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Constitutionalism Across Asia: Iran and China

Constitutionalism Across Asia: Iran and China

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This article adapts some material from the author’s dissertation, “China and the Iranian Left: Transnational Networks of Social, Cultural, and Ideological Exchange, 1905-1979.”


The Iranian Constitutional revolution of 1906 did not develop in isolation as an event unique to Iran.  Rather, it was one of several constitutional movements in the east and west Asia that developed in countries with shared experiences of anti-colonial nationalism and technological changes.  An examination of constitutionalism across Asia, and the connections between the Iranian and Chinese Constitutional Revolutions in particular, can provide new insights into this fundamentally important event in Iranian history.

The positive reception of the 1906 Iranian Constitution in China, which preceded the 1912 Provisional Constitution of the Republic of China by seven years, highlights the imagined global community of Asian constitutional states that existed in the minds of many intellectuals from Tehran to Shanghai. It also emphasizes the extent to which technological changes came to connect the world in new ways that transformed people’s political and personal identities. It gives us a fuller, more vibrant picture of how intellectuals across Asia conceived of the world and their place in it and highlights the deep connections between Iranian history and international history.

Origins of Asian Constitutionalism

Throughout Asia, constitutionalism emerged as a reaction to the series of challenges and disruptions brought about by the expansion of European colonialism. At the same time, new transportation and communications technologies expanded access to information about the rest of the world. Steamships, railroads, and newspapers facilitated new forms of political and intellectual contact in the context of a common search for modernity in the face of what Nile Green calls ‘European-dominated globalization’. 

New modes of transportation made travel and commercial exchange easier than ever before, but also facilitated the expansion of colonial exploitation. Great Powers like Russia and Britain were eager to provide support for infrastructure projects in exchange for near-complete control over critical natural resources, and cash-strapped courts in Iran and China were equally eager to accept. In Iran, attempts to build a trans-Iranian railroad system led to the Reuter Concession, which would have given a British industrialist the right to exploit most of Iran’s natural resources and control its future industrial and financial policy. Even staunch proponents of imperialism like Lord Curzon were forced to admit that it was “the most complete and extraordinary surrender of the entire industrial resources of a kingdom into foreign hands that has ever been dreamt of.” Public outrage led to the cancellation of Baron Reuter’s proposed hostile takeover, but future concessions to European powers left the Qajar court in Iran weakened and unable to carry out necessary reforms despite a concerted policy of defensive modernization. Later proposals, such as the Tobacco Concession, triggered protests that brought together different social and political groups and helped to lay the groundwork for the Constitutional Revolution. 

Similar patterns prevailed in China, where railroads were developed by British, French, German, and other European powers with commercial interests in China. Colonial states carved out special enclaves on Chinese territory where “extraterritoriality” granted them the rights to govern themselves with no regard to Chinese laws, and often extorted these rights with military operations. After Britain forced the Chinese state to accept humiliating terms after the First Opium War, other European powers followed suit and demanded rights and “treaty ports” of their own. These “Unequal Treaties” occupied a similar space in the minds of Chinese nationalists as the Treaty of Turkmanchay did for Iranians.  Attempts to reform government and industry by proponents of the Self-Strengthening Movement achieved some success, but not enough to stave off revolution in 1911. In both China and Iran, opposition to the government coalesced around opposition to the expansion of European colonialism and the political and material exploitation of the nation. 

Communication technologies also played a key role in the spread of constitutionalism. The rise of print culture quickly led to the spread of constitutionalist newspapers in both Iran and China. Newspapers became an important medium not only for propagating ideas about reform and revolution, but also as a source for the creation and contestation of modern notions of national identity. In Tehran, newspapers like Ṣūr-e Esrāfīl and Ḥabl al-matīn criticized the monarchy and brought news from the outside world for as long as they could evade government censorship. In Shanghai, papers like Shen Bao went through a process of gradually changing hands from European to Chinese ownership and became vocal proponents of constitutionalism and democracy in the process. Although literacy was low in both countries, print culture still trickled down to popular audiences through lectures and public recitations at universities, coffee shops, and street corners.

