Update 6/13: Some Thoughts about the Outline and Some Questions to Answer

Research Update, 06/13


Tentative outline and thesis

The purpose of this research project is to analyze the significance of late-Qing constitutions, and to understand late-Qing constitutional movements’ political legacy. My tentative thesis suggests that the two constitutions published in early twentieth-century Qing China symbolized China’s political modernization, as China, for the first time, had a body of written fundamental laws to function as its constitution. The late-Qing constitutions are drastically different and much more progressive than Qing China’s earlier legal system constituted by the Qing Huidian. While the first version of late-Qing constitution, Principles of the Constitution, seemed a partial compromise to settle reform demands from the public, the latter Doctrines of the Constitution reflected late-Qing government’s resolve to launch reform. Doctrines of the Constitution, though failed to prevent Qing China’s downfall, facilitated the proliferation of a collective Chinese identity and sovereign unity, as the latter Republic of China’s constitution inherited the spirit of the late-Qing counterpart. The late-Qing constitution and constitutional movement reinforced China’s unity, as China in the early-twentieth century, though suffering chaos among regional warlords, remained as a nominally and constitutionally political unity.

I analyze existing historians’ interpretations of late-Qing constitutional movements, as whether they believe the late-Qing constitutions had modernized or revolutionized China’s politics. Douglas Reynolds thinks the late-Qing China constitution was heavily influenced by the Japanese political system after the Meiji Restoration, when Japan and China, though experienced a military conflict in the First Sino-Japanese War, encountered a period of amiability and reciprocity. Paul Cohen believes that the government officials and civilian scholars, who led the late-Qing political and social reform, were heavily influenced by China’s indigenous intellectual notions. Cohen thinks that late-Qing China’s constitutional movement, though following some foreign models, was guided by Confucian political theories and other Chinese intellectual ideologies. Hou Yijie, who represents the mainland China’s historiographical perspective on the late-Qing constitutional reform, minimized its historical significance. The 1908 constitution was an involuntary compromise made by the Qing government, therefore cannot indicate the Qing government’s agency in the political reform. Further, the 1911 constitution, which failed to save Qing China’s fate of downfall, was meaningless to be noticed and analyzed. The analysis of the late-Qing constitution, however, revitalized the understanding of late-Qing China’s effort of political modernization. This research could suggest that China’s political modernity initiated with its first modern constitution, which emerged before the Republican or the Communist revolution.

I need to consult rhetoric in political science to justify my argument, regarding the constitutions’ historical significance. Since I recognized two drafts of the Chinese constitution in the early twentieth-century as what established Chinese constitutional monarchy and constitutionalism, the definitions and characteristics of constitutionalism, therefore, are vital in analyzing the drafts’ historical significance. Foremost, constitutionalism requires the presence of a written (or unwritten, but broadly recognized) constitution (a body of fundamental law), and constitutional monarchy, as different from absolute monarchy, shares sovereign’s power with the state’s government, which is constitutionally organized. Constitutionalism, further, shares the rest of state’s power with the legislature and judiciary. Certain aspect requires the state’s constitution to protect democracy and guarantee the minority’s rights. Some basic criteria, which determine if the late-Qing Chinese constitutions facilitated China’s constitutionalism, include: whether these constitutions were de facto bodies of fundamental laws; whether these constitutions established the separation of state power among the executive, legislature, and judiciary; and whether the constitutions guaranteed the minority’s rights’ (to be specific, the Han Chinese as the political minority and the Manchu, Mongol, and Muslim as the ethnic minority).

Definitions from the sphere of political science qualitatively determine if the constitutions are modern from a contemporary perspective. I, nevertheless, think it would be better to compare the late-Qing constitutions with other Chinese legal documents that either came before or after the late-Qing constitutional reforms. The Qing Huidian is the written legal document that narrats Qing Empire’s administrative structure and norms, and it had been serving China’s politics for hundreds of years before China’s encountered political and social modernization. While in the era of the Republic of China, the Republic’s constitution shares certain identical notions with the monarchical counterpart. The late-Qing constitution seemed to continue influencing China though the dynasty that created it collapsed.


            The project would include three major sections (with questions that need to be answered):

  • Scholarship review
    • What is “constitutionalism”, and what is the relation between constitutionalism and liberalism? What does constitutionalism mean in late-Qing China’s political and social reform?
    • What was the significance of the two versions of the late-Qing constitution in China’s modern constitutional movement?
    • Which factors, domestic and alien, affected the creation of late-Qing China’s constitution?
    • How the late-Qing Chinese constitution facilitates the understanding of China’s political modernization? a.k.a. Why the late-Qing constitution matters?
  • Primary-source analysis & comparison with other legal documents
    • Does the content of the 1908 constitution suggest the Qing government’s resolve to modernize?
    • Does the content of the 1911 constitution suggest the government’s willingness to embrace political and social liberalism?
    • How are the two versions of the late-Qing Chinese constitutions different from earlier and latter Chinese legal documents? What is the significance of these differences?
  • Discussion of historical significance
    • Did the late-Qing constitution symbolize China’s attempt of political modernization?
    • Was the late-Qing political reform successful, to the extent that the constitutional movement perpetually influenced China’s legal system and political norms?



Secondary Literatures

Reynolds, Douglas R. China, 1898-1912: The Xinzheng Revolution and Japan. Cambridge, MA.: Council on East Asian Studies, Harvard University, 1993.

Cohen, Paul A. Between Tradition and Modernity: Wang T’ao and Reform in Late Ch’ing China. Cambridge, MA.: Council on East Asian Studies, Harvard University, 1987.

Hou, Yijie. Trend of Chinese Political Reform in the Early-twentieth Century: Late Qing Constitutional Movement. Beijing: Renmin University of China, 2011.



Primary Documents

Principles of the Constitution, issued on August 27th, 1908.


Doctrines of the Constitution, issued on November 3rd, 1911.


Qing Huidian, the fifth edition issued in 1899 during the reign of Guangxu Emperor.