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Early Chinese Revolutionaries

January 29, 2010

Mary Rankin. Early Chinese Revolutionaries: Radical Intellectuals in Shanghai and Chekiang, 1902-1911. Cambridge: Harvard University Press, 1971.

Chris Hess (2000)

Rankin’s study is an important local history that illuminates the complex and often confusing picture of the role radical intellectuals played in the development of the 1911 Revolution. By focusing on two different environments, she also demonstrates the impact various regional conditions had on the successes and failures of such attempts for large-scale rapid change. Shanghai’s foreign controlled sections, large numbers of intellectuals and students, and a more progressive population made this urban center an “effective incubator” for revolutionary ideas (p.48). Chekiang on the other hand, was a more difficult environment for radicals to work in. Geographically dispersed as a group throughout the province, it was difficult for them to organize. Without a center such as Shanghai, the revolutionaries in Chekiang focused on smaller towns and villages where it became necessary for them to work with local elites and organize local secret society groups that permeated the area (p.128).

Rankin argues that although the lower Yangtze area was a focal point of revolutionary thought and radical organizations during 1902-1907, such groups failed to take leadership roles during and after the 1911 Revolution (p.227). She attributes this failure both to the local environmental conditions, as well as to the scattered leadership, poor organization, and preoccupation with heroic, individual acts of revolution demonstrated by many early revolutionaries (p.12-14). Rankin demonstrates that the secondary role these revolutionaries played in the 1911 Revolution in Shanghai and Chekiang can be explained by an investigation of their actions in the previous decade. Particular focus is given to local conditions and how these affected revolutionary efforts. She concludes that although they failed in their immediate efforts for revolutionary change, their “chief historical significance is as prototypes of twentieth-century radicals” (p.227). Although Rankin sees them as transitional historical figures, her account of the challenges these young radicals faced and how they tried to change their society does not diminish their importance.

In stressing the innovation of this kind of radical student politics, Rankin locates these students in the intellectual milieu that characterized late Ch’ing radical thought. Many familiar themes are presented here including growing nationalism, Social Darwinism, and new concepts of individualism (p.30-34). The revolutionaries operating in Shanghai and Chekiang at this time also shared beliefs in the efficacy of violence to rapidly overthrow the government, and that education was necessary for Chinese to compete in a modern world (p.35). How to implement these common ideals in diverse environments was a major challenge.

In cosmopolitan Shanghai, groups could meet more openly and print and distribute radical papers with the protection of the international community. Yet Rankin finds that although many revolutionaries congregated in Shanghai, they did not extend themselves to dominate the revolutionary movement in the surrounding area (p.125). The intelligentsia that developed from 1905 to 1911 avoided politics and the practical aspects of revolutionary work (p.124). They became dependent on merchants and moderates who provided cash and expertise. Following the 1911 Revolution, Rankin finds the revolutionaries pushed aside as constitutionalists took center stage in negotiations with Yuan Shih-k’ai (p.213). The situation was similar in Chekiang. Following the disasters of attempted revolts in places like Anking in 1907, the revolutionaries that had slowly built a position for themselves in local society by founding schools and guilds, lost leadership and organizational strength (p.168). The wild attempts of individual leaders like Hsu Hsi-lin and Ch’iu Chin led to government repression (p.176). But Rankin also argues that the moderate local elites in Chekiang, in response to the railway agitation in 1907 and 1908, were increasingly alienated from government (p.197). The establishment of a provincial assembly gave moderates power, and drew many would be revolutionaries into more moderate organizations (p.201). The revolutionaries’ position in both localities was by no means dominant as the 1911 Revolution swept the area.

Contemporary reviewers praised this work for its illustration of the often separate courses of revolution in twentieth-century China. The work was also praised for describing the difficulties of creating regional revolution in China (Wickberg, Journal of Asian Studies, 31.1:189-191). Romantic, often futile attempts by leaders to revolt in their local areas led to failure. Rankin notes however, that the organizational efforts of these revolutionaries reflect a pattern that was to be followed in the future (p.232). Rankin also illuminates that during the period she examines, local elites, particularly moderates, grew increasingly dissatisfied with the government and often took their own steps of reform. How to deal with this proved to be a great challenge to both the early revolutionaries examined in this work, and for future efforts.

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