Finally, telegraph networks allowed for nearly instant communication across vast distances. The first large-scale international telegraph network that connected Iran to the rest of the world was the Indo-European telegraph line, which was completed by a consortium of German, British, and Russian industrialists in 1865. This line could send a message from London to Tehran in less than a minute, and to Calcutta in just under half an hour. It was linked to China by a series of telegraph networks owned by British, Russian, and Dutch colonial interests, all of whom competed over the Chinese telegraphy market. That level of speed allowed day-to-day updates about news in faraway places to travel in ways that were previously impossible. The combination of telegraphs and newspapers allowed for news of protests, constitutional demands, and reforms to travel quickly, and crucially for our story, it allowed for literate Iranians and Chinese citizens to follow the day-to-day events in foreign countries for the first time. It was no surprise, then, that the Iranian Constitutional Revolution captured the attention and imagination of Chinese constitutionalists in 1905, at a time when they were actively campaigning for a constitution of their own.

The Chinese and Iranian Constitutional Revolutions

In China, the first real concessions to the constitutional movement came under Empress Dowager Cixi (1835-1908), who began exploring the idea of a provisional national assembly in 1905. That same year, several other landmark reforms were announced, such as abolishing the traditional Chinese civil servant examination system, one of the main symbols of traditional authority left in the Empire. Despite these commitments, the assembly did not meet until 1909, a year after her death. In a classic case of “too little, too late,” it did not have time to achieve much before the Xinhai Revolution overthrew the Qing state in 1911.

The revolution itself was both planned and spontaneous. A previously obscure group known as the Tóngménghuì (同盟会, Revolutionary Alliance) attempted to instigate numerous uprisings, but all were either quickly defeated or never got off the ground. The alliance consisted of a loose affiliation of nationalist forces and revolutionary parties. Founded in Tokyo in 1905, it was a merger of multiple revolutionary currents led by prominent republicans like Song Jiaoren (1882-1913), Cai Yuanpei (1868-1940), Huang Xing (1874-1916), and Sun Yat-sen (1866-1925), among others. When the Wuchang Uprising broke out on October 10th, 1911, the Revolutionary Alliance had nothing to do with the planning; instead, it grew out of widespread unrest surrounding the Railway Protection Movement. The Revolutionary Alliance seized the moment and, riding on a wave of discontent and enthusiasm for a new, modern China, toppled the Qing government with immense popular support. After the fall of the Qing, the Alliance transformed into a fully-fledged nationalist political party, the Zhōngguó Guómíndǎng (中國國民黨, Chinese Nationalist Party). Sun Yat-sen was elected provisional president of the newly declared Republic of China. Sun’s role in this history earned him the title of guófù (國父), “Father of the Chinese Nation,” in the traditional historiography, although he and his group of elite professional revolutionaries were but one of several factors that brought about the fall of the Qing.

This constitutional assembly did not last long, as military strongmen quickly dominated it. General Yuan Shikai (1881-1916) briefly resurrected the threat of a return to imperial authority and autocracy when he declared himself the “Grand Constitutional Emperor” in 1916, which only caused opposition to coalesce against him. After only 83 days, he abdicated the throne and died three months later of sickness. This debacle permanently damaged central authority, and the following decade saw the rise of regional powers, which undercut both the influence and the prestige of the fledgling Republic. The Nationalists continued to maintain some authority around Nanjing and claimed to be the rightful Chinese government, but provincial leaders mostly amassed power for themselves. While some enacted reform policies and military modernization that the Central government had been unable to accomplish, others ruled with an iron fist. The decline of central authority continued until the Nationalists launched the Northern Expeditions (1927-1928) under General Chiang Kai-shek (1887-1975). Despite its failures, historians consider the constitutional revolution as the beginning of modern China. It heralded the end of the thousands of years of imperial administration and ushered in a new era of political change and economic development.

There were several notable similarities between the Iranian Constitutional Revolution and the Xinhai Revolution, which occurred in roughly the same time frame. A weak Qājār monarchy, thoroughly penetrated and exploited by European imperial powers, gave rise to reformist sentiment. Phrases like ʿadālat (justice) and hoqūq-e mellat (rights of the people) emerged and adapted traditional ideas into a modern political vocabulary. In addition to elite reformers, popular preachers and the bazaari class (merchants and market workers) also called for reform based on material and moral complaints against the encroachment of European economic and cultural influence. While older historiography centered on this unusual alliance of liberals, merchants, and religious leaders, newer works have added an appreciation for the multitude of groups, including women and religious and ethnic minorities, who contributed to the movement. Constitutionalism was supported by an explosion in the output and influence of print culture, much as it was in China.

