25 October 2011

Still Work to Be Done 同志仍須努力

This past October 10 marked the centennial anniversary of the Xinhai Revolution (辛亥革命). Exactly a hundred years ago, rebels led a successful uprising against the Qing Court and toppled millennia of imperial rule in China. It was arguably the most pivotal moment in all of Chinese history. But pivotal as it was, the 100th anniversary went by in Hong Kong just like any other day. I asked some of my gweilo friends about it and none of them had heard of Xinhai. Even among the local Chinese, the word was little more than a vapid factoid they once memorized for history class but bears no relevance to their lives. Worse, the anniversary was upstaged by Apple CEO Steve Jobs, who had died just a few days earlier. When it comes to vying for attention, our Founding Fathers, for all the sacrifices they made and all the blood spilled, were no match against a gadget wizard in a black turtleneck.

To set things right, we start with a quick refresher on modern Chinese history. We go back to the turn of the 20th Century, a time when Qing Dynasty was dying a slow death from a double dose of domestic decline and foreign invasions, resulting in a series of humiliating and extremely costly military defeats. Across China, rebels and patriots in the likes of Dr. Sun Yat-sen (孫中山) turned their frustration into action and organized underground militias against the Manchurian establishment. After a dozen failed campaigns in Canton and Sichuan, the revolutionaries recovered and regrouped, and the movement began to gain traction. On October 10, 1911 (the Year of Xinhai under the lunar calendar), while Dr. Sun was still in exile in Denver, Colorado, rebels successfully overran the Qing army in Wuchang (武昌). A few weeks later on Christmas Day, Dr. Sun returned to China and was elected provisional president of the Republic of China. As is the case for all revolutions, toppling the corrupt regime was the easy part, while that far more critical question of “what happens the day after?” loomed large. Surely enough, the fledgling republic quickly plunged into an era of bloody warlord struggles, followed by an even bloodier civil war between the two dominant parties: the Communists and the Kuomintang (KMT). The Reds eventually prevailed and founded the People’s Republic on the Mainland in 1949, sending the KMT fleeing to Taiwan. Although Xinhai was every bit as momentous as the French Revolution and the American War of Independence, it wasn’t nearly as successful in establishing a new, sustainable regime. Ultimately Xinhai failed to deliver what Dr. Sun had intended for the New China: democracy and constitutional reform.

* * *

I spent this past weekend in Taipei, a city where the red-and-blue republic flag still flies high and the portrait of Dr. Sun hangs proudly in every classroom and government office. Taiwan might have been a renegade island in the eyes of communist China, but the country saw its first democratically elected president some 27 years ago and enjoyed decades of political modernization and economic prosperity. The island state is as close as it gets to the kind of republic envisaged by the Founding Fathers, albeit on a much smaller scale. Being in the capital city in October 2011, exactly a century after the birth of the republic, and seeing street signs with such names as Minzu (民族; nationalism), Minquan (民權; democracy) and Minsheng (民生; welfare) – pillars of Dr. Sun’s famous Three Principle of the People (三民主義) political philosophy – ignited a sort of renaissance in me and compelled me to raid the history section of the enormous Eslite Bookstore (誠品書店) with revolutionary fervor. It also inspired a few personal thoughts along the way.

First off, I was struck by how prominently Hong Kong figured during the revolution. Our city, geographically miniscule and historically insignificant, played an indispensible role in everything from fund-raising for firearms to recruitment of new members and harboring fugitives wanted by Qing police. Dr. Sun, a native Cantonese speaker himself, attended the Hong Kong College of Medicine on Hollywood Road and held secret meetings in SoHo and Sheung Wan with fellow revolutionaries. The faraway British colony provided a kind of catalyst for the movement no other Chinese city could provide. I realized that every day I get to walk on the same streets and climb up and down the same slopes once frequented by heroes and martyrs, as Hong Kong took its place in history as the Cradle of Xinhai. It made me very proud.

But my pride for Hong Kong was quickly replaced by a deep sense of bewilderment. On the evening news, I saw all levels of the Mainland government putting on great fanfare to celebrate the centennial anniversary. The city of Wuhan (武漢) alone reportedly spent RMB130 million (USD14 million) to build a brand new museum to commemorate the Wuchang Uprising. Why China would go through all that trouble, when everything that Dr. Sun and the revolution stood for – political reform, civil disobedience and popular uprisings – is precisely what authorities are busy snuffing out today. Perhaps Beijing too recognized the irony and in an attempt to cure the contradiction, they did what any autocrat would have done: rewrite history to suit their need. Overnight, Dr. Sun was rebranded as the avatar of economic growth and social harmony, a cult figure somewhere between Deng Xiao-ping and Confucius. His distinctly Western political values were stripped and handily replaced with the usual Communist refrain. Dr. Sun would have rolled over in his grave. It made me very sad.

