Tag Archives: Sun Yat-sen


This Week in History: The end of the Qing and how (not) to get thrown out of a pub quiz

One of my least favorite questions: “What year did the Qing Dynasty end?”

Why do I dislike such a simple question? Because most people say 1911 and then refuse to listen to reason when I try to explain at length and high volume why they are so very wrong. In fact, it was just such a situation a few years back that got me bounced from the Nanluoguxiang bar 12 Square Meters.

As a rule I’m not a regular at pub quizzes, but one evening I decided to try one out and see what all the fuss was about.  Rather than a team competition, at this quiz each person was responsible for their own answers.  I liked this format because it appealed to my sense of self-reliance and also because, as my kindergarten teacher once told me, I lack the social skills necessary to play well with other children.

In the last round the quiz master asked THE question: “In what year did the Qing Dynasty end?”

Now I’m more than accepting of the charge that I can take any simple question and spin a complicated and nearly incoherent answer…it’s really the basic MO of most history teachers.

If a student had asked me this question, I would have started on a riff about how the Wuchang Uprising of October 10, 1911 led to a mass secession of provinces, some tense negotiations between the central government and the provincial assemblies, and then the return of Sun Yat-sen. When Sun took over the presidency on January 1, 1912, it created the untenable situation of having both a president and an emperor, a state of affairs  that was ultimately resolved by Sun stepping down in favor of Yuan Shikai and the court abdicating in the name of the Xuantong Emperor (Puyi).  The final abdication edict was presented to Yuan Shikai on February 12, 1912.*

Basically the answer is 1912 and that’s what I wrote.

The rogue Sinologist Brendan O’Kane, who was sitting across from me at the small table, looked up at and said with his usual sagacity:

“Don’t answer it the right way, answer it the way most people would answer it.”

“Yeah, but that answer is wrong.”

“Do you want to win or do you want to be right?”

Choosing not to be baited into unnecessary self-reflection, I instead asked the quizmaster for a clarification: “Do you mean the uprising that set the end of the Qing in motion or do you mean the actual date of abdication?”

The quiz master replied, “The one Wikipedia has.”

NOT the answer you want to give to a history teacher.

So, what do I do? I of course write “1912.” The ‘correct’ answer according to the quiz master?: “1911.”

Let me state for the record that I was right, the quiz was wrong, and I don’t think I protested THAT loudly, but I still got kicked out anyway.

I guess it is true what they say: A historian must stand by his convictions even when he’s denied a seat at the bar.


*The actual document, date and all, is on display in the National Museum of China.

The Historical Record January 1, 1912: Sun Yat-sen named president of Republic of China

"What do we do with a drunken walrus? What do we do with a drunken walrus? What do we do with a drunken walrus? Put him in a position of power!"
“What do we do with a drunken walrus? What do we do with a drunken walrus? What do we do with a drunken walrus? Put him in a position of power!”

On January 1, 1912, Sun Yat-sen was named the new president of the new Republic of China.

But since Sun would hand over the presidency to an ethically-challenged power-hungry thug before the first spring thaw of 1912, this wasn’t quite the new beginning everybody had been hoping for.

Sun did change the calendar, which meant that January 1, 1912 was not just the start of the 民国 Minguo (Republican) era but also the beginning  of China’s use of the Gregorian calendar.

Unfortunately, Sun barely had time to unpack his collection of snazzy collarless jackets before he was forced to play let’s make a deal with Yuan Shikai.  Yuan’s position as head of the Beiyang Army, North China’s best equipped and best trained military force, made him a key power broker in the negotiations between the new republic and the Qing court.

Sun wanted to preserve the gains made by the revolution and knew that even though Yuan looked vaguely like a drunken walrus he was still a potent military and political force.  Yuan played hardball, including hinting that he just might side with Qing government, and eventually the republican government relented and gave the presidency to Yuan.

President Yuan then returned the favor by assassinating the leader of Sun’s new political party, disbanded parliament and declared himself president for life.  In 1916, he launched an ill-fated bid to become emperor.

 (Also on January 1, in 1979 the US  recognized the PRC as the legitimate government of China and it’s the birthday of Chinese gymnast He Kexin, born in Beijing, just don’t ask what year.)

Why do we call it “Spring Festival”?


Cross-posted at Rectified.name

For most of us 春节 chunjie or “Spring Festival” is an opportunity to enjoy a delicate mix of high-proof alcohol and shoddily made explosives.  There are also dumplings and television specials so neutered they make the Lawrence Welk show look like “Kid Rock Night” at Cheetah’s.

Speaking of neutered, has there ever been a blander term than “Spring Festival”? What the hell does it even mean? It’s held in the middle of winter. In North China that means we celebrate spring by huddling around in weather that is so goddamn frigid the sheep start voluntarily walking up to chuanr guys and saying, “Seriously fucker, let’s just do this.”

For thousands of years it was simply the New Year, at least according to the moon.  So what changed?

Well, the calendar for one.  On January 1, 1912 Sun Yat-sen declared the founding of the Republic of China.  One of the perks which carried over from the old imperial era was that the founder of a new government gets to decide on the calendar.  Sun chose the Gregorian calendar and to avoid any confusion declared January 1 “New Year’s Day. This required a re-branding of the Lunar New Year as something else and “Spring Festival” was born.  Of course by the time Spring Festival 1912 rolled around Sun had already traded the presidency to Yuan Shikai for a bag of dumplings and a vague promise that Yuan “would honor the democratic process or some shit like that.”

In 1928 Chiang Kai-shek decided to take it a step further and tried to sync the lunar and solar New Year holidays, declaring that henceforth Chinese New Year/Spring Festival would be held on January 1. This was another one of Chiang’s brilliant “But that’s the way they do it in Japan” ideas.  Japan still does it, in China it lasted a year.  Spring Festival 1929 was held according to the Lunar Calendar.

When the PRC was established in 1949, Mao decided to keep the Gregorian calendar and with it the name “Spring Festival” to refer to the Lunar New Year.  Over time however many of the more colorful customs associated with Lunar New Year such as the burning of the Kitchen God or visiting a temple to pray for luck and fortune gradually succumbed to government campaigns against feudal superstition.

During the Lunar New Year 1967, the first “Spring Festival” of the Cultural Revolution era, workers were encouraged to turn in their train tickets and celebrate with overtime. Village loudspeakers blared messages telling farmers that nothing said “New Year spirit” like digging irrigation ditches.  For the next thirteen years, few dared to openly celebrate the Lunar New Year. Instead people enjoyed new traditions like “turning in your neighbors for thinking mean things about Mao” and “Whack a Teacher with a 2×4.” Good times!

In 1979 an op-ed appeared in the People’s Daily asking “Where is Spring Festival?”  The next year the fireworks returned.  In 1983, the first 春节晚会 Spring Festival Gala debuted on CCTV and had people immediately wishing for a return of the Cultural Revolution.  Two hours into the first broadcast Deng Pufang tried to throw himself out of a window.

Stupid name or not, it is a special time.  Over the next few days, families will gather to eat, drink and remind everyone of all the horrible shit they’ve done to each other over the past year.  Then the whole family goes outside and to toss lit firecrackers at loved ones.

I love it.  Even if spring still feels like it’s months away.