The move towards constitutionalism in Iran was also spurred by the outbreak of widespread government protests. The precipitating event occurred on December 12th, 1905, when the government-appointed Imam in Tehran attempted to expel a fellow preacher who supported the grievances of local sugar merchants. Amid a sermon that exhorted the government to follow “the law” (qānūn), guards with clubs dispersed the crowd and arrested the Imam. The incident sparked protests centered on a shrine south of Tehran that soon spread to Qom and other cities. The idea of mashrūteh (a neologism for “constitution” derived from the word for “conditional,” or to place conditions on the power of the sovereign) became a kind of catch-all solution to the many grievances of Iran’s various social classes. On August 10, 1906, the embattled Mozaffar ad-Din Shah had no choice but to agree to convene a parliament (Majles) to appease the uprising. Remarkably, the first Majles convened less than two months later on October 7, 1906.

The Iranian constitution was painstakingly drawn up and debated, but the fledgling movement soon “ran counter to a royalist front that, backed by imperial Russia, aimed to reassert the power of an autocratic Qājār shah in power and preserve the privileges of the ruling elite.” Disputes between the clergy and supporters of the new constitution over the limits of its authority also spurred a conservative religious backlash. Many of these new opponents had initially supported the constitutionalists, like Sheikh Fazlollāh Nuri (1843-1909). After a failed assassination attempt in February 1908, Mohammad Ali Shah (r.1907-1909), crowned shortly after the constitution was put into effect, took his Russian advisors and royalist supporters’ advice and moved against the Majles with the aid of the Russian Cossacks. Royalists and constitutionalists quickly chose sides, and different causes coalesced around either issue. Unrest in Tabriz spilled over into a civil revolt led by tribal leaders like Sattar Khān (1866-1914) and Bāqer Khān (1870-1916), and the Russian government, fearful of a revival of revolutionary politics in the Caucasus, occupied the city in 1909.

A faction of the Bakhtiari tribe of central and southwestern Iran came to their rescue; led by ʿAli-Qoli Khan Sardar Asʾad (1856-1917), a hastily raised army captured Tehran on July 13th, 1909. The victors deposed Mohammad Ali Shah in favor of his 11-year-old son, Ahmad Shah Qājār. These events were closely followed in the international press, especially in Britain, where there was some public sympathy for the constitutionalists. The second Majles was challenged by factionalism, hostile foreign powers, and all the financial and political problems of the Qājār state. Russia engineered a conflict over the confirmation of American financial advisor Morgan Shuster, and in “a rare expression of international bullying” occupied nearly all of northern Iran in 1912. A third attempt to convene parliament was made in 1915, but it quickly dissolved due to a lack of support. The outbreak of World War I and persistent civil disorder in the following years made the constitutional government question mostly moot. When state authority was restored under Reza Khan (r. 1925-41) in the 1920s, he substantially curtailed the power of the Majles. Despite its failures, the constitutional movement succeeded in altering Iran’s social and political fabric and paving the way for later reforms and modernization efforts.

Constitutional Revolutions Across Asia

These two revolutions were part of a global trend of revolutionary politics that swept the globe at the turn of the 20th century. By the early 1900s, there were anti-colonial constitutional movements in Japan, Turkey, Mexico, Egypt, India, Vietnam, Indonesia, and beyond. Mishra Pankaj has argued that modern Asia’s political elites were united by a shared experience of domination by the West. These men “travelled and wrote prolifically, restlessly assessing their own and other societies, pondering the corruption of power, the decay of community, the loss of political legitimacy and the temptations of the West. Their passionate enquiries appear in retrospect as a single thread, weaving seemingly disparate events and regions into a single web of meaning.” Although they lived in different societies, sometimes oceans apart, the new networks of European globalization enabled them to inhabit a single imagined world of colonized people. 

