Yuan Shikai

Yuan Shikai

[yyahn shee-kahy]

Yuan Shikai (Courtesy Weiting 慰亭; Pseudonym: Rong'an 容庵) (September 16, 1859June 6, 1916) was a Chinese military official and politician during the late Qing Dynasty and the early Republic of China.

He is known in Chinese culture for having played an important role in both the Qing Imperial Dynasty and the Republic of China.

He is known in Chinese history for his authoritarian control based on military dictatorship; a presidency with sweeping powers between 1912–1915; and his proclamation by democratic process as Emperor in 1916.

His stupendous political might and the preeminence of his personal qualities have remained a hotly debated subjects in popular culture, especially after the premiere of the controversial TV series Towards the Republic.

Birthplace and early years

Yuan Shikai was born in the village of Zhangying (張營村), Xiangcheng county (項城縣), Chenzhou prefecture (陳州府), Henan province. Chenzhou is now called Huaiyang (淮陽). The village of Zhangying is located immediately north of the centre of Xiangcheng.

The Yuan family later moved to a hilly area easier to defend, 16 kilometers southeast of Xiangcheng, and there the Yuans had built a fortified village, the village of Yuanzhai (袁寨村, literally "the fortified village of the Yuan family"). The village of Yuanzhai is now located inside Wangmingkou township (王明口鄉), on the territory of the county-level city of Xiangcheng. The large countryside estate of the Yuan family in Yuanzhai was recently opened to tourism by the People's Republic of China, and people inside China generally assume that Yuan Shikai was born in Yuanzhai.

As a young man he had enjoyed riding, boxing, and entertainment with friends. Yuan had wanted to pursue a career in civil services, but had failed twice in Imperial Examinations. He decided that his entry into politics would have to be done through the Army. Using his father's connections Yuan set foot in Tengzhou, Shandong and sought a post in the Qing Brigade. Yuan married first in 1876, to a woman of the Yu family, who bore him a first son, Keding (袁克定), in 1878. Yuan Shikai married 10 wives in his whole life.

Years in Korea

Korea in the late 1870s was in the midst of a struggle between isolationists under the king's father (Daewon-gun), and progressives, led by the queen (Empress Myeongseong), who had wanted to open trade with continued Chinese overlordship in Korea. Japan's new aggressive foreign policy had shown interest in the protectorate, and was an emerging power. Under the Treaty of Ganghwa, which the Koreans signed only with reluctance in 1876, Japan was allowed to send diplomatic missions to Seoul, and opened trading posts in Inchon and Wonsan. Amidst an internal power struggle, which resulted in the queen's exile, Li Hongzhang, the Viceroy of Zhili, sent the Qing Brigade, 3,000 strong, into Korea. The Korean regent was escorted to Tianjin, where he would be kept prisoner. Korea's weakness was apparent, and the Chemulpo Treaty of 1882 gave the Japanese the right to station troops in Seoul to protect their legation. China's protection alone could not shield Korea in an imperialist and fast-developing world, and it was obvious that Korea's army could not even deal with an internal crisis. The king issued a proposal to train 500 troops in the art of modern warfare, and Yuan Shikai was appointed to lead this task and was to remain in Korea. To the emperor, Li Hongzhang also recommended Yuan's promotion, and was approved shortly with Yuan's new rank as sub-prefect.

In 1885, Yuan was appointed Imperial Resident of Seoul with orders from the Imperial Throne. The position had seemed on the surface to be similar to that of a Minister or ambassador. In practice, however, Yuan, being the head official from the suzerain, had become the supreme adviser on all Korean government policies. Dissatisfied with its position in Korea, Japan had wanted more influence through co-suzerainty with China. A series of forged documents aimed at angering the Chinese was sent to Yuan Shikai, attempting to make it appear as if the Korean government had changed its stance towards Chinese protection, and turned more towards Russia. Yuan was skeptical yet outraged, and asked Li Hongzhang for advice.

