Yuan Shikai (Yuan Shih-kai) was one to the most significant Chinese political figures in the late 19th and early 20th centuries. He was a high military official of the Qing (Ching) Dynasty who turned against it, succeeded Sun Yat-sen as the first president of the Chinese Republic and attempted to found a new imperial dynasty.
He was born in 1859 to a locally prominent family in Honan. His father and uncles were active in suppressing rebellion in North China in the 1850s and 1860s. The fourth of six sons, he was adopted by his father's younger brother in 1866. After his adopted father died in 1873, he moved to Beijing (Peking) and lived under the supervision of his uncles until 1878. Although educated in the traditional manner, studying and memorizing the Confucian Classics, from an early age, he showed neither talent in nor interest for traditional scholarship and learning. Instead he devoted his time to horseback riding, hunting, other martial pursuits and general hell raising. After failing the civil service examinations twice, he sought a career in a less conventional fashion.
In 1880, he purchased a low level bureaucratic title and went to serve in the military entourage of a friend of his adopted father. His first taste of active military duty came in 1882 in Korea. Between 1876 and 1895, Japan and China struggled for influence in Korea. Each sought to gain ascendency over the royal family and through it, the country. Both countries had imperial designs on the Korean peninsula. The Koreans, on the other hand, would have liked nothing better than to rid themselves of both the Chinese and the Japanese.
In 1882, a series of anti-Japanese riots was precipitated by a coup d'état. Chinese troops rushed into Seoul to head off a Japanese reaction. This was the beginning of a Chinese forward policy that would reassert Chinese rights of suzerainty over Korea. Yuan made a success of himself and spent the next twelve years in Korea in various capacities.
Initially, he was an adviser on foreign affairs. In 1884, he was placed in command of the three Chinese divisions in Korea. At the same time, at the request of the Korean king, he helped form and served as adviser to the newly constituted royal guards. In addition, he raised and trained Korean pacification troops for duty in the countryside. That same year, in the wake of another anti-Japanese riot, Chinese troops rescued the Japanese minister from a Korean mob. Both China and Japan had substantial numbers of troops in Korea by then.
In 1885, Japan and China agreed to split influence in Korea equally, but the Chinese government tried to keep its paramount position on the peninsula. Its primary instrument for carrying out this policy was its commissioner and Chinese Resident in Korea, Yuan Shikai. Over the next nine years, Yuan effectively used his influence to re-establish Chinese ascendency in Korea and minimize the influence of other powers. Notably, he was able to minimize Japanese and Russian influence, block the Korean government's attempt to establish diplomatic relations with Great Britain and persuade the Korean government to ban the sale of rice to Japanese merchants. His heavy-handed approach alienated the Korean government and antagonized the Japanese.
He left shortly before the outbreak of war between China and Japan over Korea in 1894 that led to a disastrous Chinese defeat. Yuan made great use of his Korean sojourn. He learned to work in an atmosphere of intrigue and rivalry and learned lessons in diplomacy and the ways to manipulate political and military power. This served him well over the rest of his career.
After China's defeat in Korea, Yuan was assigned to work on military modernization projects, impressing new imperial and Manchu patrons in North China. He was chosen to command and train a modernized military force, the Newly Created Army, stationed near Tianjin (Tientsin). A methodological training manual, favoring German training methods, presented to the throne in 1899, was one result of this experience.
As he commanded the Newly Created Army, Yuan used the opportunity to foster a sense of personal loyalty to him among the officers and men. It must be pointed out that this was traditional practice in the late Qing. The army was organized along Western lines with infantry, cavalry, artillery and engineer units. A modern staff system was also created.
During the 100 Days Reform Movement of 1898 he was promoted by the emperor. He and the reformers assumed Yuan was one of them because of his work in military modernization. In fact, he was loyal to his earlier Manchu patrons and helped them forestall a reform coup by mounting a counter coup. This action made Yuan anathema to reformers even though he prepared and published an exculpatory diary. With the ascendence of the conservative party, Yuan s star also rose.
In 1899, many of Yuan's troops were transferred to Shandong (Shantung) to reinforce units to overwatch German encroachments and suppress the anti-foreign Boxers. The latter were increasing in ferocity and Yuan succeeded, despite the lack of Court support (prominent officials supported the Boxers), in moving the Boxers from Shandong. Later that year, he was appointed Shandong governor.
