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The Wire Guide to the 1911 Revolution, Part II




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 just a story of Baltimore, there was a timelessness and placelessness to the Wire that transcended any 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.  This is Part II, you can find Part I here.

Stringer: What you doing?

Shamrock: Robert’s Rules says we got to have minutes of the meeting. These the minutes.

Stringer: N—– is you taking notes on a criminal fucking conspiracy?

100 years ago today, a revolutionary cell within one of the Qing government’s “New Army Units” mutinied in the city of Wuhan. In the history of half-assed, half-baked, idiotic would-be revolutionaries, the mutineers of October 10, 1911 have a special place in history.  On a nice autumn evening, the members of the revolutionary cell were doing what young revolutionaries do at night – making bombs. Bomb making being a delicate indoor sport, the materials caught fire and forced the young men to flee into the night.  When the authorities arrived to investigate, the would-be bombers realized that they had left a nearly complete list of all of the members of their revolutionary cell back in the building.

A few tips for those thinking of starting a revolutionary cell:

1)      Don’t make bombs inside. They explode. This will attract attention.

2)      If you’re in a secret revolutionary organization, and you must flee the scene of your crime, it’s best to take the secret membership list with you when you run screaming out of the building.

3)      Better yet…DON’T WRITE ANYTHING DOWN.

Faced with the realization of almost certain discovery, capture, and execution, the cell regrouped, improvised and figured that if the revolution were to begin there was no better time than the present.  The cell tracked down one of their officers, Li Yuanhong, who, although cooler than the other officers and more sympathetic to the revolutionary cause, was still doing what any good commander does when his troops mutiny: hiding under the bed.  The Wuchang clan grabbed Li, put a pistol in his face, and said something to the effect of “Congratulations commandant, you are now leading the revolution.”[1]

Within a few days, they controlled the tri-city area known as Wuhan and the province of Hubei seceded from the Qing Empire. Even more amazing, by the end of November almost every other province followed and the days of the Qing Dynasty were numbered.  With few of China’s elite interested in saving the dynasty, support for the Qing rulers swiftly evaporated.  By the end of December, the court was looking for an elegant way to save their skins.[2]


McNulty: You start to tell the story, you think you’re the hero, and then when you get done talking…

Where was Sun Yat-sen, the “Father of the Chinese Revolution” when all this was going down? He was in the United States. On a train. Reading about it in a newspaper. There’s not a shred of evidence he had any idea what was about to happen in Wuhan. His “Revolutionary Alliance,” formed just six years earlier to help bring about such an event was, by 1911, in a shambles with different cells no longer in close communication with key leaders never mind each other.

Once he learned that “his revolution” was underway, Sun of course hurried home via various European capitals where he exacted promises from the foreign powers not to intervene in escalating standoff between the weakened Qing dynasty and the revolutionaries. If anything it was his ability to convince the British, French, and Japanese to back the fuck off and let the Chinese sort things out themselves that was perhaps Sun’s greatest contribution to the success of the 1911 revolution.

All that said, when the revolutionaries looked around for a figure who could unite the disparate parts of the republican cause, Sun’s longstanding reputation as a flaky but still famous pain in the ass to the Qing government came in handy, and he was a suitable compromise candidate as the new president when the Republic of China was founded on January 1, 1912…although he didn’t hold the job very long.

With all of the mythologizing of Sun as the “Father of the Country,” keep in mind that Sun Yat-sen was less “China’s George Washington” and more “China’s Ben Franklin,” a pithy self-promoter and consummate bullshit artist who could talk a Maryknoll nun into doing 20 minutes of amateur Internet porn.  Was he important to the revolution’s success? Possibly. Was he essential? Only in his own mind.


Bubbles: Thin line between heaven and here. 

Despite the elite power plays and revolutionary politics in the months and years following the Wuchang Uprising, life for most of China continued as before, in fact it probably got a little worse as local elites, cut adrift from the passing dynasty, either grew increasingly predatory or else retreated to the cities leaving many rural areas in the hands of rapacious thugocracies.  For all the plans and people’s principles, Sun and his cronies could do little to fix the backbreaking poverty or provide the kinds of state services needed to keep farmers’ bodies and souls together in times of natural disasters or famine.  For most of the early part of the 20th century, the average Chinese farmer and his family lived a precarious existence, always one crop failure or bad season away from destitution and starvation.  This is not to give too much credence to the standard Marxist interpretation of 1911 as a simple bourgeois-nationalist revolution incapable of true change because it left the means of production untouched and the social system unchanged.  Things did change.  Just not always for the better. The act of sweeping away nearly 2000 years of dynastic rule unleashed forces in society that dramatically altered the economic, political, and social landscape – this was true revolution – but one soon hijacked by petty men whose own ambitions for power would short circuit any attempt at a meaningful transformation of China’s political culture or economic system.


Lester: Colonel, respectfully, did you just fuck me over without giving me half a chance to clear this case?

Rawls: Let’s be clear, Det. Freamon. When I fuck you over, you’ll know it. You’ll be so goddamn certain, you won’t need to ask that question.

With the Qing on the way out, the last hurdle to the establishment of Republican rule was the Beiyang Army, under the unofficial control of Yuan Shikai.  The Beiyang Army (or the Beiyang Intendancy) was a descendant of the modernized military forces used by powerful provincial officials in the 19th century to put down the Taiping and other rebellions.  Originally under the command of Qing viceroy Li Hongzhang, it was Li who provided his army with European instructors and up-to-date weapons in a sweeping attempt to reform Chinese military culture.  When Li finally passed away at the turn of the 20th century, control over this powerful force went to one of his key officers, Yuan Shikai, who wielded the Beiyang Intendancy with consummate political savvy, supporting one side or the other in various conflicts as the winds of change dictated. He was ultimately relieved of his command a few years before the Wuchang Uprising as the Manchu princes in Beijing felt that Yuan was getting a little too powerful and independent for their liking.  Once the revolution began, however, and they needed his muscle, Yuan played coy and told the princes that he was still ‘recuperating’ while he waited to see which side would gain an advantage.  The Qing eventually made him a sweet heart deal including control of just about everything except Puyi’s anal virginity but even that wasn’t enough – Yuan knew the Qing were d-u-n done – and when Sun and the republicans approached him with an offer of the presidency in exchange for his support of the revolution, he graciously accepted.


