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Modern China, The Republic of China

concubinage, revolutionary groups, Hankou, Kuomintang, classical language

For much of the period from 1912 to 1949, China was a republic in name only. At first, although the government adopted a constitution, Yuan held most of the power. In 1913 the Kuomintang (KMT, or Nationalist Party), a new political party that brought together the T’ung-meng Hui and other revolutionary groups, attempted to limit Yuan's power by parliamentary tactics. Yuan dismissed the parliament, outlawed the KMT, and ruled through his personal connections with provincial military leaders. In 1915 Yuan announced plans to restore the monarchy and install himself as emperor, but he was forced by popular opposition to abandon his plans.

This period of political confusion was also one of intense intellectual excitement in China. Modern universities, started in the last years of the Qing, began to produce a new type of Chinese intellectual who was deeply concerned with China's fate and attracted to Western ideas, ranging from science and democracy to communism and anarchism. Thousands of young people went abroad to study in Japan, Europe, and North America. The journal New Youth, begun in the mid-1910s, called on young people to take up the cause of national salvation. Writers imitated Western forms of poetry and fiction, and started writing in the vernacular rather than the classical language that had formerly marked the educated person. Widely circulated periodicals brought this new language and new ideas to educated people throughout the country. One of the issues most strongly promoted was women’s rights. Such traditional practices as arranged marriage, concubinage, and the binding of girls’ feet to prevent normal growth (tiny feet were considered to enhance women’s beauty) were ridiculed as backward, and young women were encouraged to enroll in China’s many new schools for women.

China enjoyed a respite from Western pressure from 1914 to 1918, when European powers were preoccupied by World War I. Chinese industries expanded, and a few cities, especially Shanghai, Canton, Tianjin, and Hankou (now part of Wuhan), became industrial centers. However, European powers’ preoccupation with the war at home also gave Japan an opportunity to try and gain a position of supremacy in China. In 1915 Japan presented China with the Twenty-one Demands, the terms of which would have reduced China to a virtual Japanese protectorate. Yuan Shikai's government yielded to a modified version of the demands, agreeing, among other concessions, to the transfer of the German holdings in Shandong to Japan.

After Yuan died in 1916, the central government in Beijing lost most of its power, and for the next decade power devolved to warlords and cliques of warlords. In 1917 China entered World War I on the side of the Allies (which included Britain, France, and the United States) in order to gain a seat at the peace table, hoping for a new chance to halt Japanese ambitions. China expected that the United States, with its Open Door Policy and commitment to the self-determination of all peoples, would offer its support. However, as part of the negotiation process at the peace conference in Versailles, France, U.S. president Woodrow Wilson withdrew U.S. support for China on the Shandong issue. The indignant Chinese delegation refused to sign the Treaty of Versailles.

Young people in China who looked to the West for political ideals were crushed by the decisions at Versailles. When news of the peace conference reached China on May 4, 1919, more than 3,000 students from Beijing universities assembled in the city to protest. The Beijing governor suppressed the demonstrators and arrested the student leaders, but these actions set off a wave of protests around the country in support of the Beijing students and their cause.

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