The Song of Song: Death of a Revolutionary

In a Christmas special at The Economist, Gady Epstein explores China’s brush with democracy a hundred years ago, and the single shot that may have ended it.

AT 10.40pm on March 20th 1913 a young man who represented one possible future for China stood on the platform at Shanghai railway station, waiting with friends to board a train to Beijing. Song Jiaoren—30 years old, sporting a Western suit and a wisp of a moustache—had just brilliantly led his new political party, the Nationalists, to overwhelming success in parliamentary elections, the country’s first attempt at democracy after two millennia of imperial rule. He was in line to become China’s first democratically elected prime minister, and to help draft a new constitution for the Republic of China.

[…] But an assassin’s bullet prevented him from trying. Armed with a Browning revolver, an unemployed ex-soldier in black military garb fired a single slug into his back and fled. Song was taken to a nearby hospital, where a bullet was removed from his abdomen. He knew death was near, and in the last political act of his life he dictated a telegram to his chief adversary, President Yuan Shikai […]: “I die with deep regret. I humbly hope that your Excellency will champion honesty, propagate justice, and promote democracy…”

Song died on March 22nd. China’s best chance of democracy may have died with him.

[…] But what if Song had lived? How close did China come to forging a democracy 100 years ago? Was Song’s dream of a liberal revolution doomed? How far did an assassin’s bullet change China’s destiny—just as the killing of Archduke Franz Ferdinand in Sarajevo soon afterwards changed Europe’s?

See more from The Economist’s special double issue at


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