Yuan Shikai

Yuan Shikai (courtesy Wèitíng 慰亭; pseudonym: Róng'ān 容庵, also named after birthplace Yuán Xiàngchéng 袁項城) (16 September 1859 – 6 June 1916) was an important Chinese general and politician, famous for his influence during the late qing dynasty, his role in the events leading up to the abdication of the last Qing Emperor of China, his autocratic rule as the second President of the Republic of China (following Sun Yatsen), and his short-lived attempt to revive the Chinese monarchy, with himself as the "Great Emperor of China."

Early life

Yuan Shikai was born in the village of Zhangying (張營村), Xiangcheng County, Chenzhou Prefecture, Henan, though the clan later moved 16 kilometers southeast of Xiangcheng to a hilly area that was easier to defend. There the Yuans had built a fortified village, Yuanzhaicun (Chinese: 袁寨村; literally "the fortified village of the Yuan family").

Yuan's family was affluent enough to provide Yuan with a traditional Confucian education. As a young man he enjoyed riding, boxing, and entertainment with friends. Though hoping to pursue a career in the civil service, he failed the Imperial examinations twice, leading him to decide an entry into politics through the Huai Army, where many of his relatives served. His career began by purchasing a minor official title in 1880, which was a common method of official promotion in the late Qing. Using his father's connections, Yuan travelled to Tengzhou, Shandong , and sought a post in the Qing Brigade. Yuan's first marriage was in 1876 to a woman of the Yu family who bore him a first son, Keding, in 1878. Yuan Shikai married nine further concubines throughout the course of his life.

Years in Joseon Dynasty Korea

Joseon Dynasty Korea in the early 1870s was in the midst of a struggle between isolationists under the King Gojong's father (Heungseon Daewongun), and progressives, led by the queen (Empress Myeongseong), who wanted to open trade. After the Meiji Restoration, Japan had adopted an aggressive foreign policy, contesting Chinese domination of the peninsula. Under the unequal Treaty of Ganghwa, which the Koreans signed with reluctance in 1876, Japan was allowed to send diplomatic missions to Hanseong, and opened trading posts in Incheon and Wonsan. Amidst an internal power struggle which resulted in the queen's exile, the Viceroy of Zhili, Li Hongzhang, sent the 3,000 strong Qing Brigade into Korea to impose Chinese will on the country. The regent, Heungseon Daewongun, was then escorted to Tianjin where he was effectively kept prisoner. Though effectively a Chinese puppet-state, Korea's weakness was becoming increasingly apparent, and the Treaty of Jemulpo of 1882 gave the Japanese further right to station troops in Seoul in order to protect their legation. China could no longer shield Korea against a rapidly industrialising Japanese military, and it was obvious Korea's army could not deal with its internal crises without serious assistance. The Korean king proposed training 500 troops in the art of modern warfare, and Yuan Shikai was appointed to lead this task in Korea. Li Hongzhang also recommended Yuan's promotion, with Yuan given the rank of sub-prefect.

In 1885, Yuan was appointed Imperial Resident of Seoul. On the surface the position equalled that of ambassador but in practice, as head official from the suzerain, Yuan had become the supreme adviser on all Korean government policies. Seeing China's increasing control of the Korean government, Japan sought more influence through co-suzerainty with China. A series of documents were released to Yuan Shikai, claiming the Korean government had changed its stance towards Chinese protection and was interested in Russian protection. Yuan was outraged yet skeptical, and asked Li Hongzhang for advice.

In a treaty signed between Japan and Qing, the two parties agreed only to send troops into Korea after notifying the other. Although the Korean government was now stable, it was still a protectorate of Qing. Koreans emerged advocating modernization. Another more radicalised group, the Donghak Society, promoting an early nationalist doctrine based partly upon Confucian principles, rose in rebellion against the government. Yuan and Li Hongzhang sent troops into Korea to protect Seoul and Qing'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 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 broke out. Yuan, having been put in an ineffective position, was recalled to Tianjin in July 1894, before the official outbreak of the First Sino-Japanese War (甲午戰爭).

Late Qing Dynasty

Yuan's rise to fame began with his nominal participation in the First Sino-Japanese War as commander of the Chinese garrison forces in Korea. Unlike other officers, however, he avoided the humiliation of Chinese defeat by having been recalled to Beijing several days before the outbreak of conflict.

As an ally of Li Hongzhang, Yuan was appointed the commander of the first New army in 1895. As the officer most directly responsible for training China's first modernized army, Yuan gained significant political influence and the loyalty of a nucleus of young officers: by 1901, five of China's seven divisional commanders and most other senior military officers in China were his protégés. The Qing court relied heavily on his army due to the proximity of its garrison to the capital and their 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 the Guangxu Emperor's Hundred Days' Reform in 1898, however, Cixi decided that the reforms were too drastic, and plotted 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 sources, including the diary of Liang Qichao and contemporary Chinese news sources, Yuan Shikai arrived in Tianjin on 20 September 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 21 September, 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 in the province, though his troops took no active part outside Shandong itself. He also founded a provincial junior college ( Shandong College, the forerunner of Shandong University) in Jinan, which adopted western ideas of education.

