Though history repeats itself, it does so only in the great outlines of events. There is no iteration of concrete facts, and as the pageant of history passes, we behold an unending variety of incident. Thus, while the events which have happened in the political world of China during the last three years may be expressed in the general form of ideas with which we are abundantly familiar, such as political agitation and constitutional reform, the actual facts of the situation in China in detail are unprecedented. They constitute an entirely novel eventuality in the history of the world.
The change which China is undergoing at present may be expressed by saying that Chinese society is becoming political. Hitherto it has lived from generation to generation by custom, with no consciousness of political aims or purposes; nor has the government itself been influenced in its action by definite policies. Secure in its authority, it has selected its servants on the basis of examination tests, reinforced by such favor as promising candidates might be able to obtain through douceurs of various kinds. Now, all of a sudden, the political impulse is strongly awakening in the breast of the Chinese people. They see before them the nations which are consciously guiding their policy from the point of view of national life and national interests. It will no longer do to drift, to let customs take care of themselves, to deal with foreign nations from day to day in compromises, which never go to the root of a policy, but simply gloss over the difficulties of the moment. The intellectual and responsible among the Chinese people are feeling a deep need for a conscious expression of national policy, and for the use of careful reason and long-headed foresight, as well as calm firmness, in the management of their national affairs.
The impulse came from without. Chinese self-complacency suffered a rude shock in the Japanese War of 1894. On account of the lack of centralization and of a common patriotism, this shock would probably have remained without a deep influence upon Chinese life had it not been followed by other and more serious catastrophes. It was, however, the signal for inroads upon China by all sorts of political and economic influences from without. The division of China impended. The masses of the people, at first vaguely restless, were soon deeply moved by fears and passions akin to panic, unrestrained yes, even assisted, by high officials who were themselves not clear in their political aims. So they rushed headlong into new trouble by attacking the foreigners and their legations. Again China was to receive a poignant impression of her own weakness. This warning was accentuated when Russia made herself at home in Manchuria, and refused to listen to Chinese demands. The militant and political genius of Japan evinced itself; by contrast with Japanese victories and diplomatic successes, the Chinese at last came to perceive the depth of inefficiency to which their national life had sunk. Most touchingly this feeling expressed itself in the formation of "national humiliation societies." Hundreds of thousands became members, and women gave up the wearing of rings, with the exception of one upon which were engraved the words "national humiliation." Thus was China shocked into a feeling of her own weakness, and of the dangers that beset her on account of the absence of a strong national political spirit.
The question was how to escape from this humiliating condition. That some change was necessary was recognized even by the most conservative, but the remedies suggested went all the way to the revolutionary proposal of the establishment of a republic. The government was fully impressed with the seriousness of the situation. It tried to find its path to a policy of national reform. It abolished the artificial system of education under which the officials of China had hitherto been trained, established public schools, and provided for instruction in science, law, history, and politics. It sent study-commissions to foreign countries to gather accurate information suitable to Chinese conditions, from all the countries of the world. The reports of these embassies were published in large editions, and were eagerly read by the educated throughout China, forming a basis for political information.
The task of reform before the government was, indeed, an appalling one. To transform the easy-going system of administration, under which the Empire had lived for centuries in time of peace and in the absence of all foreign competition, into a centralized, modern engine of national action, is in itself an undertaking that calls for the greatest originality and statesmanship. But the educated people of China were not satisfied to have the government concern itself with the administration alone. They instinctively centred all their demands about the cry for a national parliament. How could the nation be one before there had been created an organ to express its national public opinion? It was argued that, as all efficient countries are provided with parliaments, as Japan had strengthened herself by creating such an institution, the establishment of a national assembly must be the first step of actual reform. Thus reasoned reformers of all degrees of radicalism.
The government recognized the justice of these demands. It understood that in the great movement for public efficiency which it had undertaken, it ought to be able to count upon the cooperation of the Chinese people and of the natural leaders of Chinese society. What better institution could be conceived for gathering up all this powerful social support than a deliberative assembly? But the government was as yet by no means decided as to the character and form which should be given to this institution. By the highly important decree of September 1, 1900 it, however, put itself on record as favoring a constitution and the participation of the people in matters of government.
The last three years have been full of nervous action and reaction. Attempts to arrive at clear ideas with respect to great questions of policy have been interrupted again and again by personal controversy, court intrigues, and the panicky fear of revolutionary movements. The forces which the government has to deal with are complex in the extreme. The imperial clan itself, being non-Chinese, must avoid the appearance of following a mere family or clan policy. The privileged position occupied by Manchu officials had long been irksome to the influential Chinese. The mitigation of these jealousies, the unification of these two elements in the official world, or at all events the adjustment of their mutual claims, was therefore one of the first problems to be faced. The Empress Dowager always had reason to fear that the great national renaissance in China might take an anti-dynastic direction. The efforts of high Manchu officials to avoid such a result led them, in 1900, to make common cause with the Boxers. From the point of view of the imperial house, it is a most serious question how far the nationalist enthusiasm and tendencies can be harmonized with continuance of Manchu domination. That the true solution lies in the absorption of the Manchus by the mass of the Chinese people, and in the suppression of artificial privileges, is recognized by the government, many of whose recent measures have been based upon such a policy.