You say you want a revolution? After the disastrous 19th century, the Chinese people did. The Qing Dynasty realized it had no choice but to reform and modernize. Unfortunately for them, there was nothing less modern than China’s 2,000-year-old imperial system. (And in an era of nationalism, it didn’t help them in the least that they weren’t ethnically Chinese.) Over a period of many years, the people began to rise up and revolt throughout the vast nation. On January 1, 1912, popular revolutionary nationalist leader Sun Yat-sen declared the Republic of China in Nanjing. Wisely, the Qing realized their time was up after 268 years of rule. February 12 marked the abdication of six-year-old Puyi–the “Last Emperor” immortalized in 1987’s Oscar-winning Best Picture. The Chinese imperial system and succession of dynasties, which had lasted for millennia, came to a swift end. Thus was the Chinese Revolution.
Later in 1912, Sun Yat-sen cofounded the ruling Kuomintang (KMT), the Chinese Nationalist Party. But it wasn’t so easy for them. Sun’s group was far from the only one that had risen up against the Qing, and not everyone was ready to cede power to the KMT. Things started to get chaotic, and World War I breaking out in 1914 didn’t help matters. The near anarchy led to the Warlord Era, when regional warlords fought for control of China. In 1926, the KMT, based in southern China, began a military offensive in northern China (the Northern Expedition) led by Generalissimo Chiang Kai-shek. (Chiang had taken over leadership of the KMT upon Sun’s death in 1925.) By 1928, the KMT succeeded in reunifying China, ending the Warlord Era. (During this period, Mongolia won its independence from China with the help of Soviet military intervention.) China was finally headed on the road to modernization. But as you probably know, things weren’t going to be so easy.
First, there was a matter of a tensions rising within the KMT between its right-wing and left wing. The left wing was dominated by members of the Communist Party of China (CPC), which was founded in Shanghai in 1921. In 1927, the KMT expelled the Communists from its ranks. Under the direction of anti-Communist Chiang Kai-shek, KMT forces massacred tens of thousands of Communists. Not about to take things sitting down, the CPC founded the Red Army, soon led by the charismatic Mao Zedong. Thus began the Chinese Civil War.
Second, there was Japan, which was on a winning streak. The Japanese were not only the big winners in the First Sino-Japanese War and the Boxer Rebellion. They also had defeated Russia in 1905 in the Russo-Japanese War, resulting in Russia ceding its interests in Manchuria to Japan. Japan was also on the winning side in WWI, having fought on the side of the Allies. As victor, Japan got to take over Shandong province in East China from the Germans. The Chinese did not like all of this Japanese encroachment one bit. But they didn’t see what was coming. Stay tuned…
[Historical information is primarily gathered from Wikipedia, so you know it must be true.]