Foreign influence on China's revolution

I found this picture on Southeast Asia Visions1

Troops in Peking

It is from Siam and China by Besso, Salvatore (1914) I was a bit confused about what it was showing. Surely March 5 is too late for a response to the declaration of the Republic? This turned out to be an interesting bit of political theater. By February of 1912 Yuan Shikai had accepted the idea of becoming the President of the new Republic, but he was still bickering with the revolutionaries in Nanjing over where the new capital would be. The revolutionaries of course wanted Yuan to come to Nanjing where their Provisional Senate was meeting. Yuan naturally wanted to stay in Beijing and the issue was a symbolic one over which of these two groups was going to be dominant in the new government. A group of southern representatives came to Beijing to negotiate with Yuan, but on Feb 29 a mutiny broke out among Cao Kun’s troops in Beijing and the Southerners were forced to flee their hotel. Mutinies broke out in Tianjin, Baoding and Shijiazhuang the next day, all among troops loyal to Yuan. According to Jerome Chen Cao Kun’s troops were yelling slogans against Yuan moving to the South as they rioted2

Besso met with Yuan the very next day in a very short audience where Yuan merely assured the Italians that the cause of the mutiny had been rumors that the troops would be dismissed and have to cut off their queues. He expressed shock that anyone could think he was behind the disturbances, although both Besso and Jerome Chen seem to have thought it likely that he was behind this.

One of the standard things people say about the 1911 Revolution is that while it was rather violent it did not last long largely because the various Chinese factions were deeply concerned that if fighting went on the foreigners might intervene. Foreigners really were panicked that China was going to collapse into chaos. The New York Times ran heads like “Chinese Army of 10,000, Out to Restore Manchus, Wiping out Whole districts”, “Anarchy in North and South”, “Foreigners expect no peace for Two years.” as Sheng Yun’s troops approached the city. Part of this was the fact that it was a pretty chaotic time and people had good reason to think the chaos might continue. The foreigners also had (and would continue to have) a long hangover from the Boxer Uprising. Analyzing Chinese politics was not their strong suit, and no matter what was happening they just saw “chaos” being driven by the irrational behavior of those irrational Chinese.


Of course a Revolution was also a great opportunity to see things. Whatever had brought you, Johnny Foreigner to China one of the things you wanted to take back was a bunch of stories about the things you saw, and Besso and his friends seem to have spent a lot of time observing events, generally trusting to their foreign passports to keep them out of trouble. Like the Gentleman below, Besso seems to have spent a lot of time worrying about what one should wear to a Revolution. (is a frock-coat appropriate during a revolution?)


The Europeans “were in the best of humor and joked about what was happening” and much appreciated the view of the burning city from the walls. Although Chinese troops were looting, extraterritoriality still held and no foreigner was molested.3 I can thing of few things that would reinforce the foreign sense of privilage more than touring a battlezone like it was a play put on for one’s amusement.

Yuan seems to have played the whole affair like a violin. While he claimed not be be behind the mutiny, and the looting probably went further than he would have liked it worked to cement his political position. He could portray himself to the foreigners as the one man who could keep order


and to the Chinese factions as the one leader who could hold off foreign intervention. A nice set of pictures for teaching 1911. Note that the picture above is a postcard.

  1. following a link from BibliOdyssey 

  2. Ch’en, Jerome. Yuan Shih-K’ai. Stanford University Press, 1972. p.107 

  3. One German doctor died “because of his own impudence”, but Besso gives no details 


  1. In re: “Analyzing Chinese politics was not their strong suit, and no matter what was happening they just saw “chaos” being driven by the irrational behavior of those irrational Chinese.”

    My first thought is that this truism applies to almost every country’s view of its neighbors. One could as truthfully say that analyzing French, Italian, etc. politics was not a strong suit of the Americans, English, Australians, etc. Reflection prompts me to add that the language barrier was likely much more influential on foreign opinions of China and the Chinese than it was for contemporary European states, given the relative small number of foreigners who did speak adequate Chinese.

    On second thought, revolutions are by their very nature, messy affairs. For the foreign residents of China, this could only have been a cause of much stress, living as they did in a fish-bowl, separated from the coast by a very narrow corridor whose liberty of movement was only assured by foriegn troops. Yes, the Boxer Rebellion, barely a decade old, must have loomed large in their psyche. I suspect that their “best of humour” was a display meant to calm their families and reassure themselves that however dangerous things looked, they were “safe”, and thus nothing more than “whistling past the graveyard”.

    Very nice piece, by the way.

  2. Tonight I was reading H.G.W. Woodhead’s (of China Year Book fame) memoirs “Adventures in Far Eastern Journalism” (1935) and came across the following quote on the incident you’ve discussed. Woodhead, who was acting editor of the “Peking and Tientsin Times” at the time, adds a bit of detail on the jurisdictional issues involved in the policing up of the “mutiny”. Woodhead’s comments suggest that even Yuan and his followers were not trusted by the foreigners in Tianjin to maintain peace in the aftermath. On pages 36-37 Woodhead writes:

    “Yuan Shih-kai was strongly opposed to the removal of the capital from the north. He advanced various arguments against this step, and when they failed to convince the Republican deputation, he is believed to have instigated a mutiny of the Third Division. On February 29 it broke loose and looted a portion of the capital. Troops in other centres, notably Fengtai and Yungpingfu, did likewise. And on the night of March 2 the trouble spread to Tientsin, which passed through a night of terror. The native city was the scene of firing, looting and incendiarism, and though the foreign concessions were not molested, they were placed under martial law as a precaution.
    “The presence of Chinese troops within the native city was contrary to the terms of the protocol under which the administration of that area was returned to the Chinese in 1902 by the Provisional Government that had been established during the Boxer trouble. A proposal to despatch supposedly loyal troops to restore and maintain order was therefore resisted b the foreign Powers, and the foreign garrisons, reinforced by additional Japanese, undertook the responsibility of patrolling the city until conditions again became normal. The armed Chinese police also took drastic action to restore order as soon as the main body of looters had left hte city. When I visited it next morning numbers of heads, suspended by pigtails from bridges, lamp-posts and other points of vantage, formed a gory warning to prospective robbers.”

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