Perspective from China’s First Pro-Democracy Activists

Yung Wing, my grandfather, and the seeds of revolution against the China’s last empire

Aimee Liu

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My grandfather Liu Chengyu, age 28, left, and Yung Wing, age 76

In 1900 my grandfather Liu Chengyu became one of China’s first pro-democracy activists when he joined a student-organized plot to blow up an imperial armory near his home in Wuchang. The plot was exposed and several of my grandfather’s young collaborators were beheaded, while he escaped into exile. In today’s New York Times Morning newsletter, I felt as if I was reading about my grandfather through a time warp:

“A college student in the southern port city of Guangzhou… used Apple’s AirDrop feature to send photos of protest messages to fellow subway passengers’ iPhones. He’s so young that when he said his age, my heart ached. (He asked to keep his name and his age private for fear of punishment by the Chinese authorities.) I asked why he risked so much to protest. He said he wanted to end the rule of the Communist Party and make China a democratic country.

I asked him why democracy was important. “In a dictatorship, the dictator doesn’t need to answer to anybody,” he said.

The same could be said of the Qing emperor and the dynastic dictatorship that my grandfather pledged to overthrow more than a century ago. Not many people today give much thought to the activists who first introduced the notion of democracy to China. So many political, economic, and military convulsions have since gripped the Middle Kingdom that the idealism of those early revolutionaries now seems both quaint and tragic. But they were every bit as brave, hotheaded, and patriotic in their time as the college students who dare to oppose Xi Jinping today.

A fateful meeting

For those who are following China’s pro-democracy movement, I offer this annotated extract from my grandfather’s memoirs, in which he meets an even earlier godfather of democracy in China, the 19th-century diplomat and Yale graduate known in America as Yung Wing.

My grandfather begins:

In 1901, after I was implicated in the T’ang Ts’ai-ch’ang case [the plot to blow up the armory], I fled to the safety of Shanghai. There my friend who had just returned from Japan…

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Aimee Liu

Author, Asian-American novels (Glorious Boy), nonfiction on eating disorders (Gaining), writing, wellness. Published @Hachette. MFA & more@ aimeeliu.net