From the Indian Mutiny to the revolutions in Persia and Turkey and the Russo-Japanese War, the elites of early modern Asia were deeply emotionally invested in the fate of constitutional movements worldwide. Pankaj’s study provides ample evidence of this imagined interconnectedness. For him, a decisive moment is the Japanese victory over Russia in the 1905 Russo-Japanese War. The significance of this victory lay in the identities of the combatants: “For the first time since the Middle Ages, a non-European country had vanquished a European power in a major war; and the news careened around a world that Western imperialists – and the invention of the telegraph – had closely knit together.” In Persian, Vietnamese, Chinese, and Indian newspapers, the Japanese victory and its implications were hotly debated. There is no shortage of familiar faces professing admiration for one another in painstakingly excavated sources:

Lord Curzon…feared that ‘the reverberations of that victory have gone like a thunderclap through the whispering galleries of the East’ … Mohandas Gandhi (1869 – 1948), who predicted ‘so far and wide have the roots of Japanese victory spread that we cannot now visualize all the fruit it will put forth’…In Damascus, Mustafa Kemal, a young Ottoman soldier later known as Atatürk (1881 – 1938), was ecstatic… Reading the newspapers in his provincial town, the sixteen-year-old Jawaharlal Nehru (1889 – 1964), later India’s first prime minister, had excitedly followed the early stages of Japan’s war with Russia, fantasizing about his own role in ‘Indian freedom and Asiatic freedom from the thralldom of Europe’…Newborn babies in Indian villages were named after Japanese admirals…In the United States, the African-American leader W. E. B. Du Bois (1868-1963) spoke of a worldwide eruption of ‘colored pride’…

The impact of the Japanese victory was especially strong in China. Mao Zedong (1893-1976), then a schoolboy, later said, “At that time, I knew and felt the beauty of Japan, and felt something of her pride…” Sun-Yatsen was traveling back to China via the Suez Canal in Egypt when the news broke, and Arab dock workers who mistook him for Japanese offered their congratulations. Later, he wrote of the Japanese victory:

Men thought and believed that European civilization was a progressive one – in science, industry, manufacture, and armament – and that Asia had nothing to compare with it. Consequently, they assumed that Asia could never resist Europe, that European oppression could never be shaken off. Such was the idea prevailing thirty years ago.

All around the world, Asian commentators were reading their struggles through the lens of the experience of other Asians. Jamāl al-Dīn al-Afghānī (1838-1897), a radical anti-colonial Muslim thinker whose journey of dissent took him from India, Iran, Egypt, and the Ottoman Empire, wrote of the Muslim condition in 1896:What an affliction! What kind of situation is this? What kind of adversity is this? England has occupied Egypt, the Sudan and the great Indian Peninsula which are large parts of the Islamic states; the French have taken possession of Morocco, Tunisia and Algeria; the Netherlands have become a despotic ruler of Java and the Oceanic islands; Russia has captured West Turkistan, the large cities of Transoxiana, Caucasia and Daghestan; China has taken East Turkistan. Not more than a few Islamic countries, which are also in great danger, have remained independent.

Throughout Asia, intellectuals were exchanging ideas and information. Often indirectly, they learned of each other through newspapers and filtered the global through the lens of their own experiences. They were connected through a discourse of anti-colonial revolution and followed an international narrative of events hotly debated in periodicals from Syria to Shanghai. Given this context, it is hardly surprising that commentators in China took notice when the Iranian constitutional revolution broke out. 

Chinese constitutionalists read events in Persia through the prism of their own political movement. Yidan Wang has reviewed the attitude of Chinese intellectuals towards the Iranian Constitutional Revolution in three influential magazines from the period: Dongfang Zazhi (Eastern Miscellany), Zhengyi Tongbao (the Journal of Politics and Art), and Minbao (People’s Report), the latter of which was the official journal of Sun Yat-sen. He finds that Chinese authors were extremely sympathetic towards the constitutional movement and projected their own hopes for China onto the Iranian situation. One author perceived attempts to educate the young Ahmad Shah with a “progressive and extensive [education], instead of a limited and traditional stick-in-the-mud one” as indicative of the “progressive education policy of the new constitutional government.” His analysis reflected the widespread concern in China with reforming the education system, which was based on learning Confucian classics to pass the traditional civil servant examination. The Qing court had only recently attempted to incorporate more practical courses in science, military affairs, and modern politics. Europe remained an essential source of articles and arguments, but these were also deployed in ways that furthered the anti-imperial cause; for example, in 1912, Qian Zhixiu translated an article by Edward Browne that blamed Russian and British aggression for the failure of the constitutional movement. 

