The Wire Guide to the 1911 Revolution

To mark the 100th anniversary of the Xinhai Revolution in 2011, I used The Wire as a guide to understanding the events of the revolution which swept away the Qing Empire and established the Republic of China.

Why The Wire? Well, it’s one of my favorite shows, but more than that there are a lot of interesting parallels with the history of the Republican Revolution in China: The sense of hope battling the reality of hopelessness, the way rhetoric and political transitions, however dramatic, rarely seem to change the day-to-day lives of the people at the bottom, the idea that Sun Yat-sen and Yuan Shikai might take swings at each other like Stringer and Avon.

Proposition Joe: Omar on the one side holding a spade. And maybe Marlo to the other holding a shovel. And just at this moment… I managed to crawl out my own damn grave. No way do I crawl back in.

After the Qing court’s disastrous support for the Boxer Uprising of 1900, even somebody as cranky and anti-foreign as the Empress Dowager had to see that changes needed to be made if she wanted to preserve the power of the Qing royal family. Over the next few years, the Qing court abolished the exam system, overhauled the army, established new ministries for foreign affairs and for the development of industry and commerce, and promised to at least look into the possibility of elected assemblies at the provincial and national level and the establishment of a constitutional basis for the continuation of the monarchy.  In 1898 she locked up her own nephew, the Guangxu Emperor, for trying to push through less radical reforms, but after the Boxer debacle, the court had little choice. Cixi was also smart enough to realize she was opening the door for more radical political figures to call for greater changes, changes which eventually made the Qing rulers irrelevant.


Colvin: You put a textbook in front of these kids, put a problem on the blackboard, teach them every problem in some statewide test, it won’t matter. None of it. ‘Cause they’re not learning for our world; they’re learning for theirs.

The decision in 1905 to abolish the examination system radically changed the nature of the elite (and elite politics) by severing the connection between status and the civil service system. Since families could no longer rely on exam success to define being part of the ‘elite,’ new forms of social distinction (cultural capital, fashion, property ownership, and, of course, overt wealth) began to supplant the (at least in theory) important linkage of social status with education, exam success, and government service. The truth was that by this time, the staid formulaic essays on poetry and Confucian values which made up the bulk of the exams had long been criticized as irrelevant in a world of science and commerce, and the Qing practice of selling degrees, and even offices, to the highest bidder had further eroded the importance of the exams as a route to elite status. That still doesn’t mean you wouldn’t be completely pissed off if you had memorized the Confucian classics every day for two decades only to find out the government abolished the exams.


Avon: Ayo what’s up playboy? How come you wearin’ that suit, B? For real its 85 fuckin’ degrees out here and you try’na be like fuckin’ Pat Riley

Proposition Joe: Look the part, be the part, motherfucker.

Sun Yat-sen was the ultimate liminal figure: born in Guangdong, raised in Hawaii, neither perfectly at home in the East nor the West, but at least comfortable enough to be able to negotiate between the two as was required by circumstances. Upon finishing high school in Hawaii, he was sent back to China (his brother feared Sun might convert to Christianity, which he later did anyway) Sun felt out of place in his old village, finally fleeing rural Guangdong for the bright lights and clean streets of Hong Kong. Once there, he cut off his queue, took to wearing Western clothing, and later would grew a little mustache in emulation of his Japanese friends.  His English was always weird and his Mandarin (or what passed for ‘standard’ Chinese in those days)  was nearly incomprehensible, but his oratory could light up a Chinese crowd in San Francisco with almost the same ease with which he could charm British politicians and American missionaries.  London, Tokyo, Southeast Asia, Hong Kong…wherever there was somebody who might want to fund his revolutionary crusade, Sun was there with a silver tongue and one hand in the guy’s pockets.


Slim Charles: Yeah, now, well, the thing about the old days: they the old days.

