1. Rise of national identity in China (ATL)

The Years 1911 to 1927 saw several key developments in China: the failed attempt of an imperial general, Yuan Shikai, to bring back the Imperial throne, a period of chaos during which Warlords held sway, the emergence of the GMD as a force which could take power and the development of a new party – the Chinese Communist Party.

Guiding Questions:

Why did Yuan Shikai take over as provisional President of China?

What was the impact of Yuan Shikai’s rule?

Who were the warlords and why did they dominate China in this period?

What was the impact of Warlordism on China?

What was the May Fourth Movement?

What were the reasons for the May Fourth Movement?

What was the significance of the May Fourth Movement?

1. Why did Yuan Shikai take over as provisional President of China?


Watch this video on Yuan Shikai and take the quiz - could you be as Machiavellian as Yuan Shikai?

The first decade of the 20th Century in China saw monumental change: the Boxer rising against foreigners had highlighted the deep dissatisfaction within Chinese society and had exposed the weakness of the Manchu dynasty which at this point was led by the aged Empress Dowager Cixi. Cixi’s rule lost the Manchu dynasty any last vestiges of support and following her death in 1908 it was only a matter of time before revolution against the Manchus took place. The main revolutionary force was a republican movement, the Chinese Nationalist Party or Guomindang (GMD) led by Sun Yixian. Initially, however, the key player in the drama which overthrew the Manchu Dynasty was Yuan Shikai. A military general, he was approached by the Manchus to help save them from the growing revolutionary forces. But he was unwilling to help a regime that had previously humiliated him, and he instead worked towards their overthrow. He also had no desire to hand over power to republicans who he also distrusted. Following the abdication of the Manchus a deal was struck with Sun Yixian by which Sun handed over the presidency to Yuan who became the Provisional President of China on March 10, 1912.

Note that for an overview of the state of China at the time of the 1911 Revolution, refer to the ATL tasks under guiding Question One on this page: 1. Chinese Civil War: Causes (ATL)  

Task One

ATL: Research skills

Research the career of Yuan Shikai before he took over as provisional president of China in February 1912 (the video in the starter activity will help you in this).

Create a fact file to show his achievements up to this point.

Yuan pledged ‘Never again shall we allow the monarchical system to reappear in China’ and when he took over from Sun he accepted 3 conditions:

  • Nanjing would remain the capital
  • He would go to Nanjing to take up the provisional Presidency
  • He would observe the constitution drafted by Parliament

Task Two

ATL: Thinking skills

Discuss in pairs the following questions:

Why do you think that many in China accepted the idea of having a military general as leader of China?

Why did Yuan accept the position and the conditions?

What would be the disadvantages of having Yuan as leader of China?

Following your discussion, click on the eye for some suggestions on this

Revolutionaries and monarchists thought Yuan was indispensable and could bring order and unity and stop foreign intervention.

Yuan himself had little choice but to accept the conditions; in the face of revolutionaries, his position as a military man was precarious and he had good reason to believe that he could receive foreign support if he supported a republic.

2. What was the impact of Yuan Shikai’s rule?

Yuan being sworn in as Provisional President of the Republic of China, 10 March 1912

Yuan is seen as being responsible for three main failures:

  • Failure to create an orderly and effective system of parliamentary government
  • Attempting to restore the monarchy
  • Encouraging warlordism

Task One

ATL: Thinking skills

Watch the first 14 minutes of this video lecture on Yuan Shikai

  1. Why did Yuan Shikai not come to Peking (Beijing), as he had promised to do so, and how did he provide himself with an excuse to stay in Beijing?
  2. How did Yuan Shikai establish his power base once he was president?
  3. What was Sun Yixian's role in the new government?
  4. Why did the foreign powers support Yuan Shikai and give him a loan?
  5. Why did the 'Second Revolution' against Yuan Shikai fail?
  6. What were the results of this for the Nationalist Party?
  7. What were the the 21 Demands?
  8. How did this impact on Yuan Shikai's position?
  9. What three factors does the historian Fitzgerald identify as the reasons for Yuan Shikai's ultimate failure?

