Letting the dust settle: Waiting around as political necessity and strategy in Twentieth-Century China

It is easy to tell the political history of Twentieth-Century China as a series of events. The Xinhai Revolution ended centuries dynastic rule; warlords clashed with each other for supremacy; the Nationalist government under Chang Kai-shek tried to bind the country together, sometimes cooperating with the Communist party and sometimes trying to wipe it out. The Japanese invaded, were eventually defeated, and the following civil war resulted in the creation of the People’s Republic of China. Keeping track of the different personalities involved, their interests and motivations, as well as the consequences of all these changes, in the short and long term, makes history interesting and difficult.

Political history, though, has a bias towards action. Events happened; consequences must be analyzed, debated and revisited.  In a century of tumult and revolution it is very easy to overlook the fact that engaging in politics amounted to a lot of waiting around, biding one’s time and waiting to see what political opportunities appeared. Chinese political history is as much about waiting as it is about action.
In the first decade of the 20th century many, political activists took refuge in Japan, waiting to see how the Qing dynasty political scene developed and to gauge when the moment was safe—and ripe—for a return. In 1931, Chiang Kai-shek resigned his position at the top of the party and spent several months waiting for everyone else to realize just how indispensable he was. Later, one of Mao Zedong’s favorite tactics was to leave Beijing, tour the provinces, and allow his enemies a chance to revel themselves. He termed this strategy, in his earthy style, waiting for the snakes to come out of their holes.

In the first part of the 20th century, especially form the fall of the Qing in 1912 through the 1930s, the most popular place to wait and watch political currents was Tianjin. As Taiwanese historian Lin Zhihong observes in his book on the lives of former Qing ministers (Minguo nai diguo ye 民國乃敵國也), after the end of the dynasty, those who had been based in Beijing tended to stay in the north, remaining in the capital or going to Tianjin. Qing officials who had been based outside the capital, tended to congregate in Shanghai or Hong Kong.

Tianjin provided an ideal place to wait, plot and examine the shifting and complicated currents of Chinese politics. Close to but still removed from the capital, the city provided a vantage point for observation without being in the thick of events in Beijing. After the treaty of Tianjin singed after the Second Opium War, the city became one of the many treaty ports that created foreign enclaves: while ministers, warlords and observed political trends, they could also live in style.

Perhaps the most famous example of a figure in a perpetual political holding pattern was the deposed Qing Emperor Puyi. Though the Qing dynasty ended in 1912, Puyi, still just a child, remained in the Forbidden City and received a stipend from the Beiyang government. After a brief 12-day restoration to the throne in 1917, he married and went about his daily life until being forced to give up his imperial title and move out of the Forbidden City in 1924. Mr. Henry Puyi, now simply a private citizen, albeit one with a very interesting background and unique political ambitions, sought refuge in Tianjin. Puyi first resided in the Japanese area of the Tianjin before moving to the former residence of a Beiyang finance minister renamed Garden of Serenity (jingyuan 靜園). There, Puyi, with his wife and consort, played golf, went out for dinner and dancing but also bided his time, looking for an opportunity to return to politics. That time eventually came in the early 1930s when he snuck out of his residence in the trunk of a car and traveled to the newly established Japanese puppet state of Manchukuo. He had waited in Tianjin for nearly seven years.

We spend most of our time not in action but in waiting, for mundane things, like the bus, but also for important news that can change the course of a life. The history of waiting, and biding one’s time, captures the range of uncertainties and emotions that undermines the straightforward political history of the China’s Twentieth century, with events marching on smoothly, ceaselessly and inevitably. Tracking the twisting emotions of waiting for events to play out becomes more difficult as the habit of keeping a detailed and regular diary becomes increasingly rare. Though for the Late Qing and Republic era, there types of works abound, whether they are from the Qing officials Weng Tengho and Natong or the more famous examples form the Republican era of Chiang Kai-shek and Zhou Fouhai. All of these diaries capture ambitions and anxiety, hopes as well as hesitations, moments of decision and doubt.

Waiting around for the political scene to develop was always a necessity, sometimes a strategy and has a history of its own that is yet to be written.


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