Travel topics > Cultural attractions > Historical travel > Chinese revolutions
Chinese revolutionary destinations are important places in China's history from 1911 to 1949, when it cut ties with its long Imperial past and was founded as a republic which then evolved into today's modern communist state. For this article, we also cover the period up to Mao's death in 1976, when the Cultural Revolution ended. This journey was forged by a great deal of civil war among the Chinese people, as well as war between China and the invading Japanese Imperial army, and continues to define China's relationship with the rest of the world to this day. The official party line in China today talks of a "Century of Humiliation", beginning with the Qing Dynasty's defeat at the hands of the British in the First Opium War in 1842, and ending with the rise of a "new China" under communist rule in 1949.
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Imperial China → Chinese revolutions
Long March • World War II in China
All under Heaven belongs to the people
—Sun Yat-sen quoting Confucius
The two thousand-year old imperial Chinese system collapsed in 1911, beginning with the Wuchang Uprising in what is now Wuhan. Sun Yat-Sen (孙中山 Sūn Zhōngshān) was not there at the start — he was in the US raising funds from overseas Chinese — but he quickly returned to China, led the Xinhai Revolution, and founded the Republic of China (中华民国 Zhōnghuá Mínguó).
The Qing had only one well-organized modern army, and the man who had built it was General Yuan Shih-kai (袁世凯 Yuán Shìkǎi). He had briefly been Prime Minister but had later been exiled after being on the wrong side of one of the court's many intrigues. They recalled him, gave him command of that army, and put him in charge of suppressing the rebellion. Instead he negotiated with Sun then helped the revolution succeed. His price was that he be made president of the new Republic, and Sun relinquished the presidency to him after barely two months in office.
Yuan Shih-kai would attempt to revive the empire by declaring himself emperor in December 1915. This move would however prove extremely unpopular, and resulted in the defections of many of Yuan's most trusted retainers. Yuan would abandon the empire in March 1916, and died shortly after in June 1916. Central rule collapsed following Yuan's death, and China descended into anarchy, with various self-serving warlords ruling over different regions of China, and often fighting each other in order to expand their influence. Allegiance to each warlord was often split along dialectal lines, due to the mutual unintelligibility of different Chinese dialects and the strong regional loyalties that resulted from that. There would be numerous rebellions and de facto independent states in far-flung ethnic minority regions like Tibet and Xinjiang; both areas would only be brought back under central government control after the communist victory in 1949.
China participated in World War I as part of the Allies, with the Western Allies promising to return the German concessions in China once the war was won. However, the Western Allies had secretly cut a separate deal with Japan, and reneged on their promise to China, instead awarding the German concessions in Shandong and Shanghai to Japan as part of the Treaty of Versailles. This was seen by many as a national humiliation, and betrayal by the Western powers, leading to student protests in Beijing that gave birth to the May Fourth Movement (五四运动 Wǔ Sì Yùndòng) in 1919. The May Fourth Movement espoused various far-reaching reforms to Chinese society, such as the use of the vernacular in writing, as well as the development of science and democracy. In addition, it paved the way for standard Mandarin to be established as the first standardised form of spoken Chinese for the entire country (there was previously only a written standard in the form of Classical Chinese, with numerous mutually unintelligible dialects spoken in different areas). The intellectual ferment of the May Fourth Movement gave birth to the reorganized Kuomintang (KMT) in 1919 and the Chinese Communist Party (CCP), with its first meeting in the French Concession of Shanghai in 1921.
Sun Yat-sen died in 1925, resulting in a power vacuum within the Kuomintang, and Chiang Kai-shek (蒋介石 Jiǎng Jièshí) emerging victorious in the power struggle that ensued. Chiang formed a tenuous alliance with the CCP and launched the Northern Expedition 1926, which aimed to bring all of China under KMT control, and succeeded in uniting the coastal provinces under KMT rule by 1928. The CCP and the KMT then turned on each other, with the CCP fleeing to Yan'an in Shaanxi in the epic Long March. During the period from 1922 to 1937, Shanghai became a truly cosmopolitan city, as one of the world's busiest ports, and the most prosperous city in East Asia, home to millions of Chinese and 60,000 foreigners from all corners of the globe. However, underlying problems, such as civil unrest, famines, extreme poverty and warlord conflict, still afflicted the vast countryside, particularly the more inland parts of the country.