During the Boxer Uprising, Yuan followed a non-involvement policy. He ignored Court strictures to support the Boxers and instead suppressed them ruthlessly and protected foreigners under his jurisdiction. In doing this, he followed the actions of the governors-general of South and Central China. Because of this policy, his troops remained intact and were, in fact, reinforced.
In July 1901, Yuan was the commander of the largest, best trained Chinese military force in North China. In addition, foreigners perceived him as following a pro-Western policy. After the court returned to the capital and the death of his powerful Chinese patron, Li Hongzhang (Li Hung-chang), he was appointed governor-general of Zhili (Chihli) province and northern commissioner of military and foreign affairs.
Over the next eight years, he introduced military, educational, legal and industrial reforms in North China. His major focus was military reform. He was able to form a modern, well-equipped Northern Army staffed by his subordinates personally loyal to himself. As the dynasty tried to reform itself, Yuan was able to gather more power. He was known as a popular but strict commander. He showed a personal interest in the well-being of his troops, seeing they were paid regularly and promoted his protégés, ensuring their loyalty.
As a Chinese official in an increasingly Manchu-dominated administration, Yuan relied on the patronage of the empress dowager. After her death in 1908, his career went into a swift decline. Within three months of her death, Yuan was unceremoniously retired. The pretext was his incapacitation by a foot injury.
Although retired, Yuan kept in close contact with his protégés. When the Double Ten (October 10th) Revolution began in 1911, the dynasty summoned him back to duty. He was appointed to command an army to suppress the rebellion. However, Yuan was in no rush to rejoin and support those who had unceremoniously retired him. He declined to accept the appointment, saying his foot injury still troubled him.
He was finally persuaded to take up the command of the army in return for the office of prime minister. Yuan then entered into negotiations with the rebels and played the incompetent dynasts off against the politically naive revolutionaries. By March 1912, the Manchus abdicated and Yuan was named first president of the Chinese Republic.
Over the next two years, Yuan engaged in political intrigue against the republicans. He did not believe in the republican form of government and worked to subvert it. By May 1913, he had negotiated a loan with a five power bank consortium representing concerns in Great Britain, France, Germany, Russia and Japan. The agreement, signed without the approval of the National Assembly, gave him the wherewithal to move against his opponents.
After destroying their political and military authority, he moved to consolidate his power. He dissolved the National Assembly, replacing it with a political council composed of his own cronies. This body created a constitutional council to draft a new governing document. This new constitution granted unlimited powers to the president.
The outbreak of World War I presented him with new difficulties. Before, both he and his predecessors were able to balance the imperial powers against one another to ensure that no one power, especially Japan, dominated China. As Western interest shifted from East Asia, the Japanese were given a relatively free hand. As an ally of Great Britain, Japan seized the German territorial concessions in Shandong. In January 1915, the Japanese presented Yuan's government with their infamous Twenty One Demands. If they had all been granted, China would have been transformed into a Japanese protectorate. No foreign power intervened to stop Japan and Yuan was unwilling to commit his army to fight the Japanese. Therefore, he submitted to all but the most radical of them.
The submission may have been linked to Yuan's desire to found a new imperial dynasty. If his plan was to succeed, he needed Japanese indifference, if not cooperation. He received support from his Japanese and American advisers as well as his relatives and Chinese advisers. The monarchical movement began in August 1915. By December, Yuan was petitioned to ascend the throne and found a new dynasty. Orders were issued transforming China from a republic to a monarchy. Unfortunately, this move was met with hostility both inside and outside China. The Japanese were the first to register a protest and even former supporters turned against him. By March 1916, the monarchical experiment was over and Yuan restored a republican government.
Faced with defiance and revolt from his subordinates, Yuan's political power began to slip away. Through the spring, he tried to negotiate a settlement with the military commanders in the southwest. In June 1916, exhausted and ill, Yuan died of uremia.
Yuan has not been well treated by either foreign or Chinese historians, although foreign historians were not as vituperative as the Chinese. He is usually portrayed as an unscrupulous political operator, whose ethics were governed by personal ambition and political expediency. Nevertheless, he was a capable administrator and in the early 20th century his leadership was seen as the only alternative to chaos. In fact, this judgment was vindicated after his death as China slipped into twelve years of civil war and revolution.