After the founding of the Republic of China (ROC), new culture spread in the absence of the imperial system, and Chinese social life and customs slowly transformed. Longstanding traditions, such as men keeping long braids, women bidding feet, arranged marriages, and child brides were gradually abandoned. Intellectuals pioneered reforming “backward” traditions and advocated for freedom of marriage, monogamy, and a more open society. In the early years of the ROC, women were admitted to Peking University (北京大學). There were waves of campaigns for gender equality and women’s right. Social etiquette also changed: kowtowing was replaced with bowing, and traditional titles such as “lord” were replaced with “mister”, etc. However, millennia-old traditions could not be changed overnight. The Nationalist Government banned gambling, opium smoking, and concubinage, but these practices persisted for some time.
As Chinese and Western cultures continued to interact, an interesting scene of Sino-Western integration materialised. With respect to dining, Chinese and Western cuisines served with both chopsticks and forks and knives existed; restaurants, cafes, and tea houses coexisted. In terms of clothing, some men wore suits while some wore long gowns, Chinese jackets, or Chinese tunic suits, while for women, the Chinese qipao (旗袍, a Chinese dress worn by women which takes inspiration from the ethnic clothing of the Manchu people) remained popular for a long time. In big cities, tall buildings rose from the ground. The rich had houses equipped with Western toilets, kitchens, and balconies, while villages retained small wooden or stone houses. On the city streets, automobiles, streetcars, rickshaws, trolleys, and street vendors vied for space. During that period, new banks emerged to rival traditional pawnshops. Night clubs and social dancing were introduced, but traditional opium and mahjong parlours still prevailed.
Looking back on the ROC’s short lifespan, we can see how it was relatively easy to overthrow a regime through revolution, but harder to overturn millennia-old customs and traditions. Besides, many traditions passed down by the ancestors had their merits. When it comes to social transformation, it is important not to throw away the champagne with the cork.
During the Republican period, although bowing replaced kowtowing in many specific occasions, the latter remained relatively popular in general. Left: participants bowing instead of kowtowing at a sacrificial ceremony in Yang Village (楊村), Hebei Province (河北). Right: a child of a wealthy family in Beijing (北京) kowtowing to show respect for his elders and ancestors.
During the Republican period, civilians continued to fully observe traditional Chinese festivals. The photos show firecrackers bursting during Lunar New Year and dragon boat racing during the Dragon Boat Festival.
Western festivals, although only for minority interests, gained popularity in China. Left: students at Lingnan University (嶺南大學) in Guangzhou (廣州) celebrating Christmas in 1925. Right: a 1944 Christmas card with the photo of a National Revolutionary Army soldier.
During the Republican period, an increasing number of Chinese people embraced Western religions, but traditional beliefs retained dominance. Left: believers praying and drawing divination sticks at a temple in the 1920s. Right: a Catholic Church in Weihaiwei (威海衛), Shandong Province (山東), holding a ceremony in 1931.
Girls during the Republican period: a middle school girls’ basketball team (left) and a girl with her feet bound selling pillows (right). Girls’ enrollment in schools increased significantly with women’s rising status during the Republican period. However, certain crude customs remained, such as foot binding and child brides. Girls were also much more likely to drop out of school than boys.
Both Western and traditional Chinese weddings were held during the Republican period.
A Republican-period Western dinner party, demonstrating the gradual integration of Western culture into Chinese life.
Left: an aerial view of traditional houses in Gubeikou Town (古北口鎮), Miyun County (密雲縣), Beijing, in the 1920s. Right: Western buildings on Liugong Island (劉公島), Shandong in the 1930s. Chinese and Western buildings coexisted in the Republican era.
The urban-rural contrast in the 1930s: the prosperous Shanghai (上海, left) and the working farmers in a village in Hunan Province (湖南, right). During the Republican period, over 90 per cent of the Chinese population was farmers, most of which were far removed from modern life. The huge urban-rural gap was an important factor contributing to the Nationalist Government losing the Chinese mainland.
Women smoking opium and a gambling house during the Republican period. Although opium and gambling were officially banned by the Nationalist Government, and campaigned against by the people, these two social ills could not be eradicated.
Source of most photos used in this feature piece: Fotoe.