Chapter 24 Growth of Colonial Nationalism, 1880-1939

Section 4 Nationalism in China and Southeast Asia

During the age of imperialism, the western industrial powers extended not only their power but also their methods of economic and political organization. In older Asian nations too, exposure to Western civilization led many to challenge their traditional senses of identity and to develop new ones in an effort to cope with modern industrial society.

Nationalism and Communism in China

Not all western-educated nationalists looked to the liberal democratic ideals of Western Europe and America for inspiration. Some found socialist and communist theories more appealing. Since 1902, Marxist writers had redefined the term "imperialism" itself. They saw it as an inevitable stage of competitive capitalism that could only end in war between different capitalist countries. They called for worldwide revolution against both imperialism and capitalism. After 1917, the Soviet Union even established an organization to help people around the world "liberate" themselves from both capitalism and imperialism. It was called the Comintern, short for Communist International. The Marxist message of "liberation" appealed to many colonial nationalists, especially after the ‘success’ of the Russian Revolution. Even people like Gandhi respected many Marxist ideas. The first country to follow the path of liberation from imperialism through revolution, however, was China.  

The end of the Qing dynasty

As a result of China’s growing weakness during the 19th century, by the 1890s a new generation of western-educated Chinese leaders had concluded that the adoption of western ideas was the only means to restore China’s independence. The most influential of these leaders was Dr. Sun Yuxian.[39] In 1905, Dr. Sun formed a revolutionary society aimed at overthrowing the Qing and establishing a constitutional government.[40] That same year, the examination system for the civil service was abolished.[41] Now, western-educated Chinese students no longer had to conform themselves to the traditional system in order to get a government job, and they began to spread western ideas at an ever more rapid rate.[42] The next few years were riddled with intrigues and rebellions against the Qing government.[43]

            As the demands for reform grew, even the conservative Dowager Empress Cixi had been forced, however reluctantly, to make gradual modernizing concessions. In 1895, for example, after China’s humiliating defeat by Japan in the Sino-Japanese War, Cixi had authorized the establishment of the first of several modern, western-style armies, which became collectively known as the New Army. Educated and trained along Western lines, however, the New Army proved fertile ground for the revolutionary ideas of leaders like Sun Yuxian. During the first decade of the 20th century, many officers and even ordinary soldiers of the New Army had begun to join secret revolutionary organizations whose ultimate goal was the overthrow of the dynasty and the establishment of a Western-style constitutional republic.

            In 1911, due to an accidental explosion in a munitions factory in the city of Wuchang, capital of Hubei province, official investigators came across evidence of the revolutionary activities of many of the city’s military units. Rather than risk exposure and ruin – even death – the New Army units raised the standard of revolt and immediately began sending messages out calling on other units and provinces throughout China to proclaim their independence from the Qing government. The rebellion quickly spread and sparked other uprisings, particularly in southern China.  Meanwhile, the Qing government hesitated for several weeks before sending troops to put the revolt down. In the interim, the revolutionary movements throughout China had time to organize themselves and to proclaim a provisional republic.

            Although Dr. Sun had been out of China at the time of the Wuchang rising, he returned as soon as he heard the news. He was soon proclaimed as the first provisional president of the new Republic of China – largely as a compromise candidate who was acceptable not only to other revolutionary leaders but also to leading conservative gentry in many provinces. Throughout China, people openly suggested that the Qing had lost the Mandate of Heaven.

            So widespread was popular dissatisfaction with the dynasty that even the general dispatched to suppress the Wuchang revolt, Yuan Shih-kai, decided he would be better advised to negotiate with the revolutionaries. When Sun Yuxian agreed to name Yuan president if the general would recognize the Republic, Yuan promptly repudiated his Qing masters and joined the rebellion. In 1912, Yuan Shih-kai forced the abdication of the last Qing emperor, Pu Yi.[44] After two thousand years, imperial rule had effectively come to an end in China.

