Yuan Shikai poses with American military and diplomatic representatives on the day of US recognition of the Republic of China.
Born in 1859, Yuan Shikai was part of a relatively affluent clan in Xiangcheng, Henan province. He was never a good student, but he excelled in physical activity; after twice failing the imperial examinations necessary to become a civil servant, he chose a military career. His father’s connections helped secure him a post in the Qing brigade of Anhui army, commanded by Li Hongzhang. In 1882, the brigade was sent to Korea to prevent Japanese encroachment in the region. As Li’s protégé, Yuan proved himself during more than a decade’s service in Korea, serving as Chinese commissioner in Seoul until just before the outbreak of the Sino-Japanese War (1894-95).
After that conflict, Yuan became the officer most responsible for building the Chinese military back up after its humiliating defeat by Japan. Along with other conservative military leaders, he helped the Empress Dowager Cixi regain effective power from her nephew, the young Emperor Guangxu, after he tried to institute a number of progressive reforms in 1898. With Cixi’s support, Yuan gained more and more power and influence. While the Boxer Rebellion of 1900—in which large groups of ordinary Chinese organized violent protests against foreigners in China, Westernized Chinese and especially Chinese Christians—again weakened the military, Yuan’s division emerged intact. In 1901, Yuan was named viceroy of Zhili, the region surrounding Beijing; he later became a grand councilor.
Cixi and Guangxu died within a day of each other in 1908, and Yuan’s opponents (including the regent of the new emperor, Puyi, who was still an infant) took the opportunity to get rid of him. Stripping him of his offices, they sent him home to Henan province. But when revolution broke out in October 1911, and regional elites throughout China rose up against the imperial dynasty, Qing rulers called Yuan back to the capital again. As prime minister and head of the Qing army, Yuan had commanded his forces into the rebel-controlled city of Wuhan by December 1911, forcing the leaders of the revolution to negotiate.
Sun Yat-sen, the leader of the Revolutionary Alliance, had been in the United States raising money for the cause when the revolution broke out. He returned to China by Christmas, and was named provisional president of the Republic of China, based in Nanjing. Entrusted with full power by the Qing court, Yuan Shikai made a deal with the revolutionaries. In February 1912, he convinced Longyu, the mother of the young emperor, that the only way to save the lives of the imperial family was to issue a proclamation in support of the republican government. She did so on February 12, abdicating on behalf of 6-year-old emperor Puyi and ending more than 2,000 years of imperial rule in China. A day later, according to the agreement, Sun resigned, and Yuan Shikai became the first president of the Republic of China.
Yuan Shikai assumed the presidency in February of 1912. He had the support of his own Beiyang Army – China’s strongest – in the north and a deal with the National Alliance in the south. He was to rule China, more or less, until his death in 1916. The constitutional basis for Yuan’s rule came from his selection as premier by the Qing’s recently founded National Assembly and the official abdication of the Qing. The government of the southern revolutionaries also recognized Yuan, anticipating a republican political system in which they could lay claims to power as well. The new Republic adopted a five-color flag, representing the Han, Manchu, Mongol, Tibetan, and Hui (Muslim) nationalities, and it used the Western solar calendar. Time was reset. The years were to be counted not in reign periods, nor from the birth of Confucius or the Yellow Emperor, nor yet from the birth of Christ – but from the founding of the Republic itself. Year One had begun.
The new Republic claimed the mantles of both modernity and nationalism. Men cut their queues (or had them cut forcibly); more slowly, women unbound their feet. For city residents, handshaking began to replace – or supplement – bowing. Yet republican political institutions did not take root.
The revolution certainly overthrew the Qing and the entire monarchical system. Yet it is worth noting that the Qing court itself was not literally destroyed; the imperial family was not executed. When the Dowager Empress (Guangxu’s widow), speaking on behalf of the infant emperor Puyi, signed the abdication agreement recognizing Yuan as premier, this was part of a deal allowing the court temporarily to remain in the Forbidden City and receive an allowance from the new government. Yuan took up official residence in the old imperial offices next to the Forbidden City – from where the Communist Party still runs the country today. Not until 1924 was the imperial family expelled from the Forbidden City, though the Republic was never able to regularly pay the agreed allowance and the old court officials sold off many imperial treasures, which are today scattered over the globe. More immediately, the ongoing practice of court rituals in the heart of Beijing into the 1920s – the young emperor receiving courtiers and even government envoys – might symbolize the magnanimity of the revolution. Or it might symbolize the limits of the revolution and the compromises it had to make with the past.
Yuan Shikai essentially ruled as a military dictator: not only was his power derived directly from his support from leading army officers, but he also made plain the military nature of his rule by generally appearing in uniform. Yuan had personally established the most efficient divisions of the army when he was working for the Qing in the 1890s and early 1900s. The leading generals and other officers were thus his protégés, and he was an efficient civil administrator as well. Yuan built a successful career under the Qing in foreign affairs and administrative reform. His career demonstrates the shifting nature of power in modern China: mutating from imperial-bureaucratic forms to more militarized forms of rule. Military men had become more politicized during the late Qing and civilian politicians and bureaucrats had been building more ties to military forces. After Yuan’s death in 1916, these trends resulted in outright warlordism.
One could count the bodies Yuan left behind on his rise to power. He betrayed the 1898 reformers, who had asked for his help at a crucial juncture that summer; he betrayed the Qing court, which had asked for his help in 1911; and he finally betrayed the Republic, in his monarchical campaign of 1915. Of course, each of these so-called betrayals could have been a pragmatic personal response to circumstance. The heart of any critique of Yuan goes not to his character but to his understanding of the new China that was then emerging. The state-building reforms he pursued had long been sought by the educated classes, but Yuan insisted on purely top-down administration. He stamped out elite democracy, stifled local initiative, and in the end destroyed his own regime.