Confronting the "European War" in Early Republican China: ROC's Constitutional Process and the First World War

Confronting the "European War" in Early Republican China: ROC's Constitutional Process and the First World War
Rong Wu


Despite recent development in the study of the First World War (WWI), China has remained a peripheral player in WWI historiography. Research on China’s experiences in WWI is still largely limited to the discussion of several discrete topics: the war participation debate, the Chinese Labour Corps, and the May Fourth Movement. This dissertation deals with the broader question of what role the global ramifications of WWI played in shaping China’s constitutional trajectory. By portraying the close interaction between international and domestic developments in the 1910s, this research shows that the First World War was a transformative event that significantly derailed the constitutional process of the nascent Republic of China at its onset and laid the ground for a new revolutionary age in China.

The First World War shaped the early ROC’s constitutional trajectory in profound ways. The outbreak of the First World War tilted the balance-of-power in East Asia in a direction that was extremely adverse to the Republican government’s constitutional experiment, which had just started on the eve of WWI. The retreat of Western financial and diplomatic support made it impossibly difficult for the Republican government to resist imperial Japan’s expansionist policy after 1914, leading to a series of constitutional crises. Against such a backdrop, China’s war participation debate went far beyond the realm of foreign affairs. It became an arena for competing proposals about how to reorganise national politics in a fragmented political landscape, which rendered constitution-making unprecedentedly challenging. In the meantime, the First World War introduced shifting intellectual and social trends into China, which conditioned the Republican government's constitutional options. As the war progressed, political actors in China actively sought opportunities out of the new developments of WWI to further their own constitutional agendas at home. Such close interplay between local and global developments eventually resulted in the unravelling of the Republic’s constitutional experiment based on checks-and-balances and a multi-party system.

By reintroducing the First World War into the history of the early ROC, this dissertation highlights the international context of the failure of the constitutional experiment under the Beijing government, which has traditionally been overlooked in the revolutionary narrative of modern Chinese history. Rather than doomed from the onset, the early ROC’s constitutional experiment fell apart in the crucible of the First World War, and it was also in the embers of the old world that the sparks of the new revolutions were kindled before bursting into full flame. Apart from providing a new perspective from which to revisit early Republican history, the depiction of China’s encounter with WWI also extend our focus beyond “chaps and their maps” of the European belligerents and their empires and enriches our understanding of the First World War as a truly global war.


Rong Wu

Defended in


PhD defended at

Faculty of Asian and Middle Eastern Studies, University of Cambridge




East Asia


International Relations and Politics
National politics
War / Peace