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The Wire Guide to the 1911 Revolution, Part I

So, I spent the summer re-watching all five seasons of The Wire and the more I watched it, the more I realized that far from being the story of Baltimore, there was a timelessness and placelessness to the Wire that transcended one city. The sense of hope battling the reality of hopelessness, the way rhetoric and political transitions, however dramatic, rarely change the day-to-day lives of the people at the bottom, the thought of Sun Yat-sen and Yuan Shikai taking swings at each other like Stringer and Avon, it occurred to me how much it reminded me of the years before and after the 1911 Revolution. So without further ado, The Wire guide to the 1911 Revolution, Part I.[1]

Proposition Joe: Omar on the one side holding a spade. And maybe Marlo to the other holding a shovel. And just at this moment… I managed to crawl out my own damn grave. No way do I crawl back in.

After the debacle that was the Qing court’s support for the Boxer Uprising of 1900 and Cixi and her entourage of conservative Manchu princes (along with one imprisoned emperor of a slightly more reformist bent) finally returned to Beijing, and even somebody as cranky and anti-foreign as the Empress Dowager had no choice but to see that some changes were going to have to be made if she wanted to preserve the power of the Manchu royal family.  In a few short years, the Qing court abolished the exam system, overhauled the army, established new ministries for foreign affairs and for the development of industry and commerce, and promised to at least look into the possibility of elected assemblies at the provincial and national level and the establishment of a constitutional basis for the continuation of the monarchy.  God knows she had little choice, but Cixi was smart enough also to realize that by giving in to the same reforms she had only three years earlier locked up her nephew, the emperor, for even considering, she  was also opening the door for less conservative elements in the Chinese political firmament to push for even greater changes, changes that might eventually make the Manchus irrelevant as the dynasty made the tricky transition from empire to nation-state.


Colvin: You put a textbook in front of these kids, put a problem on the blackboard, teach them every problem in some statewide test, it won’t matter. None of it. ‘Cause they’re not learning for our world; they’re learning for theirs.

The decision in 1905 to abolish the examination system radically changed the nature of the elite (and elite politics) by severing the connection between status and the civil service system. Since families could no longer rely on exam success to define being part of the ‘elite,’ new forms of social distinction (cultural capital, fashion, property ownership, and, of course, overt wealth) began to supplant the (at least in theory) important linkage of social status with education, exam success, and government service. The truth was though that by this time, the staid formulaic essays on poetry and Confucian values which made up the bulk of the exams had long been criticized as irrelevant in a world of science and commerce, and the Qing practice of selling degrees and even offices to the highest bidder had further eroded the exam’s meaning. That still doesn’’t mean you wouldn’t be completely pissed off if you had memorized the Confucian classics every day for two decades only to find ouit they canceled the f—–g test.


Avon: Ayo what’s up playboy? How come you wearin’ that suit, B? For real its 85 fuckin’ degrees out here and you try’na be like fuckin’ Pat Riley

Proposition Joe: Look the part, be the part, motherfucker.

Sun Yat-sen was the ultimate liminal figure: born in Guangdong, raised in Hawaii, neither perfectly at home in the East nor the West, but at least comfortable enough to be able to negotiate between the two as was required by circumstances. Upon finishing high school in Hawaii, he was sent back to China (his brother feared Sun might convert to Christianity, which he later did anyway) Sun felt out of place in his old village, finally fleeing rural Guangdong for the bright lights and clean streets of Hong Kong.[2] Once there, he cut off his queue, took to wearing Western clothing, and later would grew a little mustache in emulation of his Japanese friends.  His English was always weird and his Mandarin (or what passed for ‘standard’ Chinese in those days)  was nearly incomprehensible, but his oratory could light up a Chinatown street in San Francisco with almost the same ease with which he could charm British politicians and American missionaries.  London, Tokyo, Southeast Asia, Hong Kong…wherever there was somebody who might want to fund his revolutionary crusade, Sun was there with a silver tongue and one hand in the guy’s pockets.


Slim Charles: Yeah, now, well, the thing about the old days: they the old days.