These early narratives of Sino-Iranian solidarity reflect a growing tradition of internationalism and Pan-Asianism in Chinese political discourse. More and more, Chinese intellectuals were comparing the situation in China to other Asian countries. Sun Yat-sen himself took Iran into account in his understanding of Pan-Asian solidarity. In a speech at the Kobe Women’s College on November 23, 1924 before the Kobe Chamber of Commerce, Dr. Sun laid out his vision for what he calls “the doctrine of Pan-Asianism.” Drawing on Japanese discourses, he sketches out a historical narrative centered on the subjugation of Asian peoples to European colonial states. The crucial question for Sun was how to stand up to Europe; his answer was military power. For this reason, Sun views Iran as one of multiple countries to be admired and emulated: “at present, Persia, Afghanistan, and Arabia are also striving hard to adopt European culture and improve their armaments.” He integrates Iran, the Arab world, and the rest of Asia into a single political order based on resistance to European domination. What is most striking is that these foreign “others” (Arabs and Persians) are configured as part of the same in-group as the Chinese, one defined by experience with colonization.

Despite this interest, Chinese knowledge about Iran was still minimal. The same authors who claimed to be inspired by the Iranian example praised the Shah’s reliance on foreign advisors, a perennial complaint of Iranian constitutionalists. There was little understanding of the constitutional revolution beyond the barest outline of its events.  It was more the promise, the idea of a successful constitutional movement in Iran that was important and inspiring, rather than the specific politics of its advocates. The words of Wang Jingwei, a faithful and enthusiastic follower of Sun Yat-sen, demonstrate the essential point of Sino-Iranian solidarity for Chinese constitutionalists: “Enthusiasm for revolution is found today everywhere in the world…Now is the time for us to show determination and to rouse ourselves…this is what the Persian Revolution has taught us.”


From steamships to railroads, to newspapers and telegraphs, European capital sought to create an interconnected flow of goods and information, although this was neither altruistic nor without a heavy price. The concessions extracted by Britain, Russia, and other colonial powers helped spur a generation of Asian elites who rejected those unequal arrangements and strove to overcome Europe by assimilating the best of what it had to offer into their own cultures. For many, constitutionalism and participatory democracy offered the key to national renewal.

Abdul Hairi has demonstrated that the Iranian constitutional movement should be considered “an extension of a widespread constitutional development then taking place in many parts of the world.” He argues that this awareness of the Ottoman, Egyptian, Japanese, Indian, and Chinese experiences made constitution a logical choice for Iranian politicians. Iranians certainly followed events like the Sino-Japanese War and the Russo-Japanese War, and were part of the same global Asian networks of information that included the likes of Sun Yat-sen, Jamāl al-Dīn al-Afghānī, and Liang Qichao. Some even traveled to China, including Mehdi Qolī Hedāyat and Amīn al-Sulṭān, who visited with six companions in 1903. Moḥammad-ʿAli Sayyāḥ (d. 1925), a liberal constitutionalist, also visited China, although he did not leave a record of his travels. Iranian Constitutional-era papers carried small articles about events in China, including the Calcutta-based Ḥabl al-matīn, which had a regular section that summarized news from China and Europe. 

Examining constitutional movements across Asia, rather than in a more regional context or in comparison with Europe, is an important exercise which adds much to our knowledge of Iranian history and society. It allows us to de-provincialize Iranian history and move us towards an understanding of where Iran belongs in a truly global history of the twentieth century. It demonstrates how the institutions, politics, and ideologies of modern Iran did not develop in a vacuum but were deeply connected to the global flow of people, ideas, and institutions. These connections linked Iran not only to Europe and nearby nations, but to an imagined international community of Asian states.

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Bill Figueroa is an assistant professor of history and international relations at the University of Groningen. Before this role, he was a postdoctoral research associate at the University of Cambridge Centre for Geopolitics. He holds a Ph.D. in History and a Masters in East Asian Studies from the University of Pennsylvania, as well as a BA in Anthropology and Asian Studies from Rice University. His research focuses on China in the Middle East and Sino-Iranian relations. 

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