The “United States of China,” 100 Years Later

On September 29, 1910, a young Chinese cook in Berkeley named George Fong bought himself a .38 caliber revolver. The next day he hiked up into the hills behind the fraternity house where he worked at the University of California, found a secluded valley amongst the brown grasses and sprawling nurseries of eucalyptus, and taught himself how to shoot. One week later, he made his way down to the Oakland Ferry Terminal and joined a crowd of onlookers who thronged its railway platform in wait for the arriving train of Prince Zaixun, the uncle of the emperor of China. When the prince stepped off his train to embark on the ferry, George Fong planned to kill him.

He failed, though. Someone tipped off the Secret Service, and a detective from the Chinatown police squad grabbed hold of Fong just as he reached for his gun. Nevertheless, as the national press described it, the burgeoning Chinese revolution had just reached America. Fong “considered it his duty to kill the Prince and…free China of the rule of Manchus,” explained the San Francisco Chronicle, referring to the non-Chinese monarchs of the Qing dynasty. That much was a common refrain in the news from China, where reports of attempted assassinations and bombings had been trickling out for some time—but in this case the would-be liberator of the Chinese people was an American, native-born in California, radicalized in the Bay Area by reading Chinatown newspapers and attending local meetings of the revolutionary Young China Association. George Fong was the tangible link between the Chinese of America and the violence unfolding in their ancestral home. In the era of exclusion laws founded on fears that America would be swamped by waves of Chinese immigrants, he was a sign that even draconian limits could not prevent the turmoil of China from invading American soil.

In a vain effort to counter American fears of his revolution, Fong tried to reassure the press that the only reason he hadn’t managed to shoot Zaixun was because there were too many white people on the platform and he feared hitting one. Even his fundamental will to revolt, he insisted, was inspired by the example of America: “I wanted to be the George Washington of China,” he told his captors, “and to be the savior of my country.”

Looking backwards a hundred years later, one might easily imagine that the chaotic and still poorly understood 1911 Revolution that toppled China’s last dynasty would have been immediately welcome to the United States. After all, the Manchu government of the Qing dynasty against whom Britain had fought its Opium Wars was, as we tend to remember it, long past its prime by 1911, the “Sick Man of Asia” just waiting to expire. The Qing court had supported the Boxer Rebellion of 1900, whose proponents murdered Christian converts and laid siege to the foreign legations in Beijing, leaving a lingering resentment in American minds. In contrast, the most prominent of the revolutionary leaders, Sun Yat-sen, was Western-educated, Christian, fluent in English, and claimed inspiration from America’s political system. At its inception, the Republic of China was known by shorthand abroad as  “The United States of China.”

But that was only part of the picture.

By 1910, when Prince Zaixun came to the United States at the head of a Qing naval delegation, the dynasty was in fact deep in the midst of an unprecedented program of reform that was entirely welcome to American interests. President Taft had received Zaixun in the Blue Room of the White House, accompanied by almost the entire US cabinet, and held a banquet in his honor in the state dining room. Charles M. Schwab, the president of Bethlehem Steel, entertained him in New York with three carloads of Broadway showgirls. When Zaixun happened to take a late morning nap in Philadelphia, the mayor of the city ordered all traffic stopped for sixteen blocks around his hotel so that the prince’s slumber would not be disturbed. The Manchu prince held separate meetings with the Secretary of State and the Secretary of the Navy, visited Annapolis, and took a tour of the shipyard in Newport News, where he commissioned a naval cruiser for the Qing fleet. When the revolution finally broke out for real a year later, on October 10, 1911, Charles Schwab was in Beijing on a reciprocal visit to negotiate what was expected to be a major contract for supplying the Qing navy with American steel.

