significant figures in China in the 20th Century
June 19, 1988

Yuan Shih-K'ai

Yuan Shih-K'ai was born in 1859 in the Honan Province of China. From an early age, he showed his intelligence, but instead of using it he indulged in pleasure-seeking activities and sport. He excelled in physical ventures. Even though he was 'mentally alert', he failed to gain even the lowest of Classical qualifications, and so chose a military career.

Yuan started this by joining the Ch'ing brigade of the Anhwei army. He was loyal and energetic, and quickly attracted the attention of Li Hung-Chang, his commander. In 1882 he was asked by Li to go to Korea as a diplomat; he was also Li's personal agent there. His task was mainly to attempt to check the spread of Japanese authority and influence in Korea. His steadfast support of the throne and his efficiency let him do well, and in 1885 (at the age of 26) Yuan became China's highest official in Korea - commissioner. However, his efforts made him partly to blame for the outbreak of hostilities between Japan and China in 1894 which led to the Sino-Japanese War.

This did not detract from his reputation - it enhanced it. He was chosen by the Ch'ing Dynasty to train troops in northern China. He armed his men with modern weapons and trained them with modern techniques, and his force soon became the strongest force in China. In 1898, during the Hundred Days Reform, Yuan was asked to help. Instead, he betrayed the reformists to the T'zu Hzi; this increased his esteem in the eyes of the Empress no end. Then again in 1900, in the Boxer Rebellion (which he refused to support), his division was the only one to survive intact; for this he was awarded the viceroyalty of the metropolitan province and made Supreme Commander of North China.

The government's reform program supported him, and he expanded the army and created military academies. His power and prestige grew, and people started fearing him. When the Empress Dowager died in 1908, his opponents, mainly the regent for the new child emperor, sacked him, because "your limp is not fitting for a man of high status". This is not the real reason of course; his enemies thought he had become too powerful and wanted to see him gone. He was dismissed, stripped of all his offices, and forced to retire.

During the 1911 Revolution, the Dynasty ordered Yuan's troops to defend it, but they refused to do so until Yuan was reinstated. This done, he persuaded the Manchus to abdicate (12th of February, 1912) and at the same time awed the revolutionaries with his military strength. This led to a compromise between the two factions and a National Assembly was formed.

In Yuan's opinion, the Assembly was too cumbersome and picky to be of much good, and when it blocked (mainly by KMT members) his bill for a huge Foreign Loan he had the chairman of the party murdered and started undermining the function of the assembly. This was the beginning of the end for Yuan; the Assembly revolted against him in 1913, but he won and made it next to useless. He made himself President for life, and then attempted to make himself Emperor; most of his former friends had had enough and abandoned him: when he died (aged 57) in 1916 most were in rebellion against him.

Yuan Shih-K'ai had a dramatic effect on China. He was the one that was responsible for the modernisation of China's armed forces (mainly the army). His military adeptness was noted by his commander; was was selected to go to Korea as a diplomat. In his role there he played a vital part in determining Japan's influence in the area, and this led directly to the Sino-Japanese was of 1894-1985.

It was because of this war that China realised that something had to be done about its armed forces - they were hopelessly behind other countries both in technology and procedure. Yuan was given the job of bring the army into line with other countries, and he applied his expertise and did it well. The academy he ran churned out troops fighting with modern weapons and in modern ways, and they were trained well enough to survive the Boxer Rebellion of 1900 and 1901.

In 1898 some reformists, led by Emperor Kuang Hsu, plotted to seize control of the Imperial Government. They asked Yuan for his help, but instead he betrayed them to the Empress and they were consequently imprisoned. This is very significant; if he had not betrayed them, or worse still gone along with them, then things could have been very different. The Dynasty could have collapsed 14 years earlier, or its life preserved...

In the Boxer Rebellion, he won considerable respect from the Empress and others by quelling it in the area of Shantung, where he was Governor. This increased his power and his influence even more, and this had an effect because whatever he said, people paid more attention to it. It also made him more eligible for bigger and better jobs later on.