In a treaty signed between Japan and China, the two parties agreed only to send troops into Korea after the other is notified. Although the Korean government was stable, it was still a protectorate of China, and forces emerged advocating modernization. Another more radicalised group, the Donghak Society, promoting an early nationalist doctrine based partly upon Confucianist and Taoist principles, rose in rebellion against the government, which Yuan longed to protect. Li Hongzhang sent troops into Korea to protect Seoul and China's interests, and Japan did the same under the pretext of protecting Japanese trading posts. Tensions boiled over between Japan and China when Japan refused to withdraw its forces and placed a blockade of sorts at the 38th Parallel. Li Hongzhang wanted at all costs to avoid a war with Japan, and attempted this by asking for international pressure for a Japanese withdrawal. Japan refused, and war began. Yuan, now in an ineffective position, was recalled to Tianjin in July 1894, at the beginning of the First Sino-Japanese War (甲午戰爭).

Late Qing Dynasty

Yuan Shikai rose to fame by participating in the First Sino-Japanese War as the commander of the Chinese stationary forces in Korea. He fortunately avoided the humiliation of Chinese armies in the war when he was recalled to Beijing several days before the Chinese forces were attacked.

As an ally of Li Hongzhang, Yuan was appointed the commander of the first New army in 1895. The Qing court relied heavily on his army due to the proximity of its garrison to the capital and its effectiveness. Of the new armies that were part of the Self-Strengthening Movement, Yuan's was the best trained and most effective.

The Qing Court at the time was divided between progressives under the leadership of the Guangxu Emperor, and conservatives under the Empress Dowager Cixi, who had temporarily retreated to the Summer Palace as a place of "retirement". After Guangxu's Hundred Days' Reform 1898, however, Cixi decided that the reforms were too drastic, and wanted to restore her own regency through a coup d'état. Plans of the coup spread early, and the Emperor was very aware of the plot. He asked reform advocates Kang Youwei, Tan Sitong and others to develop a plan to save him. Yuan's involvement in the coup continues to be a large topic of historical debate. Tan Sitong reportedly had a talk with Yuan several days before the coup, asking Yuan to assist the Emperor against Cixi. Yuan refused a direct answer, but insisted he was loyal to the Emperor. Meanwhile Manchu General Ronglu was planning manoeuvres for his army to stage the coup.

According to many sources, including the diary of Liang Qichao and a Wen Bao (文報) article, Yuan Shikai arrived in Tianjin on September 20, 1898, by train. It was certain that by the evening, Yuan had talked to Ronglu, but what was revealed to him remains ambiguous. Most historians suggest that Yuan had told Ronglu of all details of the Reformers' plans, and asked him to take immediate action. The plot being exposed, Ronglu's troops entered the Forbidden City at dawn on September 21, forcing the Emperor into seclusion in a lake palace.

Making a political alliance with the Empress Dowager, and becoming a lasting enemy of the Guangxu Emperor, Yuan left the capital in 1899 for his new appointment as Governor of Shandong. During his three-year tenure, he ensured the suppression of Boxers (義和團) in the province. He also left the foundation for a provincial junior college in Jinan, adopting some western ideas of education.

He was granted the position of Viceroy of Zhili (直隸總督) and Minister of Beiyang (北洋通商大臣), where the modern regions of Liaoning, Hebei, and Shandong provinces now are, on June 25, 1902. Gaining the regard of foreigners when he helped to crush the Boxer Rebellion, he successfully obtained numerous loans to expand his Beiyang Army into the most powerful army in China. He created a 1,000-strong police force to keep order in Tianjin, the first of its kind in Chinese history, after the Boxer Protocol had forbidden troops to be staged within a close proximity of Tianjin. Yuan was also involved in the transfer of Railway control from Sheng Xuanhuai (盛宣怀). Railways became a large part of his revenue. Yuan played an active role in late-Qing political reforms, including the creation of the Ministry of Education (學部) and Ministry of Police (巡警部). He further advocated for ethnic equality between Manchus and Han Chinese.

Retreat and return

The Empress Dowager and the Guangxu Emperor died within a day of each other in November 1908. Some sources indicate that the will of the Emperor had specifically ordered that Yuan be executed. Avoiding execution, in January 1909, Yuan Shikai was relieved of all his posts by the regent, the 2nd Prince Chun (醇親王). The official reason advanced was that he was returning to his home in the village of Huanshang (洹上村), located in the suburbs of Zhangde prefecture (彰德府), now called the prefecture-level city of Anyang (安陽市), Henan province, in order to treat a foot disease.