War with Japan
- See also: World War II in China
Japan staged the Mukden Incident, and used it as a pretext to invade and occupy Manchuria in 1931, where it established a puppet state under the name Manchukuo. Japan then launched a full-scale invasion of China's heartland in 1937. The Japanese initiated a brutal system of rule in Eastern China, culminating in the Nanjing Massacre of 1937. After fleeing west to Chongqing, the KMT realized the urgency of the situation and signed a tenuous agreement with the CCP to form a second united front against the Japanese. In 1941 and 1942, Japan attacked British Hong Kong and the Western colonial possessions in Southeast Asia and Oceania (including Pearl Harbor, Singapore and Darwin), starting the Pacific War.
With the defeat of Japan at the end of World War II in 1945, the KMT and CCP armies manoeuvred for positions in north China, setting the stage for the civil war in the years to come. The Chinese Civil War lasted from 1946 to 1949 and ended with the Kuomintang defeated and sent packing to Taiwan with the intention to re-establish themselves and recapture the mainland. A Yunnan-based Kuomintang division instead fled by land into Burma, from where they continued to conduct cross-border raids on communist positions in China, until they were driven out by an alliance between the Burmese military and Chinese communists in a 1960-1961 campaign. Some of these soldiers fled further south into Thailand, where they settled in remote mountain villages along the Burmese border such as Mae Salong and Ban Rak Thai, and were later granted Thai citizenship in exchange for help in fighting communist insurgents in Thailand. These villages remain bastions of Yunnanese Chinese culture in rural Thailand, and are today known for their production of high-quality Chinese tea and Yunnanese cuisine. These Thai villages also often have memorials to fallen Nationalist soldiers and generals that you can visit.
Mao Zedong (毛泽东 Máo Zédōng) officially declared the establishment of the People's Republic of China (中华人民共和国 Zhōnghuá Rénmín Gònghéguó) on 1 Oct 1949. However, some offshore islands would remain under KMT control into the 1950s; Hainan only fell to the communists in 1950, and several offshore islands of Zhejiang did not fall to the communists until 1955. The KMT were however able to successfully defend several offshore islands of Fujian, namely the Kinmen and Matsu islands, which remain under ROC control to this day. After an initial period closely hewing to the Soviet model of heavy industrialization and comprehensive central economic planning, China began to experiment with adapting Marxism to a largely agrarian society.
According to the Communist Party, the Revolution had several phases, including the Great Leap Forward from 1958-1962, and the Cultural Revolution from 1966 until Mao's death in 1976. The Great Leap Forward was a disastrous failure that resulted in the deaths of millions of people from famine, and millions of people were killed in the Cultural Revolution, which also saw the destruction of countless historical sites and artifacts. Both of these cataclysmic events were extremely traumatic and dislocating for China. Mao's legacy remains controversial to this day; while he is loathed in Taiwan, Hong Kong and ethnic Chinese communities in the West, he is regarded as a national hero in China for wartime leadership, being the first leader to unite China since the fall of the Qing Dynasty, development of Communist thought and practice, and other accomplishments in office.
Mao would be succeeded by Hua Guofeng (华国锋 Huà Guófēng) after his death. Hua arrested the Gang of Four, who were widely regarded as the main architects behind the Cultural Revolution besides Mao himself, and proceeded to roll back some of Mao's excesses. Hua would however remain firmly committed to communist principles, setting the stage for a power struggle with the more reformist-minded Deng Xiaoping (邓小平 Dèng Xiǎopíng), with Deng emerging victorious in 1978. Deng abandoned a hardline communist policy and re-introduced capitalist elements to China during his years in office, kickstarting an economic boom and the rapid rise of China to one of the world's economic powerhouses.
To this date, Taiwan remains a vestige of the Republic of China. Neither of the two Chinese nations give official recognition to each other, and political relations are complicated. That said, both sides of the Taiwan Strait have developed close economic ties, with substantial Taiwanese investment in the mainland, and direct cross-strait flights having resumed in 2008. However, a desire for formal independence and a separate cultural identity from China has been growing in Taiwan since 2014, particularly among the youths.
- Towards the Republic (走向共和 Zǒu Xiàng Gòng Hé) — A Chinese television series chronicling the last years of the Qing Dynasty, and the transition of China from monarchy to republic. It has been heavily censored in mainland China due to its more complex portrayal of historical figures such as Empress Dowager Cixi and Yuan Shih-kai, who are traditionally regarded as villains, and the fact that it also features historically accurate but politically inconvenient pro-democracy quotes by Sun Yat-sen. However, the full uncensored version is available overseas.
- Mao Zedong's poetry — Mao Zedong was an accomplished poet, and his poems provide an insight to his way of thinking.
