Humiliated and shaken by the depredations of the imperialist nations, early twentieth-century Chinese leaders sought the establishment of a strong nation-state. Bitter struggles over the means to reach that goal—primarily over the distribution of political power—ended in the demise of the Ch'ing, the defeat of Yuan Shih-k'ai, and the turmoil of the “warlord” period. After Yuan's death in 1916, the dispute over distribution of power thrust into serious consideration the model of a federation for building a nation out of China's disparate regions and interests. Some felt that a federation was perhaps a more effective integrating form than the centralized bureaucratic model the late Ch'ing and Yuan Shih-k'ai had supported. The debate was not new in China. However, during the empire, proponents of centralization (chün-hsien) and decentralization (feng-chien) had been concerned with finding the form that would produce the greatest stability and administrative efficiency; now the Chinese were obsessed with the issue for life-and-death reasons. 2 Rapid national integration seemed imperative for China's survival. In 1901, Liang Ch'i-ch'ao had discussed the possibilities of a Chinese federation; 3 but, until 1916, federalism was effectively submerged by the centralizers. Amid increasing turmoil after Yuan's death, federalism seemed to provide an answer to chaotic instability.

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