Then there is Taiwan, poor Taiwan. 60 years after the KMT’s defeat, the island state is still denied its sovereign status, joining Palestine and Vatican City as countries perennially snubbed by the United Nations. Plans for China and Taiwan to organize joint celebration of the anniversary were scrapped last minute because officials on both sides failed to agree on one simple fact: does the Republic of China still exist today? The Mainlanders argue that the republic died in 1949 when the renegades retreated to Taiwan, while the Taiwanese insist that it is alive and kicking (and hence the initials R.O.C. in the country’s long form name). Both states now claim Dr. Sun to be their founding father and both consider themselves the rightful successors to the Xinhai Revolution. So who is right and who is the schoolyard bully? All we need to do is ask ourselves, were Dr. Sun to be around today, which side of the strait would he have picked to represent his vision of the New China? And the answer is pretty obvious. But just the same, the bully stumps his feet and waves his fist, for reasoned debate is not his thing. And so Taiwan's identity crisis continues. It made me feel very sorry for them.

A lot has happened this October. Muammar Gaddafi, the man who wrote the instruction manual on how to rule with an iron fist, was killed by his subjects emboldened by the Arab Spring. The 69-year-old dictator was captured like a common cur and died the death of a street rat. As history is being written in the Middle East, half way around the world the “Occupy Wall Street” movement against the growing wealth gap in America took the nation by surprise and sparked similar protests in over 900 cities worldwide. In Hong Kong, the “Occupy Central” campaign provided the post-80s generation with a welcome outlet to vent their frustration toward corporatocracy and social injustice. Revolutions are in vogue, and the people’s power is on the rise. In his will, Dr. Sun wrote his famous last words: the revolution has yet to succeed, there’s still work to be done. A century after the day that changed China forever, the twin political goals of democracy and constitutional reform still elude our country. In this global climate ripe with revolutionary zeal, I have a dream that when history calls, Hong Kong will answer it the same way it did a hundred years ago and do us proud once again.


  1. A history forgotten, blood and sacrifice, being rebranded. We didnt learn about the Xinhai revolution in our history books in the US. I can see myself walking in Taipei and Sheung Wan, HK with much more meaning next time. thank you for writing this.


  2. You are welcome, LJ. I'm glad you took something away from the article. Chinese history is under-rated and I want to get people excited about it. I'm a firm believer that history holds all the keys to our future.


  3. Jason

    Thanks for writing this article. While I am not a Chinese history person ( I feel ashamed that I know little about Chinese history ), I now know more about the Xinhai Revolution and what it means today in Hong Kong, Taiwan and Mainland China. It's an irony to see history re-written as seen in the fifth picture posted above in Beijing Great Hall of the People.

    As for the other works still to be done elsewhere, I strongly believe they are all getting traction and attention. Hopefully, when there is a will, there is a way.

    Look forward to your next article.


  4. Thanks, Martie. You are right about that picture. It seems like the Communists can just hang any giant portrait in the great hall -- Mao, Dr. Sun or whoever -- and play the same tune about economic growth and social harmony. The cult of personality is really quite flexible.


  5. Very interesting.... thank you! I also enjoyed the other blogs you wrote, Jason.


  6. I don't think people get excited about history generally, very few. (just the nerdy types) They may think it's the past and it doesn't matter, what's on our minds are paying bills, getting ahead.

    But yes, Chinese history is under rated.
    One example, is the suffering of the Chinese under attack by the Japanese. They were all over China, Taiwan, HK, and into SE Asia. I bet the scale of the tragedies / atrocities is equal to the holocaust. Yet there is no museum any where that I know of, dedicated to this piece of our history. There was no college course, no one book that covers it, perhaps it's too large to summarize. My edu covered WWII, Hitler, and the holocaust, 3 years in a row in grade school. I'd really like to know the estimated lost of lives of the Chinese, compared to the lives lost for the Jews. there's more examples of the same Rwanda, Darfur, etc..

    If history holds the keys to our future, is it because history repeats itself, and so we can learn from it? And if that is so, why do we keep repeating it?

    I read somewhere, a quote, that went something like this, "there are only five great stories in human history, and they keep playing out viciously in every scenario".
    I don't remember where or who said this, but it's stuck with me. What are these five stories?
    I have a vague guess, I'm not certain of my answer yet.

    I get a lot out of your blogs.


  7. LJ,

    Thanks for your comment. I've not heard of the five stories theory, but it does sound like something a pop historian would say. If you find out more, do let me know. In the meantime, keep reading! :-)


  8. When I went to the HK History Museum's exhibition on the centenary of the revolution (http://hk.history.museum/en/ex_special_gabming_dec10.php) it was extraordinarily popular. Maybe you don't hang out with the right people, Jason? :)

  9. Jason,

    You are right that "history holds all the keys to our future", it is only by learning from the past can we guide our future course of action, and hopefully create a world with less human folly than eons that have meandered past. I always wonder why hardly any leaders nowadays try to learn from the past.