Sun’s greatest rival for attention (and donations) was the former ringleader of the 100 Days Reforms in 1898, Kang Youwei.  Still pushing for a constitutional monarchy, Kang traveled the world trying to convince his fellow Chinese to help him restore the Guangxu Emperor as the “rightful” ruler of China.  Unfortunately for Kang, as time went on both he and his fetish for Manchu monarchs started to seem a little outdated, and after Guangxu was murdered in favor of the three-year-old Puyi, the idea of saving the throne (and preserving Manchu rule) began to seem like a sick joke. It also didn’t help that Kang blew through his funding like a frat boy who had just discovered blow his junior year of college. By the time of the 1911 revolution, Kang was off talking about “world government” and “contract marriages” while spending his donors’ money on expensive hotel suites in Paris and private islands off the coast of Sweden.


Bunk: [to McNulty] That will teach you to give a fuck when it ain’t your turn to give a fuck.

To Zou Rong, the 18-year-old wunderkind whose pamphlet/manifesto The Revolutionary Army, published in 1903, captured the imagination of a generation tired of the Manchus and their cronies. As rambling, plagiarized, melodramatic, and disjointed as any college-age student essay might be, his book neveertheless was a major influence on the nascent revolutionary movement at the time. Zou Rong argued that the Manchus were the real problem, having held the Han back for centuries, and that officials like Zeng Guofan and Li Hongzhang should be considered traitors for their suppression of rebellions (like the Taiping) that had sought to rid China of the Manchu scourge. He also quoted a lot of George Washington. Young revolutionaries weren’t the only ones to pay attention to Zou’s righteous anti-Manchu rage, the Manchu court also took notice.  At the time, Zou was taking refuge (again, irony alert) in the British concession in Shanghai. Responding to a request from the Court, he was arrested by British authorities and although never handed over to the Qing government for execution, he eventually died at the tender age of 20 during his imprisonment by the British.


Pearlman: Let me understand. You’re married and a date is a room at the Best Western with the blinds closed. Now you’re single, and a date is you coming over unannounced to learn the legal requisites for a pager intercept.

McNulty: Pretty much.

Just so nobody thinks this was a boys’ club, there were plenty of women martyrs as well, most notably Qiu Jin, who in 1905 left her two children behind in China to travel to Japan.  Once there she threw herself into revolution, joining the Tongmenghui, the Revolutionary Alliance founded by Sun Yat-sen and fellow agitator Huang Xing, and began studying bomb making and politics. During her two years in Japan, she wrote passionately about the need for total social reform and for women’s rights. Unfortunately, like Sun himself, she was a better talker than a revolutionary, and died a martyr’s death in 1907 when local authorities caught wind of an uprising she was planning. Refusing to confess under torture, she was beheaded in her home village a week later at the age of 32. While others took up Qiu Jin’s calls for greater women’s rights and participation on the revolutionary movement, most of the young well-to-do revolutionaries of this generation – despite their passionate call for national liberation – were more than happy to travel with a concubine or two as a matter of convenience and good taste.


Burrell: What makes you think they’ll promote the wrong man?

Daniels: We do it all the time.

If there was any hope among China’s elite that the Manchus might have been moving in the right direction in the first decade of the 20th century, it all went to hell in 1908. Facing her own imminent demise, Cixi fed the Guangxu Emperor a double-helping of Arsenic baozi so that she would still be around to name his successor, in this case Puyi, the three-year-old son of Prince Chun, one of her closest political allies.  She also appointed Prince Chun to become head of a council of regents, a group packed with Manchu paleo-conservatives whose only goal was self-preservation and keeping their grip on power. Whatever faith the Chinese elites had in the Manchu royal family and the Qing government evaporated there and then. Confucius once warned that a country can survive without sufficient food or an army, but loss of the people’s faith was almost always fatal. The result of Cixi’s decision wouldn’t be felt for another three years, but it guaranteed that should a rebellion succeed at the local level, the government would not be able to, as they had during earlier crises, rely on the support of the local elites, the power holders and stakeholders in Chinese society. The structure had rotted from within, all it would take was the slightest push and the whole thing would topple.


