Perhaps only those who have lived in the interior of China and know something of the organization of family and village, township and clan, are able to realize to how great an extent the Chinese have already learned the arts of self-government.
Continuing The Chinese Revolution of 1912,
with a selection from The Situation in the Far East by Robert Machray published in magazine article. This selection is presented in 4 installments for 5 minute reading.
Previously in The Chinese Revolution of 1912.
On another occasion Mencius was questioned about the duties of ministers and royal relatives. “If the sovereign rules badly,” he said, “they should reprove him; if he persists again and again in disregarding their advice, they should dethrone him.” The prince for whose edification the philosopher uttered these daring sentiments looked grave. “I pray your Majesty not to take offense,” said Mencius. “You asked me for my candid opinion, and I have told you what it is.”
Several other passages of similar purport might be cited from Mencius, but two more will suffice. “Let us suppose,” said the sage, “that a man who is about to proceed on a long journey entrusts the care of his wife and family to a friend. On his return he finds that the faithless friend has allowed his wife and children to suffer from cold and hunger. What should he do with such a friend?” “He should treat him thenceforth as a stranger,” replied King Hsuan. “And suppose,” continued Mencius, “that your Majesty had a minister who was utterly unable to control his subordinates: how would you deal with such a one?” “I should dismiss him from my service,” said the King. “And if throughout all your realm there is no good government, what is to be done then?” The embarrassed King, we are told, “looked this way and that, and changed the subject.”
The last of Mencius’s teachings on kingship to which we shall refer is perhaps the most remarkable of all. “The most important element in a State,” he says emphatically, “is the people; next come the altars of the national gods; least in importance is the king.”
These citations from the revered classics should be sufficient to prove that the people of China are not necessarily cutting themselves adrift from the traditions of ages and the teachings of their philosophers when they rise in their might to overthrow an incompetent dynasty. For it can not be denied that China has known little prosperity under the later rulers of the Manchu line, and when the revolutionary leaders declared that the reigning house had forfeited the T’ien-ming we must admit that they had ample justification for their belief that such was the case. But many Western friends of China, while fully recognizing the right of the people to remove the Manchus, entertain very grave doubts as to the wisdom of abolishing the monarchy altogether and the establishment of a republican government in its stead. The T’ien-ming has always passed from dynasty to dynasty, never from dynasty to people. From the remotest days of which we have record, the Chinese system of government has been monarchic. If the revolutionaries can break tradition to the extent of abolishing the imperial dignity, what guaranty have we that they will not break with tradition in every other respect as well, and so destroy the foundations on which the whole edifice of China’s social, political, and religious life has rested through all the centuries of her known history?
Whether the Chinese people — as distinct from a few foreign-educated reformers — do, as a matter of fact, honestly believe that a republican government is adapted to the needs of the country, is a very different question. It certainly has not been proved that “the whole nation is now inclined toward a republic” — in spite of the admission to that effect contained in the imperial Edict of abdication. Perhaps it would be nearer the truth to say that the overwhelming majority of the people of China have not the slightest idea what a republic means, and how their lives and fortunes will be affected by its establishment, and therefore hold no strong opinions concerning the advantages or disadvantages of republican government.
It can not be denied, however, that the social system under which the Chinese people have lived for untold ages has in some ways made them more fit for self-government than any other people in the world. It would be well if Europeans — and especially Englishmen — would try to rid themselves of the obsolete notion that every Oriental race, as such, is only fit for a despotic form of government. Perhaps only those who have lived in the interior of China and know something of the organization of family and village, township and clan, are able to realize to how great an extent the Chinese have already learned the arts of self-government. It was not without reason that a Western authority (writing before the outbreak of the revolution) described China as “the greatest republic the world has ever seen.”
The momentous Edict in which the Manchu house signed away its imperial heritage was issued on the twelfth day of February, 1912. It contains many noteworthy features, but the words which are of special interest from the constitutional point of view I translate as follows: “The whole nation is now inclined toward a republican form of government. The southern and central provinces first gave clear evidence of this inclination, and the military leaders of the northern provinces have since promised their support in the same cause. By observing the nature of the people’s aspirations we learn the Will of Heaven (T’ien-ming). It is not fitting that We should withstand the desires of the nation merely for the sake of the glorification of Our own House. We recognize the signs of the age, and We have tested the trend of popular opinion; and We now, with the Emperor at Our side, invest the Nation with the Sovereign Power and decree the establishment of a constitutional government on a republican basis. In coming to this decision, We are actuated not only by a hope to bring solace to Our subjects, who long for the cessation of political tumult, but also by a desire to follow the precepts of the Sages of old who taught that political sovereignty rests ultimately with the people.”
Such was the dignified and yet pathetic swan-song of the dying Manchu dynasty. Whatever our political sympathies may be, we are not obliged to withhold our tribute of compassion for the sudden and startling collapse of a dynasty that has ruled China — not always inefficiently — for the last two hundred and sixty-seven years.
The Abdication Edict can not fail to be of interest to students of the science of politics. The Throne itself is converted into a bridge to facilitate the transition from the monarchical to the republican form of government. The Emperor remains absolute to the last, and the very Republican Constitution, which involves his own disappearance from political existence, is created by the fiat of the Emperor in his last official utterance. Theoretically, the Republic is established not by a people in arms acting in opposition to the imperial will, but by the Emperor acting with august benevolence for his people’s good. The cynic may smile at the transparency of the attempt to represent the abdication as entirely voluntary, but in this procedure we find something more than a mere “face-saving” device intended for the purpose of effecting a dignified retreat in the hour of disaster.
Perhaps the greatest interest of the decree centers in its appeal to the wisdom of the national sages, and its acceptance of their theory as to the ultimate seat of political sovereignty. The heart of the drafter may have quailed when he wrote the words that signified the surrender of the imperial power, but the spirit of Mencius guided his hand. It now remains for us to hope that the teachings of the wise men of old, which have been obeyed to such momentous issues by the last of the Emperors, will not be treated with contempt by his Republican successors.
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