    BTW, I beg to differ, the gist is not about whether any memorial is erected to commemorate the Nanjing Massacre, the June Fourth incident, or the plight of the tribal people in Taiwan when the Japanese plundered the island, but what I demand is a true accurate account of what has gone by that is accessible to all, and passed on to the next generation (if indoctrination is too strong a word, especially that people have different interpretations of the same account). It should not be a story lost by any means.

    Emailed you my other comments on this piece the other day already. Hope you get it.


  10. A standing ovation to this piece of yours, Jason, and nothing short of that. Riveting, and poignant at the same time. Your distinctive style and humour aside, it betrays an undercurrent of pain, and I expect your, and your readers’ demand for justice and justification, to howl and reverberate

    You beginning paragraph is so sarcastically, and sadly, true, especially to the younger generations. More than half of them would not even know who their 國父is. Though I have to admit I do not profess a detailed knowledge of the true historical account as well.

    For that pressing question of “what happens the day after”, it is just as true today as in bygone days. One’s (or one nation’s) short-sightedness never heals! Since when have politicians today plan for the future, or do anything for the future once they achieve the short-term goal, however lofty (or not most of the time, it’s always vying for power and fame) it might be? For what Dr. Sun had intended for the New China: democracy and constitutional reform, we have the diabolical opposite today on many facets, right ?

    (I would have thought you would have raided Eslite Bookstore irrespective of whether the street signs were up?! I certainly would have : > )

    Here comes the battleground (between you and me : p ). Granted, Hong Kong might have figured prominently in the revolution and in that period of history, but do we honestly have the right to be proud when we really haven’t done our share, especially with the present demise (or dwindling at least) of the political and sociological scene in Hong Kong (in recent years if not then?). Our forefathers certainly had the right to be proud, if not for the revolution at that time, at least for scaffolding the earlier thriving Hong Kong for us with their spirit (what now?)

    On your comment about what PRC is doing about the celebration and the fanfare, as I said on your wall earlier, it’s propaganda and they want to be in the limelight, in the news, like whoever is wearing the best / sexiest dress down the red carpet at the Oscars’, when that RMB 130 million could have been put to more constructive use. And when their dresses reveals their unsightly figures, they show off the distorted (and probably contorted) style as the countenance that is in vogue or whatever they are aiming for, how, though they haven’t lost 5 inches on the waistline, the fact that they now have a fuller bust gives them a more voluptuous figure to be envied?! They just wanted to be talked about (remember advertisements? No matter how bad it is, if it gets criticized, it still gets talked about instead of being totally ignored and forgotten…) Is this pride, or does this reveal their self-abased mindset?

    [To be cont'd]


  11. As for Dr. Sun rolling over in his grave, I guarantee he would have done more if he could, maybe howl down from Heavens, but he couldn’t; his ideals wouldn’t, and couldn’t, have died.

    As for your reflections on Taiwan, somehow I found this so ludicrous, so childish, though I empathize with how would feel sorry for Taiwan. In my mind (though my knowledge of Chinese history is meagre, and that’s an over-statement already), I’ve always considered Taiwan as an independent country. This may be a bad example, but it reminds me of the different Churches claiming theirs is the only one and THE sanctified one and claiming Jesus to be their sole Deity to the deprivation of the others, when they are all equally respectable Churches or branches of Christianity worshipping the same God.

    As for revolutions being in vogue now, not to mention the Jasmine Revolution and the Egyptian uprising and the like as well.

    I hate to pour cold water on, or even dry ice, over your words, Jason, you are one of my favourite authors in recent years after all: true we’ll never succeed without dreams and aspirations, but with gangs of post-80s and post-90s being mass-manipulated without a clue as to what they truly want and need and have to sacrifice for it, with half the populace struggling to get by with their daily lives, another lot of gold-diggers shaving our homeland bald with implants of HK$70,000 per square foot developments, magicians juggling with derivatives and credit default swaps when their heads are starved for money, a nation generally to soft and fulfilled with a quiet, cosy, secure life (me including admittedly, considering your picture of the perished dictator lately), where do you see the fuel that’ll ignite our hearts to fight for a true Utopia with French revolutionary or sickeningly, Cultural revolutionary, zeal? My friend once said, very very truly, that war will erupt once the people are hungry, and desperate as we may be for a true democratic and just society, do we want to see the outbreak of insanity and irrationality before triggering such a revolution, and will we, or our future generations, last to see the eventual rainbow beyond the rain? Don’t get me wrong, Jason, I share your dream, and I do hope we, and I, will be strong enough to do justice to our nation’s history once more, but I’d rather not be showered with the blood and tears before that… And I also hope, should that revolution dawn, the successful aftermath secured will not be transient as a meteor shower, that die away before the shimmer is even glimpsed…


  12. Hi Christine,

    Looks like we are in general agreement on all the points I raised in the article, except for our views on the post-80s and post-90s generations.

    I think our youths know exactly what they want and they are nobody's fools, from the protests against the high speed railway to the Occupy Central movement. I have high hopes for them. In fact, they might just be the very people who deliver us form the political quagmire. We shall see.

    Thanks for your comments, as always.