Avon: You know the difference between me and you? I bleed red and you bleed green. I look at you these days, String, you know what I see? I see a man without a country. Not hard enough for this right here and maybe, just maybe, not smart enough for them out there.

On the flip side, one could argue that Sun’s greatest strength was also his greatest weakness. In the end, he was too soft, too much of a fundraiser and not enough of a fighter for the rough and tumble world of post-revolution politics. Even his vaunted diplomatic skills became less and less useful until finally the only foreign government taking his calls was the USSR and not out of any love for Sun or his ideas.


Levy: You are amoral, are you not? You are feeding off the violence and the despair of the drug trade. You’re stealing from those who themselves are stealing the lifeblood from our city. You are a parasite who leeches off—

Omar: Just like you, man.

Levy: –the culture of drugs… Excuse me, what?

Omar: I got the shotgun. You got the briefcase. It’s all in the game, though, right?

One of the key issues in the growing divide between the central government and increasingly assertive local centers of power such as the Chambers of Commerce and provincial assemblies was the issue of railroads. Between 1900 and 1911, China went from having only 120 miles of track to over 3000 miles of railroads connecting North and South, East and West, with the main lines all converging in the central Chinese city of Wuhan. The problem was that almost all of it was paid for by dodgy loans from some very dodgy sources, including foreign banks, foreign investors, and foreign firms including (again, irony alert) the Jardine and Matheson, a British company whose incredible wealth had been built through an involvement in the narcotics trade dating back to the first Opium War. Naturally, patriotic voices protested these shenanigans and the central government, seeking to regain some measure of control over its increasingly restive provinces, simply started nationalizing whole sections of the rail system, angering local investors and power brokers and providing an economic rationale for a growing sense of frustration with Manchu rule. In the end, it didn’t matter. What earlier imperialists had failed to accomplish with guns, the new school simply accomplished with easy cash, high interest rates, and long-term contracts. By the 1930s, ‘protecting’ railway interests in Manchuria would be sufficient pretext for Japan to seize almost all of China’s Northeast, even setting up the hapless “Last Emperor” Puyi as nominal guardian of his ‘ancestral homeland.’


Brother Mouzone: [to Cheese, after shooting him] Pellets in plastic. Rat shot. What you need to be concerned about is what’s seated in the chamber now: a copper-jacketed, hollow point 120-grain hot street load of my own creation. So you need to think for just a moment and ask yourself: what do I have to do before this man raise up his gun again?

While earlier attempts at rebellion, especially those personally planned and led by Sun Yat-sen, mostly failed and failed spectacularly, faith in Manchu rule had reached such a nadir by 1910 and 1911 that it was only a matter of time before the dynasty fell. If earlier uprisings, many of which had been put down with the help of newly modernized and mobilized army units, hadn’t managed to finish the job, imagine what would be possible when revolutionary cells began forming within the army units themselves. Such was the case in the years leading up to the 1911 revolution, as whole divisions, some of them in key strategic cities like Wuhan, began to fill up with soldiers sympathetic to nationalist and revolutionary solutions for China’s problems.


[1] Before Gady Epstein sends me an email: Yes, I know that Simmons used the Wire for a column earlier this year. He can sue me if he wants to, God knows it’s not the first time I’ve shamelessly ripped off one of his ideas for a post. Let’s just say as a Boston fan, born in the early 1970s, raised on television and 1980s movies, sent off to prep school and then a small liberal arts college, who moved from New England to California in 2001, with a sports-loving dad and a sports-hating wife…well, we have more than a few things in common.

[2] .Ironically for a nationalist revolutionary, Sun was a huge fan of British administration if not British imperialist rule. His gushing about British efficiency and Japanese ambitions would have given modern Chinese nationalists, who love to bash Liu Xiabo’s300years of colonialism quote, a complete stroke. Yet another reason why it’s been a trifle difficult for the CCP to celebrate Papa Sun this week.