In the 1911 revolution, not only did his former habits stand him in good stead (his qualities made his troops very loyal to him, and they refused to fight without him), but he managed to persuade the Manchus to resign. This is rather significant because if the Manchus had not resigned, there would have been outright civil war, very messy, very ugly. As it was it bought the country time and probably bought the Manchus their lives.

Then his influence was given the ultimate extension - he was made President of the new Republican state. When members of the Assembly - mainly KMT party members - blocked his bill for a large foreign loan, he had the party leader killed. This was very significant as it showed the way in which China was heading. For Yuan, this was the end - revolt against him started in the Assembly and ended in the masses, and his country was against him. He died in 1916, virtually friendless. However, his actions had set the scene for nearly forty more years to come.

Sun Yat-sen

Sun was born on the 12th of November, 1866, in the Kwangtung province of South China. His parents were peasants, and so he had a rather frugal upbringing. When he was 12, Sun went to join his older brother in Honolulu, Hawaii, where he first came into contact with the West and its influences. He stayed in Hawaii for five years, at a British Missionary School there, and then at Oahu College, an American effort. He acquired quite a liking for Christianity; his brother disapproved of this and so Sun went home. In 1883 he returned to his native village, from which he was banned after desecrating an idol in the local temple.

He decided to go into the medical profession, and to this end went to the Diocesan Home in Hong Kong (where he was baptised) to study. In 1885 he changed to the Government Central School and married the girl he was betrothed to, Lu Mu-chen, by whom he had three children. He enrolled in the Canton Hospital Medical School in 1886, transferred to the College of Medicine in Hong Kong, and graduated in 1892.

Sun was not happy with the political situation in China, and he was resentful of other countries taking advantage of China's weakness. In 1894 he abandoned his practice in Canton and went north to Tientsin. Here he wrote a rather wordy letter to Li-Hung Chang, setting out his ideas on how China could become stronger; Li dismissed him, and Sun decided to become a revolutionary.

This was really the turning point in Sun's life, and indeed in the future of China. It was here that Sun made the decision to push strongly for change; here that China's destiny was (partially) settled. If Sun Yat-sen had not been this way inclined, revolutionary feelings among the people may have been delayed, or taken a different line, or anything! It was at this stage in history that China became destined for revolution.

Sun went to Hawaii, where he founded the Revive China Society, which was the forerunner of, among others, the Koumintang. The membership for this society was drawn mainly from the local lower classes, such as peasants and clerks. Sun decided to capitalise on the defeat of China in the Sino-Japanese war of 1894-95, and attempted a revolt in Canton in October. This failed, and so he went into exile overseas.

In 1896, in London, Sun was kidnapped and held prisoner for 13 days by the Chinese Legation. This brought him international fame, because the British Foreign Office had to step in and sort things out.

He spent much time in Japan, arriving in July 1897. Miyazaki Torazo, a Japanese, had heard of the London incident and was willing to help Sun in his activities. Miyazaki introduced Sun to many important and influential Japanese people, and these people gave Sun both political and financial assistance. He became well- known throughout the overseas Chinese population, and this eventually led to the founding of the Alliance Society in 1905, with Sun as its head.

More people than just the peasants were becoming annoyed in the Ch'ing dynasty, and Sun's followers started coming from the educated classes: the most important and influential class in the country. For the next three years (until 1908) the Alliance Society drew more and more people in through its use of a newspaper, the "People's Journal" as a propaganda device.

In his career, Sun helped to organise at least 10 uprisings before 1911. All of these failed, and this took its toll on the Alliance Society and Sun in particular. Members became depressed (because they thought they weren't getting anywhere), and external contributions dried up. Worse still, some countries barred them from staying there. Japan did this, and took the step of paying Sun an amount of money, and then telling him not to come back. French Indochina simply barred him.

When all was looking black, from nowhere a revolt broke out in Wuchang on October the 10th, 1911. Surprisingly, this revolt was successful; the government failed to suppress it and this gave inspiration to other factions. Another Chinese personality, Yuan Shih-Kai, persuaded the Manchus to abdicate, and they did, leaving Yuan and Sun to sort out their differences. Each was respectful but wary of the other (they were ideological enemies) and so a compromise was reached: both were to command the country. Before this could be put properly into action, Sun resigned, to avert civil war.

