Living through the Revolution: A Chinese Village Man’s Reflections in the Early Twentieth Century

By Weiting Guo

Twentieth-century China was home to a series of revolutions. The Xinhai Revolution (1911) and the Chinese Communist Revolution (1949) had a significant impact on China’s politics and society. The Xinhai Revolution brought 2,000 years of imperial rule to an end, marking the beginning of a newly founded Republic that feature the separation of executive, legislative, and judicial powers for the first time in Chinese history. Subsequent sociopolitical changes occurred through massive campaigns and other pivotal incidents, including the May Fourth Movement (1919), the Northern Expedition (1926–1928), as well as the Second Sino-Japanese War (1937–1945).

While the major consequences these transformations have been thoroughly recounted in history textbooks, their impacts upon local society, as well as their interactions with regional developments and local politics, are yet to be explored in detail. In this post, I use the illustration of a village man who witnessed a long “age of revolutions” in twentieth-century China. In my previously published article, “Living with Disputes: Zhang Gang Diary (1888–1942) and the Life of a Community Mediator in Late Qing and Republican China,”[1] I examined this man’s experiences in local disputes and community campaigns after the Xinhai Revolution. Here, I refocus on other experiences and reflections of his about the social, cultural, and political environments that surrounded him.

Photograph of Zhang Gang on the left. On the right, stacks of his diary.
Zhang Gang and his diary.

His name was Zhang Gang (1860–1942). He was born in 1860, when China was still struggling with the Taiping Rebellion (1850–1864). Rebellions, reforms, and revolutions engulfed him throughout his life. As an educated man who had gained reputation through knowledge, connections, and community service, Zhang Gang not only participated in local affairs, but also gathered information from his familiar circles of literati, students, and officials. From 1888 onward, Zhang started to record what he heard and experienced on a daily basis. His diary contains detailed accounts of half a century of local history and rural livelihoods, providing an unprecedented view of ordinary people’s life in modern China.

Zhang Gang's village featuring houses and a river.
Photo I took in Zhang Gang’s village (2015) showing a mix of “modern” and “traditional” characteristics.

Zhang Gang’s village is located in a city of southeastern Zhejiang province—Wenzhou. When Xinhai Revolution broke out in Wuchang, Wenzhou did not immediately host fierce battles because it was not at the center of turmoil. Soon enough, as many other Chinese provinces, Zhejiang people launched their own uprising, being quickly subdued by the revolutionaries. Then, local elites in Wenzhou established a military government, proclaiming independence from the Qing and joining a newly inaugurated provincial government. Despite some conflicts among different groups who competed for posts in the new government, the “revolution” remained peaceful and did not lead to major casualties in the region.

“Revolution” (geming)—a term that was still unfamiliar to many Chinese—was introduced to the country a few decades before the Xinhai Revolution. Many commoners had yet to understand the meaning of this term. Some perceived it as a means of political reforms; others meanwhile associated it with “rebels” who were involved in anti-Manchu campaigns. Zhang Gang’s thoughts were torn between these two. He sympathized with young revolutionaries Xu Xilin and Qiu Jin, who he described as “conscientious in work” and “thoroughly acquainted with the old and the modern”  and sacrificed their lives during the uprisings. He also embraced new ideas—he persuaded local gentry to transform a community academy into a new-style school, and purchased newspapers in order to learn current affairs and acquire new knowledge. Nevertheless, Zhang Gang was also disconcerted about how “revolutionary rioters” disturbed social order, and denounced those who accused the thoughts of Confucianism for hindering China’s progress. He particularly reprimanded one of the leading revolutionaries, Zhang Taiyan, for his “overbearing and aggressive” critiques of “our Sage Confucius.” He argued that “If people like this [Zhang Taiyan] attained his ambition in our Central Plain [China], how could anyone imagine the [critical] situation of our world?” As a schoolteacher who had been trained in Chinese classics and was also interested in Western ideas, Zhang had nebulous feelings about “revolution” and differed perspectives regarding the country’s future.

The new political system that followed the revolution— the “Republic” (minguo) – beleaguered Zhang. While the entire country celebrated the arrival of the new era, Zhang also hoped that the new government could “eliminate the tyrannical policies” of the overthrown Qing dynasty. However, he soon discovered that the new political system, which featured a seemingly modern separation of state powers, was radically different from what he experienced during the Qing era. Before the revolution, Zhang served as a key agent in village mediation, a position that enabled him to engage in communal affairs and resolve disputes through negotiation with officials, clerks, and local powers. After the revolution, he now found he had lost the privileges in dealing with cases in a flexible manner. The judicial officials exerted more control over criminal proceedings than the Qing magistrates and clerks, leaving little room for mediators to manipulate in disputes. The policemen also frequently extorted fees from disputants, and even fabricated the charge and exceeded a proper degree of suspect arrest. Facing all these, Zhang lamented that Republican policemen had treated people aggressively, and had performed unjustly “regardless of who was wrong or wrong in disputes.”