Sun’s greatest rival for attention (and donations) was the former ringleader of the Guangxu Emperor’s ill-fated 100 Days Reforms in 1898, Kang Youwei.  Still pushing for a constitutional monarchy, Kang traveled the world trying to convince his fellow Chinese to help him restore the Guangxu Emperor as the “rightful” ruler of China.  Unfortunately for Kang, as time went on, both his ideas and his fetish for Manchu monarchs started to seem a little outdated, and after the enperor was murdered in favor of the three-year-old Puyi, the idea of saving the throne (and preserving Manchu rule) began to seem like a sick joke. It didn’t help that Kang blew through his funding like a frat boy who had just discovered blow in his junior year of college. By the time of the 1911 revolution, Kang was talking about “world government” and “contract marriages” while spending his donors’ money on expensive hotel suites in Paris and private islands off the coast of Sweden.


Bunk: [to McNulty] That will teach you to give a fuck when it ain’t your turn to give a fuck.

To Zou Rong, the 18-year-old wunderkind whose pamphlet/manifesto The Revolutionary Army, published in 1903, captured the imagination of a generation tired of the Manchus and their cronies. As rambling, plagiarized, melodramatic, and disjointed as any college-age student essay might be, his book nevertheless was a major influence on the nascent revolutionary movement at the time. Zou Rong argued that the Manchus were the real problem, having held the Han back for centuries, and that officials like Zeng Guofan and Li Hongzhang should be considered traitors for their suppression of rebellions (like the Taiping) that had sought to rid China of the Manchu scourge. He also quoted a lot of George Washington. Young revolutionaries weren’t the only ones to pay attention to Zou’s righteous anti-Manchu rage, the Manchu court also took notice.  At the time, Zou was taking refuge (irony alert) in the British concession in Shanghai. Responding to a request from the Court, he was arrested by British authorities and although never handed over to the Qing government for execution, he died at the tender age of 20 during his imprisonment.


Pearlman: Let me understand. You’re married and a date is a room at the Best Western with the blinds closed. Now you’re single, and a date is you coming over unannounced to learn the legal requisites for a pager intercept.

McNulty: Pretty much.

Qiu Jin was a female revolutionary who in 1905 left her two children behind in China to travel to Japan.  Once there she threw herself into revolution, joining the Tongmenghui, the Revolutionary Alliance founded by Sun Yat-sen and fellow agitator Huang Xing, and began studying bomb making and politics. During her two years in Japan, she wrote passionately about the need for total social reform and for women’s rights. Unfortunately, like Sun, she was a better talker than a revolutionary, and died a martyr’s death in 1907 when local authorities caught wind of an uprising she was planning. Refusing to confess under torture, she was beheaded in her home village a week later at the age of 32. While others took up Qiu Jin’s calls for greater women’s rights and participation on the revolutionary movement, most of the young well-to-do male revolutionaries of this generation – despite their passionate call for national liberation – were more than happy to travel with a concubine or two as a matter of convenience and good taste.


Burrell: What makes you think they’ll promote the wrong man?

Daniels: We do it all the time.

If there was any hope among China’s elite that the Manchus might be heading in a positive direction during the first decade of the 20th century, it all went to hell in 1908. Facing her own imminent demise, Cixi fed the Guangxu Emperor a double-helping of arsenic yogurt so that she would still be around to name his successor. She chose Puyi, the three-year-old son of Prince Chun, one of her closest political allies.  She also appointed Prince Chun as head of a council of regents, a group packed with Manchu paleo-conservatives whose only goal was self-preservation and keeping their grip on power. Whatever faith the Chinese elites had in the Manchu royal family and the Qing government evaporated there and then. Confucius once warned that a country can survive without sufficient food or an army, but loss of the people’s faith was almost always fatal. The result of Cixi’s decision wouldn’t be felt for another three years, but it meant that should a rebellion succeed at the local level, the government could not, as they had during earlier crises, count on the support of the local elites, the power holders and stakeholders in Chinese society. The structure had rotted from within, all it would take was the slightest push and the whole thing would topple.


Avon: You know the difference between me and you? I bleed red and you bleed green. I look at you these days, String, you know what I see? I see a man without a country. Not hard enough for this right here and maybe, just maybe, not smart enough for them out there.

On the flip side, one could argue that Sun’s greatest strength was also his greatest weakness. In the end, he was too soft, too much of a fundraiser and not enough of a fighter for the rough and tumble world of post-revolution politics. Even his vaunted diplomatic skills became less and less useful until finally the only foreign government taking his calls was the USSR…and not out of any love for Sun or his ideas.


