Update 3/20: Introduction to Summer Research Project

Dear all, I am thrilled to announce the commencement of my summer research project on early-twentieth-century Chinese constitutionalism. I wish you enjoyed the following introduction of my project and discussion of the topic’s historical significance.


The Little-known Modernity:

The Late-Qing Constitutionalist Reform, 1901-1911

Department: History       Applicant: Zhengyuan Ling       Advisor: Eric Han


This historical research project investigates the constitutionalism implemented in the Chinese Qing dynasty’s last decade from 1901 to 1911, as part of the late-Qing Reform known as the Xinzheng (New Policies). I direct attention to the constitution created by monarchical reformers, which limited the sovereign’s authority with a cabinet responsible to and nominated by an elected parliament. Contrary to the widely held notion that late-Qing reform was passive and ineffective, Qing China’s 1911 constitution provided the structure for a modern Chinese political system. This preceded the overthrow of the monarchy by the republican revolutionaries, which ended the Qing Dynasty in 1912. In the existing historiography, these revolutionaries have been entirely credited for politically modernizing China. But, my tentative thesis is that it was late-Qing monarchical reformers who overturned the two-thousand-year long absolute monarchy in China by devising a modern constitution and administrative structure by the end of 1911. While they rejected the rising wave of republican revolution and tried to preserve the monarch, they also tried to “revolutionize” China’s form of government. These late-Qing reforms helped popularize constitutionalism and encouraged the public’s political participation after the revolution.

The first draft of the monarchical constitution was released in 1908, and decreed the establishment of modern legislative and executive institutions. The national and provincial legislative institutions[1] allowed both domestic- and foreign-educated intellectuals to address opinions and advance modernization in all aspects. The reform abolished the traditional examination system of bureaucrat recruitment, and it substituted Confucianism with western education in public-funded institutions. More intellectuals with practical knowledge of economics, political affairs, law, natural philosophy, and military science were able to enter the civil service. The constitution also authorized the legislature to appoint a responsible cabinet to replace the traditional Grand Council[2] as the national executive agency. Nevertheless, the first draft of 1908, which imitated the model of Japan’s 1889 Meiji Constitution, did not constitutionally limit the sovereign’s authority. On the contrary, it expanded the Emperor’s power into judiciary and legislative sectors. The republican revolutionaries, who resented this version of the constitution for its reluctance to remove the absolute monarchy, launched an insurgency starting in October 1911.

In response, monarchical reformers created a new version of the constitution, which settled on a modern political system independent from the monarch’s authority. Since the republican revolutionaries criticized the previous version for neglecting the sovereign’s extant despotism. This constitutional reform undermined the privilege and authority of the royal household, overcoming conservative royalists’ passivity and resistance. Despite this reactionary opposition, the version of constitution released in November 1911 isolated the Qing royalty from the nation’s political structure. Further, the constitution guaranteed more civic and political rights for the Han-Chinese, who composed most of China’s population and supplanted the Qing/Manchu royalty in leading the reform. Thus, my research distinguishes the constitutionalist reform’s significance: though it failed to prevent the Qing dynasty’s downfall, the reform “succeeded” in terms of attaining substantial changes in Chinese society, compared to the failed “Hundred Day’s Reform” of 1898. Further, the late-Qing Reform demonstrated an alternative of monarchist modernization compared to the 1911 Xinhai revolution’s republican approach.

This project consults both primary and secondary materials to analyze the progress of the late-Qing constitutionalist reform. Stephen R. MacKinnon’s Power and Politics in Late Imperial China and Douglas R. Reynolds’ China, 1898-1912: The Xinzheng Revolution and Japan serve as guiding secondary sources. MacKinnon and Reynolds analyze the Han-Chinese officials’ involvement and the Japanese influence over the late-Qing political reform. Reynolds’ research in particular has revitalized the subject of late-Qing reform in English-language scholarship, as he recognizes the late-Qing Reform’s significance, in spite of contemporary Chinese historiography’s intentional neglect. This is because of the controversial character of some late-Qing reformers and the Japan’s questionable involvement in China’s domestic affairs. Reynolds argues that the Reform initiated China’s transformation from a feudal empire to a modern polity, while maintaining a harmonious relationship with neighboring Japan in the early twentieth century. My primary sources consist of two drafts of Qing China’s constitution decreed in 1908 and 1911[3], which should be considered China’s earliest modern and democratic constitution. I would like to examine the officials’ memorandums to the sovereign regarding constitutionalism and governmental reform, and reports on foreign constitutional monarchies like Great Britain and Japan. These documents will be accessed through the First Historical Archive of China, which is the specialized historical archive of the Ming and Qing dynasties in Beijing, China. I will identify other relevant sources while staying in Beijing in early summer.

According to Reynolds, the topic of late-Qing constitutionalism has been neglected due to biases and government restrictions. This research with secondary and primary sources, in both Chinese and English, will contribute to the historiography of modern Chinese political history, and potentially alter our understanding of the “revolutionary” significance of the late-Qing constitutional reform movement.

[1] Zizhengyuan (資政院, literally as “House of Political Discourse”, National Parliament), and Ziyiju (諮議局, literally as “the Bureau of Political Discourse”, Provincial Parliament).

[2] Junjichu (軍機處, literally as “Office of Military Secrets”, Grand Council, which carried out central executive function on behalf of the Emperor).

[3], Qinding Xianfa Dagang, (欽定憲法大綱, “Outline of Constitution by Imperial Order”) in 1908, and Xianfa Zhongda Xintiao Shijiutiao, (憲法重大綱領十九條, “Nineteen Major Points of Constitution by Imperial Order”) in 1911.