Task Two

ATL: Thinking and self-management skills

  1. In pairs consider the failures of Yuan Shikai
  2. Complete the attached grid below; also add the views of historians to this grid

Click on the eye for suggestions


  • Yuan failed to move South
  • Put the salt gabelle and other resources in the hands of foreign administrators as security for a foreign loan
  • Created his own party
  • Secured his election to Presidency
  • As President he had power and patronage to secure by intimidation and bribery a constitution which gave him autocratic power
  • He dismissed the GMD from parliament
  • He created a monarchy
  • He accepted the 21 Demands (See below under question 6)

3. Now discuss possible reasons for his failures, or factors that maybe help to excuse or help to explain his failures. Add your thoughts to the grid.

Click on the eye for suggestions

Yuan’s character and background meant that it would be impossible for him to accept a Republican style of government

Yuan was a traditional mandarin; worse, he was a traditional soldier. Hierarchy he understood, command was what he was accustomed to, and loyalty was what he expected from subordinates. In any case, to reign but not to rule was in Chinese experience a contradiction in terms.’ Jack Grey

China was not ready for democracy; the electorate was tiny. China had no experience in democracy based on political parties; indeed, competition for power among political factions was regarded with distaste ‘Strong government was identified with autocratic authority.’ (Grey)

The weakness of the GMD which failed to offer a clear democratic programme.  They did not represent the mass of the population and were torn by jealousies, factionalism and prejudices. As Grey writes, ‘Members of Parliament scarcely represented anyone but themselves…Members responded to patronage and even bribes’. Meanwhile the gentry and the military who controlled provincial power structures were far more concerned with controlling their provincial power than with working to create an effective government in Beijing.'

Factors restricting Yuan’s actions: Warlords had already developed. All-important sources of revenues were appropriated by local provinces – Yuan was limited by a lack of money; he had also inherited huge debts from the Manchus. There were also problems of continuing foreign aggression and foreign influence in China.

China's history of autocratic rule; with regard to his decision to make himself an Emperor - China was used to autocratic rule, there could be problems with a successor to Yuan that could endanger the future the country; the creation of the monarchy would resolve the succession problem, keep the peace and stop foreign intervention.

Grid on Yuan Shikai's actions

Task Three

ATL: Thinking skills

In pairs consider the views of the historians below on Yuan. What key points are being made in each source? Which do you agree with? Add the views to your grid from the previous task.

Source One

By the beginning of 1915, Yuan already had as much power as an emperor and therefore his monarchical attempt can hardly be interpreted as the first sign of overweening vanity and ambition. Because his motives must inevitable be obscure, it is also reasonable to think that Yuan was concerned with the fate of the country when the expected disorders attendant upon the swearing in of this successor occurred. The Twenty-one Demands presented by Japan to China in January, 1915 – which would have transformed China into a Japanese protectorate – could only have heightened Yuan’s sense of danger to China…'

Sheridan pg 51

Source Two

Yuan Shikai should not be dismissed simply as a self-seeking opportunist who subordinated China’s needs to his own wish for power…Despite being eventually overwhelmed by the problems he faced, Yuan’s attempts at administrative and economic reform had merit. Arguably his struggle to impose himself on the localities was a recognition on his part of a vital fact – that unless there was an effective restoration of strong central authority, China stood little chance of developing the cohesion that would enable it to grow into a modern nation state’. Lynch pg 27

Source Three

[Yuan’s] mockery of the constitution, his illegal manipulation of the parliament, his methods of bribery, coercion, murder, and enslavement were an irreparable affront to public character and morale, and laid the groundwork of lawlessness and disorder in the decade that followed.

Immanuel Hsü pg 482  4th edition

Task Four

ATL: Thinking and communication skills

It is Beijing, June 1916

You are going to put Yuan Shikai on trial. The question before the court is that he should be tried for leaving China in a worse state than under the Manchu Dynasty, that he has acted only in his own selfish interests and has betrayed the new Chinese Republic.

Divide the class into two groups. Each group will take one of the following tasks:

  1. To prepare a speech in defence of Yuan Shikai
  1. To prepare a speech to prosecute Yuan Shikai

Your teacher will choose someone to be Yuan Shikai and the defence and the prosecution teams will make their cases.