Levy: You are amoral, are you not? You are feeding off the violence and the despair of the drug trade. You’re stealing from those who themselves are stealing the lifeblood from our city. You are a parasite who leeches off—

Omar: Just like you, man.

Levy: –the culture of drugs… Excuse me, what?

Omar: I got the shotgun. You got the briefcase. It’s all in the game, though, right?

One of the key issues in the growing divide between the central government and increasingly assertive local centers of power such as the Chambers of Commerce and provincial assemblies was the issue of railroads. Between 1900 and 1911, China went from having only 120 miles of track to over 3000 miles of railroads connecting North and South, East and West, with the main lines all converging in the central Chinese city of Wuhan. The problem was that almost all of it was paid for by dodgy loans from some very dodgy sources, including foreign banks, foreign investors, and foreign firms including (again, irony alert) the Jardine and Matheson, a British company whose incredible wealth had been built through an involvement in the narcotics trade dating back to the first Opium War. Patriotic voices protested these shenanigans and the central government, seeking to regain some measure of control over its increasingly restive provinces, simply started nationalizing whole sections of the rail system, angering local investors and power brokers and providing an economic rationale for a growing sense of frustration with Manchu rule. In the end, it didn’t matter. What earlier imperialists had failed to accomplish with guns, the new school simply accomplished with easy cash, high interest rates, and long-term contracts. By the 1930s, ‘protecting’ railway interests in Manchuria would be sufficient pretext for Japan to seize almost all of China’s Northeast, even setting up the hapless “Last Emperor” Puyi as nominal guardian of his ‘ancestral homeland.’


Brother Mouzone: [to Cheese, after shooting him] Pellets in plastic. Rat shot. What you need to be concerned about is what’s seated in the chamber now: a copper-jacketed, hollow point 120-grain hot street load of my own creation. So you need to think for just a moment and ask yourself: what do I have to do before this man raise up his gun again?

While earlier attempts at rebellion, especially those personally planned and led by Sun Yat-sen, mostly failed and failed spectacularly, faith in Manchu rule had reached such a nadir by 1910 and 1911 that it was only a matter of time before the dynasty fell. If earlier uprisings, many of which had been put down with the help of newly modernized and mobilized army units, hadn’t managed to finish the job, imagine what would be possible when revolutionary cells began forming within the army units themselves. Such was the case in the years leading up to the 1911 revolution, as whole divisions, some of them in key strategic cities like Wuhan, began to fill up with soldiers sympathetic to nationalist and revolutionary solutions for China’s problems.


Stringer: What you doing?

Shamrock: Robert’s Rules says we got to have minutes of the meeting. These the minutes.

Stringer: Is you taking notes on a criminal fucking conspiracy?

In 1911, a revolutionary cell within one of the Qing government’s “New Army Units” mutinied in the city of Wuhan. In the history of half-assed, half-baked, idiotic would-be revolutionaries, the mutineers of October 10, 1911 have a special place in history.  On a nice autumn evening, the members of the revolutionary cell were doing what young revolutionaries do at night – making bombs. Bomb making being a delicate indoor sport, the materials caught fire and forced the young men to flee into the night.  When the authorities arrived to investigate, the would-be bombers realized that they had left a nearly complete list of all of the members of their revolutionary cell back in the building.

A few tips for those thinking of starting a revolutionary cell:

1)      Don’t make bombs inside. They explode. This will attract attention.

2)      If you’re in a secret revolutionary organization, and you must flee the scene of your crime, it’s best to take the secret membership list with you when you run screaming out of the building.

3)      Better yet…DON’T WRITE ANYTHING DOWN.

Faced with the realization of almost certain discovery, capture, and execution, the cell regrouped, improvised and figured that if the revolution were to begin there was no better time than the present.  The cell tracked down one of their officers, Li Yuanhong, who, although cooler than the other officers and more sympathetic to the revolutionary cause, was still doing what any good commander does when his troops mutiny: hiding under the bed.  The Wuchang clan grabbed Li, put a pistol in his face, and said something to the effect of “Congratulations commandant, you are now leading the revolution.”

