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  • Articulating China's First Mass Movement:Kang Youwei, Liang Qichao, the Baohuanghui, and the 1905 Anti-American Boycott

In the last month, everyone in Shanghai has been thinking about and talking about the Exclusion Treaty. From millionaires to poor workers, millions of people are of one mind, and we must not stop until we win back our rights. Oh! We [disciples of Kang Youwei] have been working on these matters for many years, but have never seen more success than this time. I am really happy to tell you this.

Consequently, all the foreigners in Shanghai have become worried, saying that China, the sleeping lion, has awakened. Since the treaty ports were established, there has never been any activity like this. It shows that we Chinese are not easily bullied.

Liang Qichao Yokohama, Japan 7 June 19051 [End Page 4]

On 10 May 1905, the Shanghai General Chamber of Commerce (上海商務總會 Shanghai shangwu zonghui) announced a nationwide boycott of American goods to protest United States exclusion policies banning Chinese laborers. Millions of Chinese in China and abroad were inspired by the boycott action, which they learned about in newspapers or novels if they could read, or in speeches, plays, and songs if they could not. Boycott rallies attracted thousands. Merchants stopped buying and selling American products, or if they refused, boycott committees applied pressure. Chinese overseas sent thousands of dollars in donations to support the cause.

Historians have increasingly accepted that the 1905-1906 Anti-American Boycott marked the beginning of mass politics and modern nationalism in China.2 Prefiguring the Republican revolution of 1911 and the May Fourth Movement of 1919, the boycott was the first movement to attract support from a broad spectrum of Chinese ranging from the educated elite to illiterate laborers, who joined in a common cause as citizens rather than subjects to express a political opinion independent of their government. Never before had shared nationalistic aspirations mobilized Chinese across the world in political action, linking the cause of Chinese migrants with the fate of the Chinese nation.

How the call to boycott could have sparked such a rapid and widespread response from people with so little experience of political participation has long been debated by historians. The boycott has been described as a decentralized, atomized, and even chaotic movement carried out by a variety of organizations with no national coordination or strong leadership,3 and scholars have long sought details about its [End Page 5] origins.4 Chinese in the U.S. and its territories had been complaining for years about exclusion policies. Their cause had not provoked a response in China until the Shanghai General Chamber of Commerce meeting, when the boycott was declared along with a full-fledged strategy for action.

Why did the cause of a hundred thousand Chinese in America inspire millions of Chinese to join the protest, when, for most of them, it had no connection to their daily lives, and, for some, it meant an economic loss? What was the link between the overseas Chinese agitators and the merchants in Shanghai? Finally, what does the 1905 boycott tell China historians about the nature of transnational Chinese history and the influence of Chinese living abroad on China's political movements?

For answers, we must look to the transnational Baohuanghui (保皇會 Protect the emperor society or, as it was known in the U.S., the Chinese Empire Reform Association). Long overlooked by both Chinese and Western scholars,5 the Baohuanghui in 1905 was by far the largest and most influential overseas Chinese organization, with more than 150 chapters throughout the world, 70,000 members, and a broad reach into China.6 Liang Qichao (梁啟超 1873-1929), quoted above, served as vice president of the Baohuanghui and was the most famous disciple of the association's president, the exiled Hundred-Days-of-Reform leader, Kang Youwei (康有為 1858-1927). Kang had founded the Baohuanghui in 1899 in Victoria, Canada. Both men had central roles, often behind-the-scenes, in the boycott movement.

This article describes the direct links between Kang, Liang, Baohuanghui activists, and the Shanghai General Chamber of Commerce. It illustrates how the Baohuanghui provided much of the boycott's...


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