3. Who were the warlords and why did they dominate China in this period?

Map showing warlord coalitions in 1925. The blue area was controlled by the GMD


What is the message of this map regarding the state of China in 1925?


‘..this period…[was] the darkest in republican history’  Immanuel Hsü

‘The warlord period exemplified the extremity of China’s territorial disintegration’ John Fairbank

The warlord period lasted from c.1916 to 1928 (although some historians argue that warlords existed under Yuan Shikai). A warlord was ‘a commander of a personal army, ruling or seeking to rule territory, and acting more or less independently.’ The warlord era brought chaos and anarchy to most of China. There were endless wars in this period and the warlords and their followers lived off the land and the people. Thus, although a central government theoretically still existed in Beijing the real power lay in the provinces. Nevertheless, despite the negative impact on China, the warlord era provided the background for the Intellectual Revolution, the establishment of the Chinese Communist Party (CCP) and the reorganisation of the Guomindang (GMD).

Task One

ATL: Thinking skills

It could be argued that the origins of warlordism go back to 19th Century China. The Taiping rebellion had been put down by provincial armies and the Self-Strengthening movement had also seen the rise of provisional armies. The reforms of 1908 to 1911 had strengthened the provinces and the 1911 revolution itself had come from the provinces. Nevertheless, we can also look to the rule of Yuan Shikai for more short-term factors. He had appointed military governments and throughout his presidency generals had worked to strengthen their armies. Indeed, Yuan had expanded his own army – the Beiyang army. Following the Second Revolution of 1913 when those men committed to a Republic were ousted, the military governors gained more power. Thus, when Yuan Shikai died, the one symbol of national unity disappeared. The roots of democracy were too shallow to survive, and the ensuing political vacuum allowed the disorder and lawlessness which had already been a feature under Yuan Shikai to become even more prominent.

4. What was the impact of Warlordism on China?

Zhang Zongchang, the Warlord in Shandong

The warlord armies had several characteristics:

  • Loyalty was maintained through a variety of methods: discipline, personal loyalty, regional feeling and patriotism;
  • Conditions varied from warlord army to army; some were very harshly treated, others drank and smoked heavily, spending more time gambling than training;
  • Each warlord was responsible for civil and military administration. Again, treatment of domains varied greatly - with some heavily taxing the inhabitants e.g. through land tax, salt tax, opium trading and ‘protection money’. In Kwantung there were at least 30 different supplementary taxes;
  • Most warlords were connected in some ways with foreign political or economic concerns. By the 1920s a series of alliances had developed that divided the regions between northern and southern warlord groups. Northern warlords benefited greatly from relations with foreign powers, especially the Japanese who had increased their influence in Manchuria and northern China following the First World War;
  • Political stances ranged from reactionary to pro-reform - some warlords did in fact have progressive ideas on agriculture and industry - but all relied on force to maintain their control; they did not work with political parties or try to set up a new dynasty;
  • All were involved in wars to expand or defend their territory; troops looted and lived off the countryside, pillaging villages and towns. This devastated crops and caused great hardship to the peasants (many of whom were forced to join the armies, further affecting the local economies);
  • The reliance on force as a guiding principle replaced the ideas of Confucianism which had stressed, for example, the obligation of the local elites to the peasantry. It was the peasants who suffered most from the abandonment of such a philosophy. (Though of course it also meant that peasants had more opportunity for advancement in the army.);
  • The warlords encouraged the planting of opium to provide a source of income;
  • Projects such as dams and irrigation projects were ignored; trade was restricted, and modernisation projects stalled;
  • Some warlords disseminated nationalistic and patriotic ideas (such as resisting imperialism) because they believed in them as a way of legitimising their actions. Nationalist feelings in China also developed in reaction to the disunity and distress caused by warlord actions.