Within a few days, they controlled the tri-city area known as Wuhan and the province of Hubei seceded from the Qing Empire. Even more amazing, by the end of November almost every other province followed and the days of the Qing Dynasty were numbered.  With few of China’s elite interested in saving the dynasty, support for the Qing rulers swiftly evaporated.  By the end of December, the court was looking for an elegant way to save their skins.


McNulty: You start to tell the story, you think you’re the hero, and then when you get done talking…

Where was Sun Yat-sen, the “Father of the Chinese Revolution” when all this was going down? He was in the United States. On a train. Reading about it in a newspaper. There’s not a shred of evidence he had any idea what was about to happen in Wuhan. His “Revolutionary Alliance,” formed just six years earlier was, by 1911, in shambles with different cells no longer in close communication with key leaders or each other.

Once he learned that “his revolution” was underway, Sun of course hurried home via various European capitals where he exacted promises from the foreign powers not to intervene in escalating standoff between the weakened Qing dynasty and the revolutionaries. If anything, it was his ability to convince the British, French, and Japanese to back off and let the Chinese sort things out themselves that was perhaps Sun’s greatest contribution to the success of the 1911 revolution.

When the revolutionaries looked around for a figure who could unite the disparate constituencies of the republican cause, Sun’s longstanding reputation as a flaky but still famous pain in the ass to the Qing government came in handy, and he was a suitable compromise candidate as the new president when the Republic of China was founded on January 1, 1912…although he didn’t hold the job very long.

With all of the mythologizing of Sun as the “Father of the Country,” keep in mind that Sun Yat-sen was less “China’s George Washington” and more “China’s Ben Franklin,” a pithy self-promoter and consummate bullshit artist who could talk a Maryknoll nun into doing 20 minutes of amateur Internet porn.  Was he important to the revolution’s success? Possibly. Was he essential? Only in his own mind.


Bubbles: Thin line between heaven and here. 

Despite the elite power plays and revolutionary politics in the months and years following the Wuchang Uprising, life for most of China continued on as it was before the revolution. In fact it probably got a little worse as local elites, cut adrift from the dynasty, grew increasingly predatory or else retreated to the cities leaving rural areas in the hands of rapacious thugocracies.  For all the plans and people’s principles, Sun and his cronies could do little to fix the backbreaking poverty or provide the kinds of state services needed to keep farmers’ bodies and souls together in times of natural disasters or famine.  The average Chinese farmer and his family still lived a precarious existence, always one crop failure or bad season away from destitution and starvation.  This is not to give too much credence to the standard Marxist interpretation of 1911 as a bourgeois-nationalist revolution incapable of true change because it left the means of production untouched and the social system unchanged.  Things did change.  Just not always for the better. The act of sweeping away nearly 2000 years of dynastic rule unleashed forces in society that dramatically altered the economic, political, and social landscape – this was true revolution – but one soon hijacked by petty men whose own ambitions for power would short circuit any attempt at a meaningful transformation of China’s political culture or economic system.


Lester: Colonel, respectfully, did you just fuck me over without giving me half a chance to clear this case?

Rawls: Let’s be clear, Det. Freamon. When I fuck you over, you’ll know it. You’ll be so goddamn certain, you won’t need to ask that question.

With the Qing on the way out, the last hurdle to the establishment of Republican rule was the Beiyang Army, under the unofficial control of Yuan Shikai.  The Beiyang Army (or the Beiyang Intendancy) was a descendant of the modernized military forces used by powerful provincial officials in the 19th century to put down the Taiping and other rebellions.  Originally under the command of Qing viceroy Li Hongzhang, it was Li who provided his army with European instructors and up-to-date weapons in a sweeping attempt to reform Chinese military culture.  When Li finally passed away at the turn of the 20th century, control over this powerful force went to one of his key officers, Yuan Shikai, who wielded the Beiyang Intendancy with consummate political savvy, supporting one side or the other in various conflicts as the winds of change dictated. He was ultimately relieved of his command a few years before the Wuchang Uprising as the Manchu princes in Beijing felt that Yuan was getting a little too powerful and independent for their liking.  Once the revolution began, however, and they needed his muscle, Yuan played coy and told the princes that he was still ‘recuperating’ while waiting to see which side would gain an advantage.  The Qing eventually made him a sweetheart deal including control of just about everything except Puyi’s anal virginity but even that wasn’t enough – Yuan knew the Qing were done – and when Sun and the republicans approached him with an offer of the presidency in exchange for his support of the revolution, he graciously accepted.