Indeed, America’s interests at the time lay almost entirely with the dynasty. On October 1, 1911, just nine days before the Wuchang Uprising that launched the revolution, General Adolphus Greely of the US Army published a long and glowing article in the New York Times on the Qing dynasty’s movement to modernize, heralding China’s “evolutionary progress toward its proper and destined position as one of the great civilized nations of the earth.” In an extremely favorable assessment of Qing reform efforts, which he termed “marvelous changes,” he commended its New Army (“such a military force as will command the respect of foreign nations”), its development of railways and industry, its growing freedom of the press (“free to attack mandarins who were bribed”), its increasingly rationalized economy, and above all the dynastic government’s ongoing effort to transform itself into a constitutional monarchy, including the recent establishment of a parliament “marked by freedom of speech and boldness of opinion along lines of modern thought and in public interests.” On the eve of revolution in October 1911, the Qing dynasty seemed headed in a direction favorable to American business interests, promising domestic stability, a smooth and willing transition to constitutional government, and above all a strong and growing demand for American steel, machinery, and ships.

Against that backdrop of economic engagement and the promise of stability, the republican revolution was a hard sell. The revolutionaries went to great lengths to project a pro-Western image, but Young China activists could not escape the menace of their association with anarchism and assassination. Ideologically, the revolutionaries in China could scarcely mask their resentment of the foreign powers—which lurked just behind their primary hatred of the Manchus. Spokesmen for the revolution outwardly promised no harm would come to foreign interests in China, but to their own followers the rhetoric was often different. Publications in Chinese were rife with venom against the western presence in China, and while Sun Yat-sen and others tried to keep such sentiments from foreign ears, the basic message could still slip out. The New-York Tribune reported such a speech in New York’s Chinatown on October 22, 1911 by one Jue Checkman (whom the Tribune’s article called the “revolutionary apostle of Canton”), who attacked the dynasty’s close ties to American business and threatened his audience that if the Manchus remained in power they would appoint JP Morgan China’s minister of finance, and Andrew Carnegie her minister of war. It was hardly a message to endear him to American elites.

They would warm up to it in time, once it came to seem inevitable, but on the eve of the revolution Americans weren’t impressed by the possibility of a republican government’s being established in China. The United States and the Manchu dynasty were close allies (too close, thought those who sympathized with the rebels), and the constitutional monarchy on offer from the Qing seemed a more stable foundation for a future state than some revolutionary republic, which for many raised the specter of France after 1789—where, the Chicago Tribune reminded its readers, “after they had dropped King Louis’ head into the basket, [they] created the inspired army which Napoleon led all over Europe.” For beyond any questions of political structure and domestic order for China’s own sake, the prospect of revolution tapped into a darker and more subtle concern abroad: that a racially unified, modernizing China might threaten the dominance of the West.

Though Europeans and Americans originally used the term “Yellow Peril” to describe Japan, which after its defeat of China in 1895 and Russia in 1905 had proven itself a world-class military power, by the time of the 1911 Revolution they were applying it to China as well. Looking back to the Boxers, and forward from the 1911 Revolution, some saw a different kind of Yellow Peril emerging from China—namely, that if the 400 million Chinese should throw off the shackles of Manchu oppression and unite, there was no telling what revenge they might wreak on the foreign powers that had helped the Manchus keep them under control.

George Fong had brought home the message that America’s Chinatowns were crucibles of revolution, and as the violence in China unfolded American observers were both bemused and disturbed by the presence of “Young China” in their own midst—indeed, several seemed convinced that the whole Chinese revolution was in fact being directed from within the United States. It helped that Sun Yat-sen happened to be in Denver when the revolution broke out, and rather than returning directly to China he instead traveled (they believed) to Chinatowns in Chicago and New York for secret meetings. The Chronicle predicted that “it will be recorded that San Francisco’s Chinatown was the starting point for one of the greatest political movements, ancient or modern.” The New-York Tribune went further, declaring that “San Francisco will go down in the history of nations as the mother of the new Chinese republic.” It wasn’t exactly a point of pride, though; the new Chinese state was going to be born, in their eyes, from the site of “the bloody tong wars; down where the powerful kings of the opium ring held out for decades; down where the Chinese traffickers in slant-eyed slave girls conducted their nefarious work year in and year out.”