Task One

ATL: Research skills

1. Research the career of at least one of the following warlords:

  • Zhang Zongchang (also known as the Dog Meat General)
  • Yan Xishan, the 'Model Governor' of Shanxi
  • Feng Yuxiang, the "Christian General"
  • Wu Peifu, the "Philosopher General"
  • Marshal Zhang Zuolin

2. What does the career of your chosen warlord indicate about the nature of warlordism and its impact on China?


Task Two

ATL: Self-management skills

Using the information above and your own research add evidence to the following headings to show the results of warlordism:

  • Economy
  • Role of military in politics
  • Geographical unity of China
  • Social unity
  • Growth of nationalism

5. What were the key features of the May Fourth Movement?

Protesters against the Versailles Settlement, 1919

The May 4th Movement derives its name from a specific incident on May 4th, 1919. But the term ‘movement’ refers to the period c.1917-23 and encompasses a new cultural and intellectual movement that spread across China.


Read the following two extracts. What were the main characteristics of this movement?

'[The May Fourth Movement was] led by intellectuals who brought both the new cultural ideas of science and democracy and the new patriotism into a common focus in an anti-imperialist programme' . J Fairbank

It was as if the far-off events at Versailles and the mounting evidence of the spinelessness of corrupt local politicians coalesced in people’s minds and impelled them to search for a way to return meaning to Chinese culture. What did it mean to be Chinese? Where was the country heading? What values should one adopt to help one in the search? In this broad sense, the May Fourth movement was an attempt to redefine China’s culture as a valid part of the modern world’ J. Spence pg. 312

Task One

ATL: Thinking skills

What, according to this extract from a modern text-book was the nature of the new cultural movement?

The body of new ideas which emerged at this time became known as the New Cultural Movement. The main themes of this were: an attack on Confucianism and Conservatism; following Western ideas; encouraging the use of the vernacular (as opposed to the difficult classical Chinese the use of which kept power in the hands of the educated elite). Some writers followed a pragmatic approach to China’s problems looking at ways that technology, philosophy, economics could help solve China’s problems. Others took a more ideological approach looking to Marxism. However, all shared a patriotic common ground, hoping for a unified China that would be able to deal with warlordism, the exploitative landlords and foreign imperialism.

Although this movement was nationwide, much of the original thinking behind it came from The Beijing University. Students supported the new ideas and issued their own publications such as ‘New Tide’ in which they attacked traditional ideas and behaviour and instead advocated western ideas of science, democracy and individualism.

Task One

ATL: Research skills

In pairs research at least the following individuals who played a role in the new intellectual ferment. Why did they become interested in new ideas and what actions did they take to promote their ideas?

  • Chen Duxiu
  • Cai Yuanpei
  • Hu Shih

6. What were the reasons for the May Fourth Movement?

There were several reasons for the movement:

The state of China: The Revolution of 1911 – 12 had failed to produce peace or stability. Democracy had failed, or rather had not been able to establish itself. Warlordism had meant disunity, violence and misery – there was no sense of direction.

Nationalism: One of the main causes of the 1911 – 12 Revolution had been the humiliation of China by foreigners. This continued, and even intensified during the First World War with Japan’s seizure of Shandong and the humiliating 21 demands. (see below)

Changes in Chinese society: Changes in Chinese society were encouraging new ideas and the growth of nationalism; the growth of Western trade was helping to create a new merchant class, the compradores. This class were generally nationalistic and politically conscious. The First World War had encouraged the growth of trade and commerce in China thus increasing the size and importance of this class. The growth of cities also led to an increase in the working class; the people who moved to work in the factories were generally more open to new ideas.

With the decline of the old-style gentry who had been the leaders in society, students were emerging as the new leaders; many of the active ones had studied abroad and thus tended to be more conscious of China’s problems on their return. Indeed, many returned to China specifically to protest against the 21 Demands.

Events of 1917: May Fourth incident

In the context of this intellectual excitement, the May Fourth Incident took place. What was this?

In 1898 Germany had leased Jiaozhou (Kiachow) for 99 years. In the First World War Japan expelled the Germans from Jiaozhou and took over most of Shandong. Japan had then tried to get consent for this occupation via the 21 Demands which required China to recognise Japan’s position in Shandong. China prevaricated but then, following a revised set of demands published on 26 April 1915, China agreed to a Japanese ultimatum (which threatened war if they did not agree).

Russia recognised the 21 Demands in February 1917 and Japan then continued to extend its influence in Shandong. In September 1918, an agreement was reached between Japan and the Beijing government by which Japan won the right to build two railways in Shandong, station troops there and control the Chinese railway guards - in return for loans to the Beijing government.