- 1 Beijing (北京). Modern-day capital of China. It was on top of Tiananmen, the southern gate into the old Imperial city, that Mao Zedong declared the establishment of the People's Republic of China in 1949. Today, a large portrait of Mao hangs on the gate. Visitors can purchase tickets to climb onto the top of the gate where Mao made his proclamation.
- 2 Wuhan (武汉). Site of the 1911 Wuchang Uprising that led to the fall of the Qing Dynasty and the establishment of the Republic of China
- 3 Shaoshan (韶山). Mao Zedong's hometown. His birth house has been preserved as a museum, and is a popular pilgrimage site for many Chinese.
- 4 Guangzhou (广州). Site of the Whampoa Military Academy where both KMT and Communist leaders (Chiang Kai Shek, Zhou Enlai, Mao Zedong) trained and led troops and political study groups before the Northern Expedition of 1926-27. Also home to Sun Yat-sen University, which was founded by Sun himself, and is today regarded as one of China's premier universities.
- 5 Nanjing (南京). Capital of China during the Republic of China period, and home to the presidential palace used by Sun Yat-sen and Chiang Kai-shek. Also home to the mausoleum of Sun Yat-sen.
- 6 Anyang (安阳). Location of the tomb of Yuan Shih-kai, the second president of the Republic of China who briefly declared himself emperor. Although not an official imperial tomb, the layout and grandeur of the tomb matches that of a Chinese emperor, reflecting Yuan's ambitions.
- 7 Nanchang (南昌). Site of the Nanchang Uprising, the CCP's first armed uprising against the KMT government, which marked the beginning of the Chinese Civil War.
- 8 Jinggangshan (井冈山). The first CCP rural base area after the 1927 crackdown by the KMT
- 9 Ruijin (瑞金). Seat of the China Soviet Republic from 1929 to 1934
- 10 Zunyi (遵义). Site of the Zunyi Conference where Mao Zedong joined the Politburo Standing Committee
- 11 Luding (泸定). Site of a famous forced crossing of a high mountain river
- 12 Yan'an (延安). Primary base area for the Communist Party from 1935 to 1945
- 13 Fenghua (奉化). Birthplace of Chiang Kai-shek, leader of the Republic of China from 1928-1949, following which he retreated to Taiwan following the communist victory and ruled until his death in 1975.
- 14 Cuiheng (翠亨). Birthplace of Sun Yat-sen, father of the Republic of China.
- 15 Huai'an (淮安). Birthplace of Zhou Enlai, the first premier of the People's Republic of China.
- 16 Guang'an (广安). Birthplace of Deng Xiaoping, Mao's eventual successor who instituted market-oriented reforms that kickstarted China's meteoric rise to major world power status.
Places connected to Sun Yat-sen
As the leader of the revolution that toppled the last imperial dynasty, Sun Yat-sen is highly revered among ethnic Chinese the world over, and considered to be the father of modern China by both the PRC and ROC governments. As such there are numerous places around the world commemorating him. His hometown in China was renamed Zhongshan in his honour after his death.
- 1 Sun Yat-sen Mausoleum (中山陵), Nanjing. The tomb of Sun Yat-sen, built in a style reminiscent of traditional Chinese imperial tombs, but using Western building materials and incorporating various Western architectural elements. Although the Chinese character 陵 is traditionally reserved for referring to the tombs of emperors and empresses, it has also been bestowed on the tomb of Sun Yat-sen as an honorific due to how highly revered he is as the father of modern China.
- 2 Presidential Palace, Nanjing (总统府). Presidential palace of the Republic of China before its retreat to Taiwan after losing the Chinese Civil War, it was here that Sun Yat-sen was sworn in as the first president of China in 1912.
- 3 Sun Yat-sen University (中山大学), Guangzhou. University founded by Sun Yat-sen in 1924, and today one of China's premier universities. Many of the older campus buildings are built in a fusion of Chinese and Western architectural styles, a style characteristic of the late Qing Dynasty and the Republic of China era, and there is also a famous statue of the founder on the campus.
- 4 Sun Yat-sen Memorial Hall, Guangzhou (中山纪念堂). Built in honour of Sun Yat-sen in 1931, it occupies the former site of the former Kuomintang headquarters from 1917-1922, when Sun Yat-sen led the reorganized Kuomintang in opposition to the Beijing-based Beiyang Government.
- 5 Sun Yat-sen Residence Memorial Museum (孙中山故居纪念馆), Zhongshan. Birth house of Sun Yat-sen, now a detailed museum of his life with an extensive collection of artifacts.
