The term that signifies "constitutional law" is of ancient origin in the Chinese language, and yet it denoted none of the Western ideas associated with modern Western constitutionalism. For the Chinese, constitutionalism was a Western import, dating back to the early nineteenth century. But the idea was not seriously assimilated until Japan established the first constitutional law in East Asia in 1889.
K'ang Yu-wei (1858–1927) was the leader of the Hundred Days of Reform, the movement for constitutional reform. He embraced the evolutionist view that constitutional change from monarchy to democracy was a historical necessity. His 1898 reform program, which included the creation of a parliament and the adoption of a constitution, was welcomed by the Emperor Kuang-hsü, (ruled 1875–1908), but its translation into practice was aborted by the coup d'état under the initiative of the Empress Dowager Tz'u-hsi (1835–1908).
Japan's victory in the war against the Russian Empire in 1905 demonstrated, in the eyes of the Chinese constitutional reformists, the victory of constitutionalism; this gave added momentum to the reception of the idea in China. The Ch'ing government drew up an "Outline of Constitution" modeled on the Japanese constitution, which never took effect, however, due to the 1911 revolution led by Sun Yat-sen (1866–1925) and the downfall of the Ch'ing dynasty. The Republic of China, established in 1912, promulgated a Provisional Constitution, the first modern constitution, modeled on the U.S. Constitution. Sun Yat-sen's Sanminzhuyi (1924; The three principles of the people)—the Principle of Nationalism, the Principle of Democracy, and the Principle of People's Livelihood—was inspired by Abraham Lincoln's (1809–1865) Gettysburg Address (1863), and his guiding principle of constitution-making known as the separation of five powers—the powers of administration, legislation, judiciary, examination, and impeachment, the last two being uniquely Chinese—was built upon Montesquieu's notion of the separation of powers.
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