In This Article Expand or collapse the "in this article" section Republican China, 1911–1949

  • Introduction
  • General Overviews
  • Historiographical Surveys
  • Reference Works
  • Journals
  • Works of Reportage and Fiction

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Chinese Studies Republican China, 1911–1949
Tim Wright
  • LAST REVIEWED: 25 July 2023
  • LAST MODIFIED: 25 July 2023
  • DOI: 10.1093/obo/9780199920082-0028


There have been major changes since the mid-twentieth century in the way in which the history of republican China (1911–1949) is conceptualized by scholars in the West and elsewhere. Up to the 1970s, scholarship was dominated by a somewhat teleological revolutionary paradigm, in which developments in republican China were seen predominantly in terms of their relationship to the 1949 revolution and thus, of their contribution to the total transformation of Chinese society. This teleological approach has more recently been challenged in at least two respects. First, scholars have affirmed that ideas and actions in Nationalist China are worthy of study in their own right, rather than merely in terms of the contribution they did or did not make to China’s Communist revolution. This was partly, though not exclusively, a reflection of the economic and, later, political success of Taiwan and the ethnically Chinese city-states outside the People’s Republic of China, which suggested that the Chinese past could generate paths other than those outlined by Mao Zedong. Second, the degree to which 1949 actually represented a radical break or complete transformation of Chinese society has come increasingly under question. Developments after 1949 have come more and more to be seen as the continuation of a process of state building that was under way, certainly, during the Nationalist regime of 1927–1949 and, to some extent, even before that, back to the warlords or even the late Qing. A further change, and one that reflects the emergence of postmodern views of history way beyond Chinese studies, is to downgrade metanarratives of all types (not just the revolutionary teleology) and to focus more on the local and the contingent. Local studies have therefore been a major trend in republican history since the 1990s. The field covered by this article is vast, and in order to reduce it to manageable size, the author has decided to concentrate mainly (though not exclusively) on topics linked to politics (though in the Chinese case many social, cultural, and economic developments had a strong political element, and they are touched on) and on works that focus centrally on the 1911–1949 period rather than, for example, the whole twentieth century.

General Overviews

There are a substantial number of English-language overview texts on modern Chinese history that cover this period. Most are aimed at an undergraduate market, and most tend to focus very much on a chronological account of mainly political history. Two texts by leading scholars represent contributions at the opposite ends of the spectrum of detail: Spence 2013 is a relatively comprehensive treatment of the period, whereas Mitter 2008 offers an extremely concise coverage. Zarrow 2005 and Lary 2007 are high-quality texts of medium length, while Wasserstrom 2022 offers perspectives from a range of leading scholars. On a more specialized level, the two volumes of The Cambridge History of China dealing with republican China (Fairbank 1983, Fairbank and Feuerwerker 1986) exemplify the state of understanding of this period of Chinese history as of c. 1980. Chinese scholars tend to emphasize massive, collectively written histories, which are more or less authoritative. Li 2011 and Zhang 2005 are probably the two most important examples, though there are many other texts of different lengths.

  • Fairbank, John K., ed. The Cambridge History of China. Vol. 12, Republican China, 1912–1949, Part 1. Cambridge, UK, and New York: Cambridge University Press, 1983.

    Contains heavyweight articles by leading scholars on several subperiods of republican history mainly up to 1928, as well as overviews, including the foreign presence in China, intellectual and literary trends, and the Chinese bourgeoisie. Clearly becoming outdated, but many of the chapters still give an excellent overview.

  • Fairbank, John K., and Albert Feuerwerker, eds. The Cambridge History of China. Vol. 13, Republican China, 1912–1949, Part 2. Cambridge, UK, and New York: Cambridge University Press, 1986.

    To some extent, takes the story in Fairbank 1983 up to 1949, with studies of the Nanjing decade, the war, and the rise of the Communist movement. Also contains survey articles on topics including international relations, the agrarian system and peasant movements, local government, and the academic community.

  • Lary, Diana. China’s Republic. New Approaches to Asian History. Cambridge, UK, and New York: Cambridge University Press, 2007.

    DOI: 10.1017/CBO9781139167253

    Text on the Republic of China (with a final chapter on Taiwan). Strong on social as well as political issues.

  • Li Xin 李新, ed. Zhonghua minguo shi (中华民国史). 12 vols. Beijing: Zhonghua shuju, 2011.

    The standard collective history—mainly political, diplomatic, and military—of the period from Beijing. Mostly written in the 1980s or even earlier. Chronologically organized into different subperiods. Each section has an index of personal names at the end.

  • Mitter, Rana. Modern China: A Very Short Introduction. Oxford and New York: Oxford University Press, 2008.

    DOI: 10.1093/actrade/9780199228027.001.0001

    What the title says: a very short introduction, but takes account of the latest scholarship and diverges further from the political narrative than most similar works (“Is China’s society/economy/culture modern?”).

  • Spence, Jonathan D. The Search for Modern China. 3d ed. New York: Norton, 2013.

    Strong claim to being the standard—albeit long—text on modern China, updated extensively in the late 1990s. Starts from 1600 and organized chronologically (an approach that Spence defends). The middle two hundred pages examine the republican period. Emphasizes not only continual change, but also continuities from late imperial China to the People’s Republic of China.

  • Wasserstrom, Jeffrey N. The Oxford History of Modern China. New York: Oxford University Press, 2022.

    High-quality collection of chapters by leading scholars covering Chinese history from 1644 to the era of Xi Jinping. The introduction problematizes the idea of “China” as well as that of a continuous five-thousand-year history.

  • Zarrow, Peter. China in War and Revolution, 1895–1949. Asia’s Transformations. London and New York: Routledge, 2005.

    Short, high-quality survey of republican history. Covers a wide range of topics, focusing on intellectual and cultural history. Contestation between different groups over the concepts of nation and democracy is a key theme.

  • Zhang Xianwen 张宪文, ed. Zhonghua minguo shi (中华民国史). 4 vols. Nanjing, China: Nanjing daxue chubanshe, 2005.

    Zhang, of Nanjing University, is the country’s leading historian of the republic. Basically ordered chronologically, but has extensive chapters on economic and social issues as well as politics. Useful appendixes on government and political organization and personnel and on changes in administrative geography.

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