Avon Barksdale: I ain’t no suit-wearin’ businessman like you… you know I’m just a gangsta I suppose… 

Yuan agreed, in principle, to such wondrous candyland fantasies as ‘political parties,’ ‘voting,’ ‘elected parliaments,’ and ‘presidential elections,’ because Yuan knew in the depths of his cold black heart that none of it was ever going to happen.  Yuan never respected Sun, and he felt the lifelong revolutionary was a sucker, too soft to play the political game, and easily duped with half-assed promises and political IOUs that Yuan knew he would never have to pay so long as he controlled “his army.”  Let Sun play at revolutionary leader, Yuan had a decade of battles – political and otherwise – under his belt and he wasn’t going to let some half-Westernized Cantonese dilettante stand in his way of taking ultimate power.  In the Wire, Stringer always wanted to be legit, Avon just wanted his corners.  That was the difference between Yuan and Sun.  Sun was the idealist, always thinking that there had to be another way to make people fall in love with him, with his ideas, with the nation. Yuan didn’t give a shit about any of that, he wanted power. He wanted his corners. And if he had to stand tall and cap people to do it, then he was fully prepared to do so.



Slim Charles: Yo, the game’s the same…it just got more fierce.

Even after Yuan worked Sun and Sun’s new party, the KMT, over so badly that less than 18 months after being named ‘provisional president’ Sun was forced to flee into exile (again), Sun still didn’t (or didn’t want to) come to terms with the idea that violence is necessary if you want to be more than a revolutionary figurehead.  Ultimately it was left up to the far less politically savvy but much more ruthless Chiang Kai-shek to realize Sun’s dream of a (sort of) unified, (kind of) republican China.  Yuan wasn’t afraid to bury his enemies. Chiang Kai-shek had no qualms about doing so while those enemies were still breathing. Sun just wanted to be loved. Great man, but when his republican dreams died with the assassination of Song Jiaoren on a Shanghai train platform, Sun just didn’t have the stomach for the brutality of post-1911 politics.


 Moreland: I’m just a humble motherfucker with a big-ass dick.
Freamon: You give yourself too much credit.
Moreland: Okay then. I ain’t that humble. 

Who was Song Jiaoren? He was the young (only 31 when he was killed) political protégé of Sun, whose political skills and leadership won the KMT a majority in the first parliamentary elections held following the Qing abdication in 1912.  Unfortunately, Song was also an arrogant son of a bitch, who directly attacked Yuan and his policies.  Good politics as it turned out, but really bad for Song’s heath. As Omar might say, “You come at the king, you best not miss.”

Slim Charles: [when Stringer asks him to kill Clay Davis] Shit, murder ain’t no thing, but this here is some assassination shit!

After the elections, Song was preparing to travel to Beijing and be named China’s first elected premier, but Yuan had other plans.  As Song’s friends saw him off from the Shanghai rail station, and assassin emerged from the crowd and fired several shots at close range.  The young political savant died two days later. Within a year, Yuan had disbanded parliament, declared the KMT and illegal organization, and moved to consolidate his grip on power. Finally, in 1916, he declared himself emperor, a short-lived fiasco, apparently inspired from advice given by a political science professor visiting China from Columbia University, which ended when the provinces of China once again seceded en masse. Humiliated, Yuan died a short time later…some say of a broken heart.

At several crucial moments, Yuan Shikai could have made the right decision and saved the nascent republic, but instead he chose greed and power.  Better men have made the same, fateful choice and ultimately the 1911 revolution failed to spark the kind of republican renaissance men like Sun Yat-sen had longed for in the last dark days of the Qing Dynasty.  But that doesn’t mean it was doomed to fail.  Nor does it mean that democracy is somehow uniquely unsuitable to China. It just takes political courage and the will to relinquish power once you have it.


One final word about the revolution and its legacy today: while there are some parallels between the end of the Qing and the current state of CCP rule (corruption, autocracy, the desire to hold on to power trumping the need for greater reforms) there are too many glaring differences, most notably that by 1911 the Qing had almost completely lost the support of China’s elite. This is hardly the case today.  Second, no matter how many trains go over the high side, the government of Hu Jintao is – and you know I hate to admit it – light years ahead of the moribund kleptocracy which ran the Qing into the ground between the years 1908 and 1911.  While relating the past to the present are fun to play with, there are few, if any, historical ‘parallels’…of course that doesn’t seem to stop the powers that be in Beijing from feeling the need to pussy foot around this rather important milestone in Chinese history…perhaps they are aware of something we are not.

[1] Despite this rather inauspicious beginning to his republican career, Li ultimately made out okay including serving two rather ineffectual terms as president of the new Republic of China. Of course by the time he took office, “The Republic” was effectively 15 square blocks in the center of Beijing.

[2] Contrary to popular belief, the 1911 Revolution was far from bloodless, especially for the Manchu garrisons stationed in the empire’s key strategic city.  There were several massacres of Manchu communities, notably in Shanxi and Shaanxi, but also in other areas as well. Facing a possibly gruesome round of revolutionary ethnic cleansing, several key Manchu princes actually tried to high tail it back to Manchuria. Let’s just say they didn’t get too far.