoped to “encourage an active enthusiasm for the powerful and often enigmatic Chinese self-contained culture.” He wrote on every subject, from hunting in Manchuria to “Shanghai’s Position in the World.” Though a colonialist who shared the prejudices 41 of his time, Sowerby was driven by some of the same passions that inspire us at The World of Chinese. We’re glad his tales have survived a century of revolutions to reach us intact.