The capital of China was moved to Peking, and at that stage the Koumintang (which was a rehashed Alliance Society) became a legitimate political party. Sun was elected as leader, but he paid more attention to national redevelopment than to party politics. When Yuan tried to make himself emperor, Sun became involved again, and a revolt followed - Yuan won, and Sun fled to Japan. Here he collected himself and his resources, and went back to China to implement his policies.

He got there just before Yuan's death in 1916, and the following year, despite all efforts of the warlords, implemented a regime in Canton. However, southern warlords got their way in the end, because they withdrew their support had Sun was left with nothing. He left for Shanghai, drummed up some more support, and came back and made a republican government in Canton. He built up an army, and used Soviet and Communist Party donations to make it strong and efficient. He entered into an alliance with the Chinese Communist Party (CCP) in 1924.

Sun Yat-sen died of cancer on March the 12th, 1925, aged 59. Throughout his life, he had strived to enhance China's position in the world. His actions had brought China to revolution; this may not look good at first glance, but it was what was necessary to get China to modernise. His ideals, his goals, contributed much to the furtherment of the quality of life in China.

Chiang Kai-Shek

Chiang Kai-Shek was born in 1886 in the province of Chekiang, the son of a reasonably wealthy merchant family. He wanted to be in the military, and prepared for it by training in Yuan Shih-Kai's Paoting academy (1907-1908) and then in the Japanese Army (1909-1911). In this army he converted to republicanism and became a revolutionary.

In 1911, when he heard about the fighting in China, he returned and joined in, helping to overthrow the Dynasty. However, the new republic was handed to Yuan Shih-Kai, who used his position to crush the party that had put him there. The party fought back, Chiang among them, but failed (this is called the Second Revolution), and Chiang fled to Japan until the end of 1915. At this point he went back to China to participate in the "third revolution" - the discrediting of Yuan.

After this, he went to live in Shanghai for about two years, where it is thought that he became a member of the Green Gang, a secret society dealing in finance - illegally.

Then in 1917, he emerged again. When he was a student, he was a member of Sun Yat-sen's Alliance Society, and in 1917 he joined Sun again, this time as a member of the Koumintang. They decided to start their own army, and the U.S.S.R. offered to help; Chiang went up there for four months and came back full of new ideas. A military academy was established and Chiang became commandant. He now had a high-ranking job and an army behind him.

This is where Chiang, the person, started to have an effect on China as a whole. Any of his actions before this pint were with others, but now he was by himself and it was a major task. At this point, Chiang was changing the future, so to speak. He was making himself felt.

When Sun died in 1925, there was a big struggle for who was going to be the next leader. There were mainly two groups - the communists and the Koumintang, and Chiang managed to prevent a communist coup without losing any Soviet support by alternately showing force and leniency.

In the meantime, China was becoming more and more unified. This was Chiang's ultimate aim - to make China one again. He had been Commander in Chief of the army since 1925, and had launched a large campaign against the warlords the same year. This ended in 1928, when he finally entered Peking and established a new central government. However, many of Chiang's reforms that he had planned were not yet ready to be implemented. This was because his position was still too unstable - he had neutralised, rather than crushed, the warlords and they disputed his authority. The communists worried him too - they had retreated to a country base and set up their own government.

On top of all this, Japan looked set to attack, having already taken Manchuria in 1931. Chiang decided not to attack the Japanese until he had the communists under control - this was not a good decision, as he was aiming at unity, and yet he fought his own people rather than the invaders.

War with Japan started in 1937, and with no outside help at all, went on for four years. Then in 1941, (during World War II), the Allies declared war on Japan, thus making China someone to help. The war continued, along with WWII, until 1945, when two rather large explosions convinced Japan to back down. Chiang had won.

Internally, however, things were different; there were signs of decay, and they got worse when the Koumintang started fighting the communists again. Civil war started again in 1946 and by 1949 he had lost the mainland and the People's Republic of China was established - the communists' state. What was left of the Koumintang got to Taiwan and stayed there.

