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  • The Politics of Rights and the 1911 Revolution in China by Xiaowei Zheng
  • Edward McCord (bio)
Xiaowei Zheng. The Politics of Rights and the 1911 Revolution in China. Stanford, CA: Stanford University Press, 2018. xi, 358 pp. Paperback $29.95, ISBN 978-1-5036-0108-6.

This study offers an important new framework for understanding China's 1911 Revolution by bringing intellectual change to the fore as the most decisive factor in creating the conditions for revolution. Zheng argues that: "The revolution was a political transformation spearheaded by new ideas, in particular, the notions of rights, equality and popular sovereignty, which stimulated the Chinese elite to change the political order" (p. 9). While Zheng largely makes this point through a case study of the revolutionary experience of Sichuan province, she embeds this carefully into a broader analysis of the emergence of a Chinese consensus in support of constitutionalism as the prerequisite for modern reforms. Pursuing this point, Zheng argues that the 1911 Revolution reflected a major shift in China's political culture that was more important than the simple end of China's long tradition of imperial governance.

Zheng's original research on the 1911 Revolution in Sichuan, which provided the basis of her Ph.D. dissertation at the University of California-San Diego, clearly followed in the footsteps of her mentor, Joseph Esherick, whose Reform and Revolution: The 1911 Revolution in Hunan and Hubei (1976) has dominated Western scholarship on the Revolution for many decades. The end result of Zheng's research, though, has ended up challenging Esherick's approach and thesis in key ways. Zheng does follow Esherick's lead in rejecting the orthodox Chinese narrative that mainly sees the 1911 Revolution as the result of the dedicated efforts of Sun Yat-sen and his revolutionary party, the Tongmenghui. Thus, Zheng argues that the participation of some members of [End Page 159] the Tongmenghui in a few revolutionary incidents in Sichuan can hardly be taken as the organization as a whole playing a key leadership role in the overall revolutionary movement.

In his rejection of the orthodox narrative, though, Esherick emerges as the main advocate for a social interpretation of the Revolution, which argues that it was essentially an elite revolution, or to be more precise a revolution by an "urban reformist" subset of this elite, who saw the Revolution as a means to both preserve and expand their power and interests in Chinese society. Although Zheng does not ignore social and economic factors, she suggests that absent the ideas about people's sovereignty, popular rights, and equality that arose in this period, these factors could not have resulted in a successful revolution, let alone a republican one.

Zheng also challenges the orthodox narrative by offering what is probably the strongest defense of the importance of constitutionalist reformers in bringing about the 1911 Revolution. The orthodox interpretation highlighted the political competition between constitutionalist reformers and the revolutionary party, largely defined in terms of a dispute over whether national revitalization would be best achieved by a "constitutional" monarchy or by the overthrow of the monarchy and the establishment of a republic. Told in this way, constitutionalism is largely reduced to an institutional preference (for the monarchy) by misguided reformers, who ultimately had to accept the error of their ways and accept the revolutionary cause. Some later scholars did try to give credit to individual constitutionalists for their roles in the revolutionary process in some provinces, or emphasized commonalities rather than differences between the two groups (such as Esherick's inclusion of both constitutionalists and revolutionaries in his urban reformist elite). Overall, though, the orthodox tradition still dominated as historians largely continued to view the constitutionalists as benighted monarchists with a more limited role in the revolutionary outcome.

Zheng turns this narrative around by taking constitutionalism seriously as an intellectual and political concept, and in doing so shows, convincingly, how the demand for a constitution was a key political consensus largely shared by both reformers and revolutionaries. As Zheng points out, Liang Qichao, the most influential advocate of constitutionalism, did not present constitutionalism in opposition to republicanism—rather he saw constitutional monarchies and republics as simply two alternate...


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pp. 159-163
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