During his three years of retreat, Yuan kept contact with his close allies, including Duan Qirui, who reported to him regularly about army proceedings. The loyalty of the Beiyang Army was still undoubtedly behind him. Having this strategic military situation, Yuan actually held the balance of power between the revolutionaries and the Qing Court. Both wanted Yuan on their side. Initially deciding against the possibility of becoming President of a newly proclaimed Republic, Yuan also repeatedly declined offers from the Qing Court for his return, first as the Viceroy of Huguang, and then as Prime Minister of the Imperial Cabinet. Time was on Yuan's side, and Yuan waited, using his "foot ailment" as a pretext to his continual refusal. After further pleas by the Qing Court, Yuan agreed to accept, becoming Prime Minister on November 1, 1911. Immediately subsequent he asked that Zaifeng, the Regent, abstain from politics. Zaifeng, being forced to resign from his regency, made way for Yuan to compose a newly created, predominantly Han Chinese Cabinet of his confidants, consisting of only one Manchu, who held the position of Minister of Suzerainty.

The Wuchang Uprising and the Republic

The Wuchang Uprising succeeded on October 10, 1911 in Hubei province, before Yuan's official appointment to the post of Prime Minister. The southern provinces had subsequently declared their independence from the Qing Court, but neither the northern provinces nor the Beiyang Army had a clear stance for or against the rebellion. Both the Qing court and Yuan were fully aware that the Beiyang Army was the only Qing force powerful enough to quell the revolutionaries. The court renewed offers for Yuan's return on October 27, and Yuan eventually left his village for Beijing on October 30. To further reward Yuan's loyalty to the court, the Empress Dowager Longyu offered Yuan the noble title Marquis of the First Rank (一等侯), an honour only previously given to General Zeng Guofan. While continuing his demands, ensuring temporary political stability in Beijing, his forces captured Hankou and Hanyang in November 1911 in preparation for attacking Wuchang, thus forcing the republican revolutionaries to negotiate.

Abdication of the child emperor

The revolutionaries had elected Sun Yat-Sen as the first Provisional President of the Republic of China, but they were in a weak position militarily, so they reluctantly compromised with Yuan. Yuan fulfilled his promise to the revolutionaries and arranged for the abdication of the child emperor Puyi (or Xuantong Emperor) in return for being granted the position of the President of the Republic, replacing Sun. Yuan would not himself be present when the Abdication edict was issued by Empress Dowager Longyu, on February 12, 1912. Sun agreed to Yuan's presidency after internal bickerings, but asked that the capital be situated in Nanjing. Yuan, however, wanted his advantage geographically. Cao Kun, one of his entrusted subordinate Beiyang military commanders, fabricated a coup d'état in Beijing and Tianjin, apparently under Yuan's orders, to provide an excuse for Yuan not to leave his sphere of influence in Zhili (present-day Hebei province). The revolutionaries compromised again, and the capital of the new republic was established in Beijing. Yuan Shikai was elected Provisional President on February 14, 1912, by the Nanjing Provisional Senate, and sworn in on March 10.

Democratic elections

In February 1913, democratic elections were held for the National Assembly in which the Chinese Nationalist Party or the Kuomintang (KMT) scored a significant victory. Song Jiaoren, deputy in the KMT to Sun Yat-sen, zealously supported a cabinet system and was widely regarded as a candidate for Prime Minister. Yuan viewed Song as a threat to his authority and, after Song's assassination on March 20 1913 by Ying Kuicheng, there was speculation in the media that Yuan was responsible.

Becoming Emperor

Tensions between the Kuomintang and Yuan continued to intensify. Yuan's crackdown on the Kuomintang began in 1913, beginning with the suppression and bribery of the KMT members in the two legislative chambers, followed by an orchestrated collapse of the KMT from local organizations.