Avon Barksdale: I ain’t no suit-wearin’ businessman like you… you know I’m just a gangsta I suppose… 

Yuan agreed, in principle, to such wondrous candyland fantasies as ‘political parties,’ ‘voting,’ ‘elected parliaments,’ and ‘presidential elections,’ because Yuan knew in the depths of his cold black heart that none of it was ever going to happen.  Yuan never respected Sun, and he felt Sun was a sucker, too soft to play the political game, and easily duped with half-assed promises and political IOUs that Yuan knew he would never have to pay so long as he controlled “his army.”  Let Sun play at revolutionary leader, Yuan had a decade of battles – political and otherwise – under his belt and he wasn’t going to let some half-Westernized Cantonese dilettante stand in his way of taking ultimate power.  In the Wire, Stringer always wanted to be legit, Avon just wanted his corners.  That was the difference between Yuan and Sun.  Sun was the idealist, always thinking that there had to be another way to make people fall in love with him, with his ideas, with the nation. Yuan didn’t give a shit about any of that, he wanted power. He wanted his corners. And if he had to stand tall and murder people to do it, then he was fully prepared to do so.


 Moreland: I’m just a humble motherfucker with a big-ass dick.
Freamon: You give yourself too much credit.
Moreland: Okay then. I ain’t that humble. 

Song Jiaoren was the young, only 31 when he was killed, political protégé of Sun, whose political skills and leadership won the KMT a majority in the first parliamentary elections held following the Qing abdication in 1912.  Unfortunately, Song was also an arrogant son of a bitch, who directly attacked Yuan and his policies.  Good for politics, but really bad for Song’s heath. As Omar (or Yuan) might say, “You come at the king, you best not miss.”

Slim Charles: [when Stringer asks him to kill Clay Davis] Shit, murder ain’t no thing, but this here is some assassination shit!

After the elections, Song was preparing to travel to Beijing and be named China’s first elected premier, but Yuan had other plans.  As Song’s friends saw him off from the Shanghai rail station, and assassin emerged from the crowd and fired several shots at close range.  The young political savant died two days later. Within a year, Yuan had disbanded parliament, declared the KMT and illegal organization, and moved to consolidate his grip on power. Finally, in 1916, he declared himself emperor, a short-lived fiasco, apparently inspired from advice given by a political science professor visiting China from Columbia University, which ended when the provinces of China once again seceded. Humiliated, Yuan died a short time later…some say of a broken heart.

At several crucial moments, Yuan Shikai could have made the right decision and saved the nascent republic, but instead he chose greed and power.  Better men have made the same, fateful choice and ultimately the 1911 revolution failed to spark the kind of republican renaissance men like Sun Yat-sen had longed for in the last dark days of the Qing Dynasty.  But that doesn’t mean it was doomed to fail.  Nor does it mean that democracy is somehow uniquely unsuitable to China. It just takes political courage and the will to relinquish power once you have it.

Slim Charles: Yo, the game’s the same…it just got more fierce.

Less than 18 months after being named ‘provisional president’ Sun was forced to flee into exile (again) by Yuan Shikai’s machinations. Sun still didn’t (or couldn’t) come to terms with the idea that violence is necessary if you want to be more than a revolutionary figurehead.  It was left to the far less politically savvy, but much more ruthless, Chiang Kai-shek to realize Sun’s dream of a (sort of) unified, (kind of) republican China.  Yuan wasn’t afraid to bury his enemies. Chiang Kai-shek had no qualms about doing so while those enemies were still breathing. Sun just wanted to be loved, which said a lot about him as a human being, but when his republican dreams died after the assassination of Song Jiaoren on a Shanghai train platform, Sun just didn’t have the stomach for the brutality of post-1911 politics.