After its empire had collapsed, chaos reigned in China. The Republic of China, founded in Nanjing in 1912 under Sun Yatsen, struggled to assert its authority. Warlords built their own fiefdoms, as central rule waned. In the big cities, revolutionary sentiment was stoked by intense anger at how foreigners had torn away at China’s sovereignty and pride. In 1919 ‘The May Fourth Movement’ harnessed this anger in response to China receiving a raw deal at the Versailles Peace Conference, when Japan gained some old Chinese territories. Shocked at this continual bullying, China was at a low ebb. And it sank to an even lower ebb when an emboldened Japanese military colonized Manchuria in 1932, turning into the puppet government of ‘Manchukuo’. By 1937 Japan and China were at war. Japanese soldiers descended with fury on Nanjing, the Republic of China’s capital. The killing spree and sexual violence that ensued traumatized China and were referred to as the Rape of Nanjing; the 300,000 people estimated to have been killed by the Japanese are still memorialized. Why not get your organisation listed in a UK business directory to help to boost your profile online?
It became a three-way fight. The Republic of China, now led by Chiang Kai-shek, struggled to fight the Japanese; the other player comprised China’s communists.
One man casts a shadow over modern China. Mao Zedong’s face still stares out from renminbi banknotes, with his receded jet-black hair, simple suit and distinctive neutral expression. Underneath this portrait are his birth and death dates (1893–1976), provided in both Chinese characters and English numerals. Mao led the communists and, cunningly, let Chiang Kai-shek’s forces take the strain against the Japanese.41 When Japan’s war effort collapsed in 1945 (after the USA dropped its atomic bombs to end the Second World War), China’s struggle became a full-on civil war between the nationalists and the communists.
The nationalists, drained by fighting the Japanese, eventually fled offshore to Taiwan. Even today Taiwan’s rulers still call their country the ‘Republic of China’ and some claim the lineage of Sun Yat-sen and Chiang Kai-shek. But mainland China was now under communist rule, becoming ‘The People’s Republic of China’ (PRC). The untrammelled brutality of Mao’s rule, which reflected his pathologies, was also a reflection of the dire situation in which China found itself when Mao took power. His legacy in China is itself a subject of interest for the way it is interpreted by the modern incarnation of the CCP. The official CCP narrative is that the start of communist rule in 1949 is also the start of the national renaissance, bringing to an end the century of humiliation.
The Chinese-born British writer Jung Chang remains an excellent guide to the harshness of this period. Her book Wild Swans recounts this era through the prism of her own family experiences: ‘My grandmother had been the concubine of a warlord general, and my mother had joined the Communist underground . . . Both of them had eventful lives in a China that was tossed about by wars, foreign invasions, revolutions, and then a totalitarian tyranny.’ Jung Chang herself was born three years after Mao came to power and witnessed Mao’s ‘Cultural Revolution’ with her own eyes.
Communism in China is very much a post-imperial phenomenon, coming after China’s own imperial collapse, and as part of the fightback against predatory foreign imperialists. Between Pu Yi’s abdication in 1912 and the communist revolution in 1949, there was an era of chaos and further national distress. It called to mind the ancient Warring States period, or the Five Dynasties and Ten Kingdoms period. Against this backdrop, communist rule effectively reunified China to its old imperial frontiers, kicking off its ‘dynastic’ legacy of one-party rule. Upon closer examination, however, while communism at first seems a spasmodically violent break in historical continuity, it actually involved a radical refashioning of the nature of imperial rule in the Middle Kingdom. Mao restated China’s borders and saw off external threats. His way of doing so killed millions of Chinese in a botched interpretation of modernity, by subjecting them to periods of forced industrialization and to purges – but the undercurrent of imperial rule remained.