            Instead of restoring the unity of the country, however, the establishment of the Republic under Yuan Shih-kai fueled resistance in many provinces. Sun Yuxian was as good as his word, and he soon resigned as president in favor of Yuan Shikai. Unable to resist the path of personal ambition, however, Yuan Shikai soon began to undermine the authority of the elected national assembly and to increase his own authority as president. At the same time, in order to bolster his own position, he began to negotiate for support from the Western Powers and Japan.

            Although the Western Powers were generally preoccupied with the war in Europe, Yuan did manage to raise a major loan from Germany, which hoped to keep China neutral during World War I. On the other hand, Japan took advantage of the war in 1914 to seize the German concessions in Shandong. The following year the Japanese went further, presenting Yuan with a list of economic and political concessions, known as the Twenty-One Demands. Taken altogether, if implemented the demands effectively would have made China a protectorate of the Japanese Empire. Too weak to resist, Yuan agreed to all but the most outrageous of the Japanese demands as he sought to consolidate his own hold on power. As the Chinese people learned of the deal, however, what little popularity he still had evaporated, and Chinese resentment of Japanese imperialism reached new heights.

            As it became clear that Yuan Shih-kai was subverting the democratic constitution, once again revolutionary leaders, including Sun Yuxian, raised the standard of revolt against the government in Beijing. Eventually, Yuan disbanded the assembly altogether. In December 1915, he made clear his ultimate ambition when he proclaimed himself emperor and the creation of a new Empire of China. It proved to be a disastrous mistake. Not only did it cause widespread rebellion throughout China, it also lost him the support of his military commanders and the New Army as a whole. After only a few months, in April he had to retract the proclamation and restore the Republic. A bitter and disappointed man, Yuan Shi-kai himself died shortly thereafter in June 1916.[45] After his death China continued to disintegrate politically as local warlords, strongmen with private armies (many of them former imperial generals), took control of their own regions and ruled like petty kings, refusing to recognize the authority of the Republic’s official government. Meanwhile, in south China, Dr. Sun and other nationalist revolutionaries also disputed the legitimacy of the government in Beijing. 

Cultural transformations. As had happened earlier in China’s history, this new period of instability and disunity led some Chinese to look for new ideas on which they might rebuild China’s unity and sense of security. The old Confucian examination system, mired in corruption, had finally been abolished. As nationalist leaders called for increased modernization, western-style education took the place of the old Confucian classics. Thousands of young Chinese went overseas to universities in the United States, Europe, even Japan. They brought back with them a conviction that China should follow the West’s example.

            One of the most famous and popular of these new intellectuals was the writer Dr. Hu Shih, who had been educated in the United States as an undergraduate at Cornell University and then as a graduate student at Columbia University. In place of the old-fashioned classical Chinese which most writers used, Hu Shih encouraged his colleagues to use the ordinary language of the people in their writing. Inspired by such a practical approach to literature, other intellectuals also called for reforms in their own fields. Many began to reject Confucianism and the traditional Chinese family system as equally old-fashioned, and called for major social reforms—including an improvement in the status of women. 

The May Fourth Movement. As China continued to suffer under the demands of outside imperial powers, the new cultural movement soon merged with Chinese nationalism. During World War I Japan had seized the German concession territories in the Shandong peninsula. After the war, they refused to give it up. Instead, they petitioned the Versailles Conference to recognize their own claims over the territory. When word reached China that the Versailles peace delegates had approved Japan's claims, on May 4, 1919 thousands of Chinese students rioted in Beijing in what became known as the May Fourth Movement. Led by the new western-educated Chinese intellectuals, the May Fourth Movement soon spread through many other Chinese cities. Everywhere, students, merchants, and businessmen protested Japanese aggression and continuing imperialism. The only solution, they argued, was a complete break with China’s traditional past. 