- 6 National Sun Yat-sen Memorial Hall (國立國父紀念館), Taipei. Main museum in Taiwan dedicated to the memory of Sun Yat-sen. The massive statue of Sun Yat-sen in the main memorial hall is guarded by soldiers from the Taiwanese army, and the changing of the guard ceremony on the hour is a popular spectacle for tourists.
Sun Yat-sen spent much of youth in Hong Kong, and the Hong Kong Tourism Board has a Dr. Sun Yat-sen Historical Trail which covers many of the sites connected to Sun.
- 7 Sun Yat Sen Memorial House (澳門國父紀念館), São Lázaro. Built as a residence for Sun Yat-sen's first wife Lu Muzhen in 1912, Sun stayed here briefly during a visit to Macau in 1912. Today, it is a museum commemorating the life of Sun Yat-sen, as well as the revolution that overthrew the Qing Dynasty.
Sun Yat-sen also spent a substantial amount of time canvassing support for the revolution among the overseas Chinese, and there a numerous memorials in overseas Chinese communities dedicated to him.
- 8 Sun Yat-sen Nanyang Memorial Hall (孙中山南洋纪念馆), Singapore. A villa that served as the Southeast Asian headquarters of the Chinese revolutionaries, as many important supporters of the revolution were overseas Chinese in Southeast Asia. Sun Yat-sen stayed at the villa during his second visit to Singapore in 1906. Today, it has been converted to a museum commemorating Sun Yat-sen.
- 9 Sun Yat-sen Museum Penang (Muzium Sun Yat-sen Pulau Pinang), George Town. A shophouse that served as the Penang base of the Chinese revolutionaries. Sun Yat-sen delivered a famous speech here during his four-month stay in Penang in 1910. Today, it has been converted to a museum commemorating Sun Yat-sen.
- 1 Museum of the Communist Party of China (中国共共产党历史展览馆), Chaoyang District, Beijing. A comprehensive museum about the history of the Communist Party of China (CPC). The museum was opened in July 2021 as part of celebrations to mark the 100th anniversary of the party's establishment.
- 2 Shanghai Propaganda Poster and Art Centre, French Concession, Shanghai. A fascinating exhibition of Mao-era propaganda and art.
- 3 Sansui County Museum of Great Leap Forward Relics (三穗县大跃进遗存博物馆), Sansui County (About 270km from Guiyang). This little-known museum in Guizhou Province is the only museum in China dedicated to the Great Leap Forward.
- 4 Military Museum of the Chinese People's Revolution (中国人民革命军事博物馆 Zhōngguó Rénmín Gémìng Jūnshì Bówùguǎn), Haidian District, Beijing. Features what is probably the largest exhibition in China about the Chinese Civil War. The museum also has exhibitions about other conflicts that China has been involved in from ancient times to the 20th century.
- 5 Liaoshen Campaign Memorial (辽沈战役纪念馆), Jinzhou. Dedicated to the Liaoshen Campaign, the first of three major offensive operations launched by the People's Liberation Army (PLA) against Kuomintang positions in eastern China during the late stage of the Chinese Civil War (the other two being the Huaihai Campaign and the Pingjin Campaign). The Liaoshen Campaign is considered one of the most important turning points in the war as it resulted in the PLA gaining numerical superiority over the Kuomingtang army for the first time since the war began.
- 6 Huaihai Campaign Memorial Museum (淮海战役纪念馆), Xuzhou. Commemorates the Huaihai Campaign, a major military campaign launched by the PLA against KMT forces in Xuzhou during the late stage of the Chinese Civil War.
- 7 Yangtze River Crossing Campaign Victory Memorial Hall (渡江胜利纪念馆), Nanjing. A museum about the capture of Nanjing by Communist forces in 1949.
- 8 The 1911 Revolution Museum (辛亥革命博物馆, Xinhai Revolution Museum), Wuchang District, Wuhan. A comprehensive museum about the Xinhai Revolution.
- 9 Memorial Museum of the 1911 Revolution (辛亥革命纪念馆), Huangpu District, Guangzhou. Another museum about the Xinhai Revolution.
- 10 Red Detachment of Women Memorial Park (红色娘子军纪念园), Qionghai, Hainan. Memorial dedicated to the Red Detachment of Women, an all-female detachment of soldiers who fought for the Communists against the Nationalists in the Chinese Civil War, eventually leading to the Communist victory in Hainan in 1950. There is a small museum in the middle of the park. Other sights in the park include a mural and an assortment of disused military equipment.