In 1900 China was ruled by an imperial system whereby the Qing dynasty controlled the nation with a quasi divine mandate. Western powers had significant influence over the country to such an extent that anger initially directed at the monarchy was redirected by the empress dowager Cixi to the foreign Christians in the Boxer Rebellion at the start of the 20th century. By 1937 China had undergone significant political, social and economic upheaval. In terms of progress many more ordinary people were involved in politics, education and literacy had become more widespread, China had become a republic and had gained international recognition. Progress was limited nonetheless by 1937- political instability was still an issue, as is evident from the Xian Incident of 1936, foreign powers retained influence as seen in 1931 with the Japanese invasion of Manchuria and of its occupation of many areas of China still in 1937, and of course (perhaps most significantly) everyday life for many ordinary Chinese people had changed very little – particularly for those in the non coastal city areas.
From an economic perspective, things had progressed since 1900. The 1913 consortium is an example of how the willingness of the Nationalist government to cooperate with foreign powers enabled China to make some economic progression. The loan negotiated by the foreign banks provided money for China to pay for the damage caused by the 1911 Revolution and this helped them to establish their new government (in return for more foreign influence over Chinese affairs). The period of warlords which stretched from 1916 to 1927 also led to some economic progression. Some of the major warlords brought modern ideas for agriculture and industry allowing certain regions to flourish, for example Yan Xishan who established a strong industrial base in Shanxi province.
Nonetheless, China’s economic progression was limited in these years by a number of factors. A considerable amount of money and resources including many deaths and casualties had been expended in fighting with Japan, fighting in World War I and the civil war amongst the Chinese themselves leaving limited scope for economic growth. The weakness of China’s economy in this period is evident in that China had defaulted on all of its loans by 1937. Moreover, although some warlords helped to improve the economies in some provinces, others significantly worsened it. One example is Zhang Zuolin who helped to cause the collapse of the Manchurian economy in 1927-1928, leading the way for the Japanese invasion in 1931. All in all considering the tumultuous political climate of the period between 1900 and 1937 China’s economy made considerable progress. Gregory Chow wrote in China’s Economic Transformation that, “in spite of political instability, economic activities carried on and economic development took place…up until 1937 China had a market economy which was working well.”
Another area of Chinese progression which ought to be measured before reaching a conclusion is political progression. In many ways the years 1900-1937 show obvious advancement: in 1900 China had an absolute monarchy and by 1937 it was a republic. Thus a great deal of democratisation had seemingly taken place, with democracy usually being seen as a sign of modernisation and progression. Certainly the introduction of greater democracy after 1912, although limited- particularly in 1916 by Yuan Shikai- helped China to progress in a number of ways. Under the Nationalists, China was recognised on the world stage and Chiang Kai-Shek introduced modest reforms, such as modernisation of the civil service.
Despite this, Chinese politics had only progressed to a limited degree. During the Nationalists’ time in power they also failed to achieve many political goals, as set out in Sun Yatsen’s ‘Three Principles of the People’ and they did not provide a legitimate government, rather they worked alongside members of the underworld and dabbled in corruption. Crucially, during this time China did not progress as far as to achieve any modicum of political stability. The warlord era lasted longer than a decade, and on the 9th of December 1936, Chiang Kai-Shek was in fact kidnapped by the rival party, the CCP, highlighting just how volatile the political climate was, even at the end of this period. On balance it can be argued that politically China made fair progression. Fenby wrote in The History of Modern China: The Fall and Rise of a Great Power that in 1900 for Chinese rulers ‘to preserve stability rather than considering change was the watchword’; by 1937 Chinese politics although unstable was somewhat more democratic and certainly a little more transparent.
Another factor to be considered is China’s international standing. Between 1900 and 1937 China was subject to much interference from foreign powers. The Boxer Rebellion in 1900 is representative of the hostility amongst Chinese people towards foreigners and the result of the rebellion shows just how weak China was in comparison to these foreign powers-for example the reparations of $450 million. Until 1937 China showed little signs of progression from this perspective, being continually belittled by foreign powers: Japan’s 21 Demands in 1915 and the Japanese 1931 invasion of Manchuria being just two examples. Thus on an international scale China progressed very little between 1900 and 1937, though it has to be said that in 1937 the Second Sino-Japanese War was to begin which China would ultimately win, suggesting perhaps China had sown the seeds for change in this period despite not yet succeeding.
The final aspect to be considered before reaching a conclusion is the social and cultural progression of China between 1900 and 1937. There is evidence of a great deal of progression from a cultural point of view. One example is the literary and intellectual renaissance that arose in the warlord era. Intellectual figures such as Hu Shi and the rise in popularity of publications such as ‘New Youth’ in the 1920’s show the progression of the arts. Moreover when events such as April 19th, 30th May and the May 4th Movement are compared to the Boxer Rebellion we see a great deal of social progression, with the Chinese people clearly becoming more vocal and independently minded.
In spite of the evidence of social progression there were severe limits. The White Terror of 1927 shows how backward the culture in China remained in some ways. Also it is unlikely that by 1937 everyday life had progressed at all for many Chinese people. Clear proof of this is that in 1900 the average life expectancy in China was 30 and by 1940 it was only 32, showing very little improvement. All in all, it cannot be denied that 1900 to 1937 bore witness to significant cultural progression, whilst average living conditions improved very little.