The Chinese Nationalists. In order to accomplish this break, Sun Yuxian and his revolutionary Chinese Nationalist Party, the Guomindong, began to build an army that would reunite the country and act as an agent for modernization along western lines. When he was unable to obtain help for his plans from Western European countries or the United States, in 1923 Sun accepted aid from the new Communist government in the Soviet Union. He also forged an alliance with the fledgling Chinese Communist Party. Sun believed that only by establishing unity among all the various groups in China could the goals of nationalism be properly achieved. Despite their numbers, he once wrote, “the Chinese people have only family and clan solidarity, they do not have national spirit.” His goal was to create that spirit for sheer self-preservation: 

“Today we are the poorest and weakest nation in the world. . . . Other men are the carving knife and serving dish; we are the fish and the meat. . . . If we do not earnestly espouse nationalism and weld together our four hundred million people into a strong nation, there is a danger of China’s being lost and our people being destroyed. ” 

            Although Sun died in 1925, under his successor, Chiang Kai-shek, the Nationalist army gradually suppressed the warlords and regained control over much of China. In 1928 Chiang set up a new national government with its capital in Nanking. While China seemed to have been reunited, however, the country remained weak. The great majority of the people were peasants living in the countryside, and agriculture was far more important than industry. Roads were poor through much of the country, which meant that communications between the central government and outlying provinces were often difficult. In many areas, local warlords remained in power, having simply made a pledge of allegiance to the new government. Bandit armies flourished in many provinces, even attacking strongly fortified towns. In addition, the unity for which Sun had striven was shattered as the Guomindong split between Communists and non-Communists. 

The Chinese Communist Party. In their desire to modernize China, some western-educated Chinese nationalists had come to believe that communism was the best means of achieving their goal. Many had studied Marxism and travelled in the Soviet Union. The majority of the Guomindong, however, under the conservative Chiang Kai-Shek, disliked communist ideas. They especially rejected plans to take land away from the wealthy and give it to the peasants. They also opposed government control of the economy and preferred a capitalist model for modernizing China.

            After establishing his position as Sun Yuxian’s successor at the head of the Guomindong, Chiang soon turned on the Communists violently. Jailing and killing many, over the next 10 years he waged almost constant war on them. In 1934, Nationalist forces suppressed a soviet-style republic that the Communist Party had established in 1931 in Kiangsi Province under the charismatic leader Mao Ze-dong. Fleeing from Chiang’s armies, some 200,000 communists made the so-called Long March to the far northwest of China, where they planned to reorganize themselves. During the march, the party came into closer contact with China’s peasants, and a new, unified communist leadership emerged for the first time under Mao’s firm control. 

Maoism. Although Marxist theory insisted that communist revolution would come from industrial workers in the cities, China was still a land of farmers and gardeners. Mao trained his party members to use the language of Chinese peasants, and to promise them what they wanted. He later explained his theory in a speech: 

“Today two big mountains lie like a dead weight on the Chinese people. One is imperialism, the other is feudalism. . . . We must persevere and work unceasingly, and we, too, will touch God's heart. Our God is none other than the masses of the Chinese people. If they stand up and dig together with us, why can't these two mountains be cleared away?”[46] 

Mao’s Chinese version of Marxism became known as Maoism.

Nationalist reforms. As the Communists retreated on the Long March to reorganize, Chiang and the Nationalists slowly tried to modernize China. They adopted a new constitution and a new law code on modern, Western lines. Modern, Western-style education flourished and many new schools and universities were established. The Nationalist government enacted new measures designed to strengthen Chinese industry, as well as improving transportation networks in the country and irrigation and flood control along China’s rivers. Not least, the Nationalists finally managed to abolish the last vestiges of foreign control over the economy, which had first begun nearly a century before.

            Yet despite the new reforms, Chiang’s government never fully controlled more than about half of China. Moreover, in many places, ordinary Chinese suffered as much under government forces as they did from bandits. A petition from Szechuan province, for example, described the government’s local general as “the leader of the wolves and tigers.” His actions had so desolated the region, the petition complained, that “East and West for some tens of li, the bark of a dog or the crow of a cock is no longer heard. The people sigh that the sun and moon might perish so that they could perish with them.”[47] 

The war against Japan. Despite the mutual hatred between the Guomindong and the Communists, in the 1930s both confronted a mutual enemy—Japan. Since the presentation of the Twenty-One Demands during World War I, Japan’s ambitions for empire on the Asian mainland had only grown stronger. Japanese and Chinese Nationalist forces clashed in 1928, and in 1931 the Japanese occupied Manchuria. In 1936, under pressure from the Soviet Union, the Chinese Communists proposed a truce and an alliance with the Nationalists against the Japanese. Chiang agreed and in the summer of 1937, the two sides worked out an agreement.