Chiang had lost. The country was united, yes, but not under him, which is what he was after. Reasons for Chiang's downfall are mainly personal failings; he allowed corruption within his government, he grew less responsive to new ideas and started to value loyalty more than competence. Overall, however, his mind seemed to be confused: soldier and politician, revolutionary and traditionalist, Christian and Confucian, anti-communist but Leninist. This is what probably led to his fall from power.

Chiang Kai-shek was of great significance to China. His actions were second to only one in all the history of China (the first is Mao - I'll talk about him next) and they had profound effects. He attempted to keep communism at bay. He played a major part in reorganising the country. He fought off the Japanese. He helped the rest of the Allies in World War II. Unfortunately, most of his life was devoted to war, which makes much of what he did seem bad - for example, you could say "he kept China at war for nearly forty years". This is true, but it was all in the name of the cause [depending on your viewpoint] of freedom. I can say without a doubt that if Chiang had not existed, then China would be vastly different in both culture and outlook from what it is today.

Mao Tse-tung

Mao was born on December the 26th 1893, in the province of Hunan. Being from a farmer family, there was not a lot of money to go around, but there was enough for a decent education. This took place in the local village's primary school, and then at 13 he was forced to leave and work on the farm. Rebelling, he went to a secondary school in Ch'ang-sha. He then went to Hunan First Normal School, and graduated in 1918.

Mao was not satisfied with the political situation in China, even after the Manchus had been deposed. Like many others, he started thinking about a Capitalist system modeled on the United States, but then decided that that wouldn't work either and so, in 1920, became a Marxist. In 1921 he and 11 others went to Shanghai to form the (illegal) Chinese Communist Party (CCP). Another revolutionary party around at the time was the Koumintang, or KMT, and even though the CCP was communist and the KMT nationalist, because they were both revolutionary, they bonded together and co-operated. They both wanted to curb the warlords' activities and to get rid of all imperialist ideas from China.

It was at this stage that Mao developed his respect for the peasants and realised how critical they were in the revolution. He worked with them for some time as head of the Peasant Movement Training Institute, and after watching a minor skirmish he came to this conclusion:

"several hundred million peasants...will rise like a tornado or tempest - a force so extraordinarily swift and violent that no power, however great, will be able to suppress it. They will break through all the trammels that now bind them and push forward along the road to liberalisation. They will send all imperialists, warlords, corrupt officials, local bullies and evil gentry to their graves."

In April 1927, the KMT experienced a loss of faith in the CCP, and all but annihilated them in a lightning attack. Mao, and what was left of his followers, took off for the mountains, where he instituted a new type of warfare in China - guerrilla. He also started the "autumn harvest uprisings", where he tried to capture key Yangtze Valley cities. These uprising essentially failed, and he retreated to the mountains once more. He then decided to focus on rural China, to try to make them "see the light", instead of Chiang and his cities. He put into practice what he had surmised five years earlier.

Mao merged his forces with those of Chu Teh, bringing total numbers to over 200 000 men. They were pretty poorly equipped, and constantly under attack from the KMT, who had started on a policy of "annihilation campaigns". Finally, Mao decided to move from his mountain position: this is known as the Long March. They abandoned their base and left for northwest China. The march covered 6000 miles over 368 days, and took its toll on Mao's forces. It was on the march that Mao finally took real control of the CCP. He had been near the top before, but never acknowledged as "Number One". The march cemented this.

Mao and his troops settled at Yenan, and stayed there from 1935 to 1949; until they became China's real government. It was here that Mao perceived the need for a united front against the Japanese. All this time while the KMT had been pursuing the CCP, Japan had been building up its resources in Manchuria (which it had taken in 1931) for an attack upon China itself. Chiang had decided not to attack the Japanese until he had crushed the CCP, but they had a nasty habit of surviving and so the Japanese proceeded unhindered. In 1937 Japan started making a move on China, but by then the CCP and the KMT had partially reconciled their differences and joined.

During the war, the CCP unassembled a large part of its army and sent them behind enemy lines, placing the units in between cities and on lines of communication. Their task was mainly to "bite the heels" of the Japanese. They effectively controlled large amounts of territory, and it was here that Mao and his troops got on friendly terms with the peasants - as many as 90 million of them. However, despite fighting together, the CCP and the KMT stayed apart underneath, and when the war was over (1945) it only took a year for things to go back the way they were.