The menace of the Chinatowns was one thing, but the menace of China itself was another—and in 1911 the nation that appeared on the verge of rising to power in Asia had good reason to be angry. The Americans and British were hardly unaware of the questionable morality of their policies in China over the previous century—few in either country would argue that opium had been unharmful to China, the gunboat treaties fair, or the indemnities affordable. Thus, the Chinese national form of the Peril rested on an acknowledgment that if China did harbor a grudge against the West, it was, given the circumstances of history, justified. “Let us hope,” said the Chicago Tribune when it learned that the Qing emperor had abdicated, “that the yellow peril will never be as perilous to white people as the white peril has been to yellow people.”

It is no coincidence that the Western literary archetype of China’s Yellow Peril, the evil Dr. Fu Manchu, made his first appearance soon after the 1911 Revolution. In fact, he was born of it. The first novel in the series by British writer Sax Rohmer appeared in the United States in 1913 under the title The Insidious Dr. Fu Manchu. The Chronicle advertised that it “deals with the recent revolution in China.” It was set in London in the summer of 1911 with China at the cusp of revolution, and at the outset its narrator, Dr. Petrie, believed the mysterious Fu Manchu to be an agent of Young China. In the course of the story, however, he was ultimately revealed to be an even greater power unto himself, who despised “the futility” of the Western-influenced revolutionaries. He was, Petrie discovered, the “Third Party” in China who would rise to power from the ashes of the Qing loyalists and the Young China Movement, the “Master of the Show” who would ultimately rule over a racially unified China and turn it against the West.

If titillated American readers wanted evidence that such sentiments did exist in reality, and weren’t mere figments of the American or British imagination, they would need look no further than the pages of the revolutionary pamphlets distributed in China. “You possess the omen of the Yellow Peril,” wrote the young Chinese propagandist Zou Rong in The Revolutionary Army, which was printed in the tens of thousands of copies, “you possess the might of the sacred race.” More obscure but closer to home, they could find the same sentiments echoed in the holding barracks on Angel Island off of San Francisco, where imprisoned would-be immigrants carved their hopes for the new China into the walls. “If there comes a day when China will be united,” wrote one, “I will surely cut out the heart and bowels of the western barbarian.” Wrote another:

I strongly advise my countrymen not to worry,
Even though you are imprisoned in a wooden building,
Some day after China rises and changes,
She will be adept at using bombs to obliterate America.

But the feared payback for China’s 19th century humiliations never did come. The Republic of China quickly collapsed without unifying the country in any lasting fashion, and so the time never arrived when its government might demand an end to the foreign concessions or drive unwanted foreign interests from the country. The moment passed, the threat—if there even was one—subsided, and business continued as before.

There was, however, another form of the Yellow Peril born of the 1911 Revolution, which turned out to have a far longer life than the others. As Charles Schwab explained in a 1912 interview, the real Yellow Peril was going to be industrial rather than military. Americans should not fear war from a modernized China, he warned, but competition. Nevertheless, he reassured his audience at the time not to worry, because “it will be more than a century before China becomes an industrial peril.”

That century has now passed, and the debates of our campaigning politicians resound with charges that China has undermined the American manufacturing economy, that its industries threaten our very existence. Statements like the following, from the San Francisco Chronicle in May of 1911, might as well have been written yesterday: “Contemplating the diligence, sobriety and cleverness of the Chinese, in connection with their immense numbers and their low standard of comfort, some foresee a manufacturing China, turning out great quantities of iron, steel, implements, ships, machinery and textiles at an incredibly low cost, and thereby driving our goods out of neutral markets and obliging our workingmen, after a long, disastrous strike with their employers, to take a Chinese wage or starve.”

Now, as then, the prospect of China becoming more like us has occasioned a collision between our ideals and our fears—ideals of political stability and economic prosperity for China on the one hand and, on the other, fears that we will be undermined by a country whose people are willing to work for wages far lower than our own (the exact same fears, it should be noted, that drove the original Chinese exclusion laws). America likes to think of itself as encouraging modernization, political liberalization, and economic development in China, but it is worth remembering that behind the outward charity of such impulses there has always lurked the companion fear that such changes, if they should prove too successful, might also prove our own undoing.