Yuan Shikai was a skilled general and unprincipled politician who rose to be president of China but failed to become emperor. He is remembered among Chinese as the triple traitor for his treachery toward the reforming emperor in 1898 and for betraying the Qing (Ch’ing) dynasty in the revolution of 1911 and the republic after he became president.
Yuan first gained recognition as China’s representative to Korea in 1882. He remained in Korea until 1894, where he trained the Korean army and upheld China’s suzerainty against Japanese aggression. When war over Korea with Japan became inevitable and realizing Japan’s military strength, Yuan resigned from his post and fled home. China’s catastrophic defeat in the Sino-Japanese War of 1894–95 led the Qing court to establish a modern army (called the New Army) under Yuan. It also led the young emperor Guangxu (Kuanghsu) to embark on fundamental reforms in 1898. The emperor’s policies went against the reactionary faction at court headed by his aunt the dowager empress Cixi (Tz’u-hsi), who had ostensibly retired but continued to dominate the government.
The showdown focused on Yuan, who controlled the troops in the capital, Beijing (Peking), and he betrayed the emperor to Cixi who imprisoned the emperor and rescinded all reforms. The reformers were either captured and executed or fled abroad. Yuan’s reward was appointment as acting governor of Shandong (Shantung) province, where in 1899 ignorant and xenophobic people popularly known as the Boxers began to harass foreigners.
Yuan realized the folly of the Boxer movement and suppressed them in Shandong in defiance of Cixi’s orders. Both Guangxu and Cixi died in 1908, and the childless Guangxu was succeeded by his brother’s three-year-old son, Pu-i (P’u-yi), as Emperor Xuantong (Hsuan-tung). Yuan was forced to retire but kept in touch with the New Army that he had helped to organize and train.
On October 10, 1911, on his 11th attempt, Dr. Sun Yat-sen’s followers instigated a revolution in Wuhan that spread rapidly in southern China. Since Yuan held the loyalty of the New Army, the panicked Qing court begged him to lead it against the rebels, acceding to his demands for money and total control. Yuan defeated the revolutionaries but did not destroy them, proceeding to bargain with both sides to ensure the abdication of the Qing emperor and agreement by Sun Yat-sen to step down as provisional president of the Chinese Republic in his favor.
Once president, his next goals were to wield absolute power, then to become emperor. When parliamentary elections in 1912 resulted in Dr. Sun’s Nationalist party winning a majority in both houses, Yuan had the incoming Nationalist party’s designated premier assassinated. When anti-Yuan governors in southern provinces revolted to protect the constitution in 1913, his superior forces defeated them. He then ruled as a ruthless dictator, dismissing all elected local assemblies and using censorship and the army to enforce obedience. Yuan’s ultimate goal was to become emperor.
With the European powers engaged in World War I, he only needed to secure Japan’s support, which he hoped to do by agreeing to its infamous Twenty-one Demands in 1915. However, his proclamation to become emperor on January 1, 1916, met with widespread opposition. The governors of southern provinces not under his direct control rose in revolt, and his own lieutenants refused to come to his aid, perhaps because they feared that the realization of his ambitions was detrimental to their own. On March 22, 1916, he canceled his imperial plans and announced that he would resume his presidency, which was widely resisted. The issue was solved when he died suddenly in May. Yuan’s dictatorial rule destroyed China’s chance of establishing a constitutional republic after 1912. His death left a legacy of political fragmentation that led to a decade of civil wars and warlord’s.
- Ch’en, Jerome. Yuan Shih-k’ai. Stanford, CA: Stanford University Press, 1972;
- Young, Ernest P. The Presidency of Yuan Shih-k’ai: Liberalism and Dictatorship in Early Republican China. Ann Arbor: University of Michigan Press, 1977.
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