The China Quarterly


1911: The Unanchored Chinese Revolution*

Rana Mittera1

a1 University of Oxford. Email:


One hundred years after the 1911 Revolution (Xinhai Revolution) in China, its meaning continues to be highly contested. Paradoxically, the more time that passes, the less certain either political actors or scholars seem to be about the significance of 1911 for the path of Chinese revolutionary history. This essay examines three phenomena: the appropriation of 1911 in contemporary political and popular culture; the use of 1911 as a metaphor for contemporary politics by PRC historians; and the changing meaning of 1911 over the past ten decades, particularly during the years of the war against Japan. The essay concludes that it is precisely the “unanchored” nature of 1911, separated from any one path of historical interpretation, that has kept its meaning simultaneously uncertain and potent.


  • 1911 revolution;
  • Xinhai revolution;
  • Yang Tianshi;
  • Yuan Weishi;
  • Zhang Kaiyuan;
  • Chiang Kaishek;
  • Mao Zedong;
  • Wang Jingwei

Rana Mitter is professor of the history and politics of modern China at the University of Oxford. He has recently edited, with Aaron William Moore, a special edition of Modern Asian Studies on “World War II in China: Experience, Legacy, and Memory.”

* I would like to thank the executive committee of The China Quarterly for their invitation to address the topic of 1911; the two anonymous readers for the journal for their helpful suggestions; and Dr Annie Nie for her input and suggestions.