Zhang did attempt to learn the new laws, but quickly realized that a traditional literato like him could hardly understand the new “scattered and fragmented” laws. The Republican system not only separated administrative power from judicial branch, but also distinguished criminal and civil procedures, trial and prosecution, as well as plaintiff and the accused. Inexorably, Zhang was disillusioned with these unfamiliar categories. He contended that such laws “only emphasized form rather than the spirit.” The system even allowed lawyers to legally represent disputing parties. This, to Zhang, could only disturb harmony without making a positive difference to anyone in local community.

The legal system was not the only one of Zhang’s predicaments. He argued that some of the biggest problems in the Qing era—laws (sub-statutes), officials, and profit—were getting progressively worse in Republican times. He lamented that the Xinhai Revolution brought a republican (gonghe) government system that “gave people a hope for an enlightened and prosperous time,” but it also led to “fierce competition in elections, continued fight between educational factions, uneven quality of government officials, and rivalries between scholars.” Zhang missed the old days when he could still engage in local affairs and serve as an intermediary between the government and community. However, in the Republican Era, complicated laws and intensified political struggles gradually outdated his political practices. His increased frustration impelled him to withdraw from public affairs. Finally, in 1927, after witnessing local political struggles and another revolution spearheaded by the Nationalist Party, he withdrew from mediation and retired from his post in the school.

Without having been directly involved in the revolutions of his times, Zhang Gang’s stories portray how a village man was able to experience, strategize, and astutely respond to the social and political changes occurring throughout convulsed times. While all these changes had deeply influenced Zhang Gang’s life and roles in local community, Zhang and his fellow villagers also swiftly adapted to the changing social and political circumstances during the post-revolutionary era. His stories demonstrate how a local villager resent modernity and new policies during China’s massive social and political transformation. His myriad experiences also offer an excellent insight into the local world throughout China’s “age of revolutions.”

Weiting Guo is a postdoctoral scholar in history at Aix-Marseille University. He was previously an assistant professor in the Department of History and Director of Taiwan Studies Group at Simon Fraser University (2015–2019). He holds a PhD in Asian Studies from the University of British Columbia and Master of Laws degrees from the University of Southern California and National Taiwan University. He teaches courses on the histories of China, Taiwan, and East Asia. He is the Secretary of the International Society for Chinese Law and History. Recent publications include: “The Portraits of a Heroine: Huang Bamei and the Politics of Wartime History in China and Taiwan, 1930–1960,” in Cross-Currents (December 2019); “A Different Kind of War: Summary Execution and the Politics of Men of Force in Late-Qing China, 1864–1911,” in Global Lynching and Collective Violence, edited by Michael J. Pfeifer (University of Illinois Press, 2017); “Social Practice and Judicial Politics in ‘Grave Destruction’ Cases in Qing Taiwan, 1683–1895,” in Chinese Law: Knowledge, Practice, and Transformation, 1530s to 1950s, edited by Li Chen and Madeleine Zelin (Brill, 2015); and “Living with Disputes: Zhang Gang Diary (1888–1942) and the Life of a Community Mediator in Late Qing and Republican China,” in Journal of the Canadian Historical Association (2013). He recently wins 2019 Research Grant for Foreign Scholars in Chinese Studies (Taiwan). He is completing a manuscript, Justice for the Empire: Summary Execution and the Legal Culture in Qing China, which examines the tension between measures of judicial expediency and the cost of political decentralization in the Qing Empire (1636–1912).

Disclaimer that reads "This project has received funding from the European Research Council."

Title image:

“The Chinese Republic Forever” poster with the images of the Provisional President of the Republic of China, Sun Yat-sen, and the first President of the Republic of China, Yuan Shikai.

Further Readings

Esherick, Joseph W. Reform and Revolution in China: The 1911 Revolution in Hunan and Hubei. Berkeley: University of California Press, 1976.

Fitzgerald, John. Awakening China: Politics, Culture, and Class in the Nationalist Revolution. Stanford: Stanford University Press, 1996.

Harrison, Henrietta. The Making of the Republican Citizen: Political Ceremonies and Symbols in China, 1911-1929. Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2000.

———-The Man Awakened from Dreams: One Man’s Life in a North China Village, 1857-1942. Stanford: Stanford University Press, 2005.

Mühlhahn, Klaus. Making China Modern: From the Great Qing to Xi Jinping. Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press, 2019.

Schoppa, Keith. Revolution and Its Past: Identities and Change in Modern Chinese History. London: Prentice Hall, 2005.

Zarrow, Peter. China in War and Revolution, 1895-1949. London: Routledge, 2005.

Zheng, Xiaowei. The Politics of Rights and the 1911 Revolution in China. Stanford: Stanford University Press, 2018.


[1] Weiting Guo, “Living with Disputes: Zhang Gang Diary (1888–1942) and the Life of a Community Mediator in Late Qing and Republican China,” Journal of the Canadian Historical Association 24, no. 2 (2013): 218–62.

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