However, the Chinese believed that the Versailles Conference following the First World War would work in their favour given Woodrow Wilson’s 14 points which emphasised self-determination. But Japan had in fact signed separate agreements with Britain, France and Italy getting them to support Japan’s position at the peace conference and at the end of April 1919, the Versailles Conference decided in favour of Japan on Shandong.

This caused outrage in China; students at Beijing university held a large demonstration against the Versailles conference and the Beijing Ministers who had signed the secret agreement with Japan. When police arrested some students, the unrest spread across China.

Task One

ATL: Thinking skills

Read through the 21 Demands which can be found here.

In pairs discuss which demands would be most shocking to the Chinese people.

Task Two

ATL: Thinking and self-management skills

Create a mind map to show the different factors leading to the May Fourth Movement

Task Three

ATL: Thinking skills

Read the following which was the ‘Manifesto of All the Students of Beijing’ written by Luo Jialun, a Beijing University student.

What can you learn from the source about the aims of the May Fourth Movement?

"Japan’s demand for the possession of Qingdao and other rights in Shandong is now going to be acceded to in the Paris Peace Conference. Her diplomacy has secured a great victory – and ours has led to a great failure.

The loss of Shandong means the destruction of the integrity of China’s territory. Once the integrity of her territory is destroyed, China will soon be annihilated. Accordingly, we students today are making a demonstration march to the Allied legations, asking the Allies to support justice. We earnestly hope that all agricultural, industrial, commercial, and other groups of the whole nation will rise and hold citizens’ meetings to strive to secure our sovereignty in foreign affairs and to get rid of the traitors at home.

This is the last chance for China in her life and death struggle. Today we swear two solemn oaths with all our fellow countrymen. First, China’s territory may be conquered, but it cannot be given away. Second, the Chinese people may be massacred but they will not surrender.

Our country is about to be annihilated. Up, brethren!”

7. What was the significance of the May Fourth Movement?

Task One

ATL: Thinking skills

Read the following extracts from historians on the results of the May Fourth Movement.

1. What key point is each historian making?

2. Make a list of all of the points made regarding the significance of the May Fourth Movement.

3. Group them under the following headings:

  • Intellectual
  • Political
  • Social
  • Cultural

Source A

'Now, suddenly the literary revolution was accompanied almost overnight, at least as far as the new generation were concerned. From then on they wrote about politics, economics, and philosophy, they wrote poetry, and they expressed their new passions for nationalism and socialism, in baihua - 'plain language'....this was a change almost as significant for the democratisation of culture as the replacement of Latin in Europe by the vernacular languages after the Renaissance'.

Jack Grey, Rebellions and Revolutions, 1990, pg 199

Source B

'The Intellectual Revolution produced a clear shift in China's intellectual center of gravity. The rapid diffusion and acceptance of Western thought during the May Fourth Era, combined with the normal maturation of young intellectuals with western-style education, and the inevitable withdrawal of the older generation, created a Chinese intelligentsia that was clearly and definitely non-Confucian..[but]..the new intellectuals divided over social, political, and philosophical questions.'

James Sheridan, China in Disintegration, 1977, pg 137

Source C

'..the influx of diverse foreign ideas and ideologies caused the emergence of two opposing views on social reconstruction and national regeneration: the pragmatic, evolutionary method expounded by Hu Shih and later partially accepted by the Nationalist Party; and the Marxist revolutionary approach adopted by the Chinese Communist Party. The contemporary history of China from 1921 onward is primarily a story of the struggle between these two parties and their different approaches'

Immanuel Hsü, pg 511, 4th edition

Source D

'The most novel of the new ideas now widely propagated was socialism...It was in the course of the May Fourth Movement that small groups of young people came together to study socialism and in particular Marxism, and the process of creating the Communist Party began'.

Jack Grey, pg 201

    Task Two

    ATL: Thinking skills

    May 2019 is the 100 year anniversary of May Fourth Movement.

    1. Research the news coverage of the 100 year anniversary; how is it being remembered?

    2. According to this New York Times article on the anniversary, why is it an important anniversary to both the ruling Communist party and its critics?

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