            Two days later an incident between Communist and Japanese forces outside Beijing led to full-scale war. As Japan invaded China, Chiang’s forces bore the brunt of the fighting. Mao on the other hand used the war as a chance to extend Communist influence in the Chinese countryside. “The Sino-Japanese conflict gives us . . . an excellent opportunity for expansion,” he told his generals. After the war, the Communists were in a position to challenge the Nationalists for control of all China. 

Nationalism in Southeast Asia

The success of nationalist movements in India and China inspired other Asian peoples to make their own demands for reform and greater participation in their own government. In the years before World War I, for example, many Indonesians had organized around their sense of Islamic identity to seek reforms from the Dutch. 

Dutch Indonesia. In 1911, Indonesian Muslims established the Sarekat Islam, or Islamic Association, as a mass political party. Unlike the British, however, who generally recognized the aspirations of colonial nationalists and moved, however slowly, to meet them, the Dutch ultimately met major nationalist demands with repression. Although they instituted some minor reforms during World War I, they had no intention of moving rapidly toward major Indonesian participation in the political process. As the demands of the Sarekat Islam went largely unmet, after the war several new organizations emerged in Indonesia to challenge the Dutch—the Indonesian Communist Party (PKI); and the Indonesian Nationalist Party founded in 1925 founded by a charismatic leader named Sukarno.

            Unlike the Marxists of the PKI or the Muslims of the Sarekat Islam, Sukarno felt bound by no particular creed or ideology. Instead, he embraced any movement or idea that might contribute to his goal of complete independence for Indonesia. He later described his flexibility and attributed to it much of his success as a nationalist: 

“My grandfather inculcated in me Javanism and mysticism. From my Father came Theosophy and Islamism. From Mother, Hinduism and Buddhism. Sarinah gave me humanism. From Tjokro came Socialism. From his friends came Nationalism.


To that I added gleanings of Karl Marxism and Thomas Jeffersonism. I learned economics from Sun Yat-Sen, benevolence from Gandhi. I was able to synthesize modern scientific schooling with ancient animistic culture and to translate the end product into living, breathing messages of hope geared to the understanding of a peasant. What came out has been called—in plain terms—Sukarnoism.”[48] 

Sukarno’s appeal to nationalism proved extremely effective in rallying support among the Indonesian people. He became the “great puppet master”—a reference to the sacred shadow play of the Indonesians, signifying the one who is in control. At the same time, he represented a serious threat to the Dutch—who imprisoned him twice and finally exiled him from Java. 

French Indochina. Like the Dutch, the French too met rising nationalism in their Asian colonies with force. In February 1927, for example, a number of Vietnamese nationalists organized the Vietnamese Nationalist Party as a revolutionary socialist party modeled after the Guomindong in China. Over the next several years its members had carried out assassinations of French officials and Vietnamese "collaborators." When the colonial authorities cracked down on the party in 1929, however, its leaders concluded that their only hope of success was to organize a mutiny among Vietnamese members of the colonial army that would in turn spark a mass rebellion. 

            In November 1930 they carried through this plan and staged an uprising in the city of Yen Bai. The rising failed when the bulk of the Vietnamese troops remained loyal to the colonial authorities. Although a number of other violent incidents took place around the country over the next several weeks, by the end of the month the French had brutally suppressed the rebellion and virtually destroyed the Nationalist Party itself. Many of the participants including the leaders of the Nationalist Party were executed. 

            Instead of eradicating the nationalist movement, however, such repressive measures just drove other nationalist groups underground - and made them even more radical. Shortly after the end of the attempted revolution, for example, a number of the revolutionaries who had escaped across the border into China, as well as others who had been living in exile, including a young charismatic Marxist named Ho Chi Minh, established the Vietnamese Communist Party. Over the next 15 years, the Vietnamese Communist party would emerge as the leader of the movement for Vietnamese independence, inspiring strikes, peasant uprisings and anti-colonial demonstrations.