8. “Fan Qing…” – The Cantonese and China’s Revolution
Starting with her defeat in the Opium War, China entered a slow period of decline. China under Manchu rule, was no longer able to defend itself. It had been attacked on numerous occasions by foreigners since 1842 and had been defeated every time. The French and British won the Arrow War in 1860. The Russians annexed parts of Xinjiang in the 1870s. The French again fought China in 1884 and won. Japan and Germany soon joined and won their own wars against China.
Not only was China unable to defend itself against foreigners, it faced rebellion from internal forces. The most important one, the Taiping Rebellion started in 1851 and would last over a decade and affect millions of lives. Its leader, Hong Xiuquan, was a Cantonese. The Boxer Uprising, the Nian Rebellion, and the Red Turban Rebellion also took place during this time and were further signs that the Mandate of Heaven would soon be passing from the Qing.
As the Qing Dynasty started to show its weakness, the political question of the time was reform or revolution. Was the imperial system so ineffectual that only a revolution could save China or was there still hope for the reform of the imperial system under a constitutional monarchy like Britain?
Coming from the most advanced and progressive part of the country, the Cantonese would play a major role in this debate. Leading the Reform Movement were the Cantonese schoalars Kang Youwei and Liang Qichao. (Kang was from a county near Szeyup and Liang was from a Szeyup county).
As a scholar that had passed the highest level of the imperial examinations, Kang was thouroughly familiar with Confucian thought. By interpreting the Confucian Classics in a novel way he made the argument that were Confucius alive, he would be in favor of reform.
Kang’s reputation grew and soon he caught the attention of the Guangxu Emperor. The emperor supported the reforms advocated by Kang and signed edicts that mandated reform. The Empress Cixi, then officially in retirement, was very displeased with the “Hundred Days of Reform”. Acting swiftly, she had six reformers executed, repealed the edicts that had been signed and imprisoned the emperor.
Kang and Liang were forced to flee China. They would continue working on their cause, first in Japan, then eventually coming to America to start the Chinese Empire Reform Party and the Imperial Reform Army.
To many Chinese, the failure of the Hundred Days of Reform meant that more drastic action was needed. Another Cantonese leader soon emerged, the revolutionary, Sun Yat-sen. Sun took the position that reform would not work; the imperial system was simply too outmoded for the modern world. A revolution to establish a republic was needed. In 1894 he formed the “Revive China Society”. In 1895, he led an uprising in Guangzhou that failed. The Manchus tried to arrest and execute him, but he escaped abroad. Like Kang and Liang, Sun soon found himself in America, looking for support for his revolutionary ideas.
During this time, other Cantonese would play important roles in China’s modernization. Yung Wing was the first Chinese to graduate from a major American college, when he finished at Yale in 1854. He would later organize a program to send Chinese students to the elite eastern colleges of America. Wu Tingfan, the first Chinese barrister of Hong Kong served as ministers of justice and foreign affairs and was briefly acting premier during the early years of the Chinese republic.
The Cantonese dream of two hundred and fifty years, “Fan Qing…” Overthrow the Qing…was starting to be realized.