March 1917: Revolution Breaks Out


The first two documents deal with the outbreak of the March Revolution from different vantage points: Petrograd and Heihe.


The democrats’ power has flared up, both army and navy have responded with preternatural speed, for the past few days factories have been occupied, prisoners freed, police disbanded, courts burnt. The various ministers have resigned and the entire city is in the hands of the people and the army. Twelve leaders of the Duma parties have established a Provisional Committee to maintain order, but the democratic socialist workers’ party is already clamouring for a republican provisional government and is preparing a secret ballot to elect ministers. It is said that the tsar will accede to the wishes of the people. Yesterday was the most critical, post and telegraph were blocked. Today the disorder has somewhat calmed, hence this special report.

Telegram from ambassador Liu Jingren in Russia, received 15 March 1917 (sent 14 March). Zhong-e guanxi shiliao, Minguo jiunian zhi banian (1917-1919). E zhengbian yu yiban jiaoshe (1), p. 49.

Ambassador Liu’s telegram was the first message received by the Foreign Ministry regarding the events of March. It was followed a few days later by this message from Bi Guifang:


According to the latest telegram from Heihe regimental commander E Shuangquan: ‘Regarding the revolutionary military uprising in Russia, the Russian monarch has abdicated. The opposite bank [i.e. Blagoveshchensk] saw no peace for the whole of last night, the ear was filled with a tumult of voices. Future developments to be reported further.’

This is a weighty matter. Ambassador Liu must have reported on this earlier. It is hard to tell what is accurate or not. If this is true, not only will the Allies be affected, it will also have a great influence on China’s own situation now with regard to Germany. Heilongjiang is directly adjacent to Russia, and with their internal disorder, our defences must naturally be on special alert. Apart from instructing commander E to observe and report in detail, I am conveying this secret news.

Telegram from Heilongjiang military governor Bi Guifang, 18 March 1917. Zhong-e guanxi shiliao, Minguo jiunian zhi banian (1917-1919). E zhengbian yu yiban jiaoshe (1), p. 52.

Several points stand out. First is the speed with which the reports were sent and received, not only directly from Petrograd to Beijing, but also from the border garrison at Heihe to Bi’s provincial seat at Qiqihar and only thence to Beijing. Up until the end of 1917 and the advent of the Civil War, provincial authorities and the Beijing government received a steady stream of reports, often extremely current, on the situation in Russia.

Second, Bi’s message shows concern about the immediacy of the March Revolution, both in terms of China’s diplomatic position regarding the wartime Alliance, as well as in terms of border security. When this message was written, China had not yet declared war on Germany – it would only do so on 14 August 1917 – but the pro-war faction was already in the ascendant. China had begun contributing labourers to the Allied war effort the year before, hoping to gain a favourable settlement at the post-war negotiating table. Just a week before the telegram, on 11 March 1917, the Chinese parliament voted in favour of Duan Qirui’s policy to sever relations with Germany.

What Bi is suggesting is unclear. He may or may not have belonged to Duan’s pro-war faction. but the telegram shows some breadth of vision that has not traditionally been ascribed to China’s post-1911 warlords.

Border security would prove to be an undying headache for both provincial and central authorities throughout the revolutionary and Civil War period. Whites, Reds, refugees both civilian and armed, nomads, Chinese returnees and radical provocateurs all sought to cross the lengthy Sino-Russian border, to say nothing of the Japanese troops and civilians who were soon to arrive in the region. Although Bi was unseated in summer 1917 by Zhang Zuolin’s warlord faction, his concerns were echoed by a succession of provincial officials. The contours of China’s approach to the disorder in Russia were already beginning to form.

One thought on “March 1917: Revolution Breaks Out

  1. Pingback: The November Revolution – Shots Across the Amur 黑龍江對岸的槍聲

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