Second revolution

Seeing the situation worsen, Sun Yat-sen fled to Japan, and called for a Second Revolution, against Yuan. Subsequently Yuan gradually took over the government with support base from his military power. He dissolved both the national and provincial assemblies, replacing the House of Representatives and Senate with the newly formed "Council of State", with Duan Qirui, his trusted Beiyang lieutenant, as Prime Minister.

The Kuomintang's "Second Revolution" against Yuan ended in disastrous failure, as Yuan's military might on all sides zeroed in on the remnants of KMT forces. Provincial governors with KMT loyalties were bribed or submitted willingly to Yuan. After his victory, Yuan reorganized the provincial governments, its head now being a Military Governor (都督), replacing the civil governorship, where each governor had control of his own army. It laid the first foundations for warlordism that crippled China for the next two decades.

Japan's twenty-one demands

In 1915, Japan sent a secret ultimatum known as the Twenty-One Demands to Beijing. When word leaked out that Yuan had agreed to some of the provisions, mass protests sprang up as well as a boycott of Japanese goods. Western pressure forced Japan to back down on its demands.

Revival of the monarchy

With his power secure, many of Yuan's supporters, notably monarchist Yang Du, advocated for a revival of the monarchy, asking Yuan to take on the title of Emperor. Yang reasoned that the Chinese masses had long been used to autocratic rule, and a Republic had only been effective in a transitional phase to end Manchu rule. China's situation longed for stability that only a monarchy would ensure. American political scientist Frank Johnson Goodnow, as well as the Imperial Government of Japan, suggested similar ideas. Yuan held a carefully selected political convention which unanimously endorsed monarchy on November 20, 1915. By December 12, he proclaimed his reign as Emperor of the Chinese Empire (中華帝國大皇帝) under the era name of Hongxian (洪憲; i.e. Constitutional Abundance) to begin on January 1, 1916. But on December 25, Yunnan's military governor, Cai E, rebelled and several provinces followed. Seeing his weakness and unpopularity, foreign powers, including Japan, withdrew their support.

Monarchy abandoned and death

Faced with universal opposition, Yuan repeatedly delayed the accession rite to appease his foes. Funding for the ceremony was cut on March 1 and he abandoned monarchism on March 22. This was not enough for his enemies as they called for his resignation as president. More provinces rebelled until Yuan died, humiliated, from uremia on June 5. His death was announced the following day. His remains were moved to his home province and placed in a mausoleum built to resemble Grant's Tomb . In 1928, the tomb was looted by Feng Yuxiang's Guominjun soldiers during the Northern Expedition. He had three sons: Prince Yuan Keding, who was handicapped; Prince Yuan Kewen, who was said by his father to be a 'fake scholar', and Prince Yuan Keliang, whom Yuan Shikai called a "bandit".

Evaluation and legacy

With Yuan's death, China was left without any generally recognized central authority and the army quickly fragmented into forces of combating warlords. For this reason he is usually called the Father of the Warlords.

However, it is not accurate to attribute other characteristics of warlordism as his preference, since in his career as a military reformer he had attempted to create a modern army based on the Japanese model.

Throughout his lifetime, he demonstrated understanding of how staff work, military education, and regular transfers of officer personnel came together to make a modern military organisation. After his return to power in 1911, however, he seemed willing to sacrifice this ideal in his imperial ambitions, and instead ruled by a combination of violence and bribery that destroyed the idealism of the early Republican movement.

Since those who opposed Yuan could do so only from a territorial military base, Yuan's career as president and emperor contributed greatly to China's subsequent political division.

In the CCTV Production Towards the Republic, Yuan is portrayed through most of his early years as an able administrator, although a very skilled manipulator of political situations. His self-proclamation of Emperor was seen as largely under the influence of external forces, such as his son, prince Yuan Keding.

Yuan's grandson, Luke Chia-Liu Yuan, was a Chinese-American physicist. Another descendant of Yuan is his great-grandson, Li-Young Lee, a Chinese-American writer and poet.

See also



  • Chen, Jerome. "Yuan Shih-K'ai; 1859-1916". George Allen & Unwin Ltd: Liverpool, 1961.
  • Spence, Jonathan D. "The New Republic." In "The Search for Modern China". 282. New York, NY: W.W. Norton & Company, 1999

External links

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