However, Mao was now popular with much of the population. (Even though 90 million was only a sixth of the population, his influence had spread and people looked up to him, especially after the Long March, where he showed his staying power.) Chiang had not realised the importance of the people in his efforts, and took control of the cities only: Mao had the country and all its people, and this is what won the day for him. Chiang and his supporters lost, and in 1949 they fled to Taiwan, where they have stayed ever since.

So, on the 1st of October 1949, Mao was able to declare the People's Republic of China "open for business". He assumed the position of chairman in the PRC.

Mao then denounced the United States as "imperialist", (and all other nations, including Australia that are similar to the U.S. in political structure) and went on to criticize it further, while also insulting India. Still on good terms with the U.S.S.R., Mao went on a visit there in December. This led to the Sino-Soviet treaty (February 1950), in which China gave the Soviets economic and military privileges, and received economic aid and a pledge of support if China was attacked.

In mid-1950 the Korean War broke out, and China sent "volunteers" to help on the communist side. The Chinese and Soviet-backed North Korean troops beat the United Nations troops back across the 38th parallel, at which point negotiations started. No-one really won this war, but it cost many, many lives, and Mao's son, or one of them, An-ying, was among the dead.

Mao, during the war, also pushed ahead with domestic programs within China. He introduced laws to combat corruption within the CCP, and prepared for the first Five Year Plan of 1953. This was launched just before Stalin's death, and Mao, by this time, was starting to have doubts about Stalin and some of his policies. The Plan went ahead though.

In 1958, Mao introduced the Great Leaf Forward. It was a set of policies intended to modernise China very quickly, but, unfortunately it failed. Communes were installed, but they did not work because the people did not have time to get used to them before things were expected of them. Domestic standards plummeted and people became depressed. Conditions became so bad that in 1959 Mao stepped down from the chairman's position, and backed off from the public eye for a while. He was back in 1962, trying to revitalise the revolution with a program called the "Socialist Education Movement". It failed.

Then, in 1966, Mao instituted the Cultural Revolution. This was a phase designed to put the "zing" back into the party and the revolution, from the inside out. Firstly, he encouraged the Red Guards to be violent toward CCP members. Then, he encouraged those members to form into groups. Finally, he changed some of the values and the spirit of the party. Simplified, he broke the party up, changed around the pieces, and then put it back together again. The Cultural Revolution partially worked in that the CCP had a new outlook and things started to go well again (after items like the Great Leap Forward).

In 1967, because the CCP was in disarray, the country stared to fall apart; Mao called upon the People's Liberation Army (the PLA - a rehashed Red Army) to restore order and run the country. This they did until late 1969, when everything resumed its normal value and people began doing what they did before. In the early 70's Mao reversed most of what he had changed in the Cultural Revolution period.

In 1962, Mao had finally called China's relationship with Russia quits and pulled out. This was dangerous, because having already insulted the U.S., he had both superpowers offside. Now, in 1970, he started organising "field trips" for U.S. officials, and in 1971 and 1972 they arrived - friendly relations developed and the countries became quite "chummy".

From 1976 onwards, Mao's mind started decaying - senility. Chou En-lai, Teng Hsiao-p'ing and Chiang Ch'ing all started vying for chairman. Chou died, Teng was removed, and a newcomer, Hua Kuo-feng was named acting premier, in an attempt to accommodate both camps. Mao died on September 9, 1976, and Chiang Ch'ing was arrested. Hua became Chairman.

Mao's significance to China is absolutely awesome. He was probably China's most important person, ever. (Maybe Confucius comes close, but the two aren't really comparable.) Without him, China would have taken a different direction completely. Starting from the Long March, China's fate was in Mao's hands. His decisions affected history. China may not have even got to revolution. If Mao had died on the march (as a lot of people did), the CCP may have given up and gone home. Then the KMT would have been victorious and something like Singapore or Hong Kong today may have been the result. Mao's influence over the people of China has affected their whole lives. It has changed the way they work, the way they think, and the way they behave. 750 million people all became communists at once because of him. Now that's significant.