In June 1902 he was promoted to Viceroy of Zhili, the lucrative Commissioner for North China Trade, and Minister of Beiyang (北洋通商大臣), comprising the modern regions of Liaoning , Hebei , and Shandong . Having gained the regard of foreigners after helping 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, as a result of the Boxer Protocol having forbidden troops to be staged close to Tianjin . Yuan was also involved in the transfer of railway control from Sheng Xuanhuai, leading railways and their construction to became a large source 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. and sources indicate that the will of the Emperor specifically ordered Yuan be executed. Nonetheless avoiding a death sentence, in January 1909 Yuan Shikai was relieved of all his posts by the regent, Prince Chun. The public reason for Yuan's resignation was that he was returning to his home in the village of Huanshang (洹上村), now the prefecture-level city of Anyang, due to a foot disease.

During his three years of effective exile, 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 support, Yuan held the balance of power between various revolutionaries (like Sun Yat-sen) and the Qing Court. Both wanted Yuan on their side.

The Wuchang Uprising and the Republic

The Wuchang Uprising took place on 10 October 1911 in Hubei province. The southern provinces 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 requested Yuan's return on 27 October, but he 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 and eventually left his village for Beijing on 30 October, becoming Prime Minister on 1 November 1911. Immediately after that he asked Prince Chun, the Regent, abstain from politics. Zaifeng, forced to resign his regency, made way for Yuan to compose a newly created, predominantly Han Chinese Cabinet of confidants, consisting of only one Manchu, who held the position of Minister of Suzerainty. 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 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 negotiated with the Qing, using Yuan as an intermediary. Yuan arranged for the abdication of the child emperor Puyi (or Xuantong Emperor) in return for being granted the position of President. Yuan would not be present when the Abdication edict was issued by Empress Dowager Longyu on 12 February 1912.

Sun agreed to Yuan's presidency after some internal bickering, but asked that the capital be situated in Nanjing. Yuan, however, wanted the geographic advantage of having the nation's capital close to his base of military power. Cao Kun, one of his trusted 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 of the Republic of China by the Nanjing Provisional Senate on 14 February 1912, and sworn in on 10 March of that year.

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 of the KMT zealously supported a cabinet system and was widely regarded as a candidate for Prime Minister.

One of Song's main political goals was to ensure that the powers and independence of China's Parliament be properly protected from the influence of the office of the President. Song's goals in curtailing the office of the President conflicted with the interests of Yuan, who, by mid-1912, clearly dominated the provisional cabinet and was showing signs of a desire to hold overwhelming executive power. During Song's travels through China in 1912, he had openly and vehemently expressed the desire to limit the powers of the President in terms that often appeared openly critical of Yuan's ambitions. When the results of the 1913 elections indicated a clear victory for the KMT it appeared that Song would be in a position to exercise a dominant role in selecting the premier and cabinet, and the party could have proceeded to push for the election of a future president in a parliamentary setting.

On 20 March 1913, while travelling with a group of friends to Peking, Song Jiaoren was shot twice at close range by a lone gunman, Ying Kuicheng, at a Shanghai railway station. He died two days later in hospital. The trail of evidence led to the secretary of the cabinet and the provisional premier of Yuan Shikai's government. Although Yuan was considered by contemporary Chinese media sources as the man most likely behind the assassination, the main conspirators investigated by authorities were either themselves assassinated or disappeared mysteriously. Because of the lack of evidence, Yuan was never officially implicated.

Becoming Emperor

Tensions between the Kuomintang and Yuan continued to intensify. After arriving in Peking, the elected Parliament attempted to gain control over Yuan, to develop a permanent constitution, and to hold a legitimate, open presidential election. Because he had authorized $100 million of "reorganization loans" from a variety of foreign Banks, the KMT in particular were highly critical of Yuan's handling of the national budget.

Yuan's crackdown on the Kuomintang began in 1913, with the suppression and bribery of KMT members in the two legislative chambers. Anti-Yuan revolutionaries also claimed Yuan orchestrated the collapse of the KMT internally and dismissed governors interpreted as being pro-Kuomintang.

Second Revolution

Seeing the situation for his party worsen, Sun Yat-sen fled to Japan in November 1913, and called for a Second Revolution, this time against Yuan Shikai. Subsequently, Yuan gradually took over the government, using the military as the base of his power. He dissolved the national and provincial assemblies, and the House of Representatives and Senate were replaced by the newly formed "Council of State", with Duan Qirui, his trusted Beiyang lieutenant, as Prime Minister. Finally, Yuan had himself elected president to a five-year term, publicly labelled the Kuomintang a seditious organization, ordered the Kuomintang's dissolution, and evicted all members from Parliament.

The Kuomintang's "Second Revolution" ended in failure as Yuan's troops achieved complete victory over revolutionary uprisings. Provincial governors with KMT loyalties who remained willingly submitted to Yuan. Because those commanders not loyal to Yuan were effectively removed from power, the Second Revolution cemented Yuan's power.

In January 1914, China's Parliament was formally dissolved. To give his government a semblance of legitimacy, Yuan convened a body of 66 men from his cabinet who, on 1 May 1914, produced a "constitutional compact" that effectively replaced China's provisional constitution. The new legal status quo gave Yuan, as president, practically unlimited powers over China's military, finances, foreign policy, and the rights of China's citizens. Yuan justified these reforms by stating that representative democracy had been proven inefficient by political infighting.

After his victory, Yuan reorganized the provincial governments. Each province was now supported by a Military Governor (都督) as well as a civil authority, giving each governor control of their own army. Although granting Yuan and provincial authorities a decentralised administration, it helped lay the foundations for the warlordism that crippled China over the next two decades.

Japan's Twenty-one Demands

In January 1915, having captured the German colony at Qingdao, Japan sent a secret ultimatum, known as the Twenty-one Demands, to Beijing . In these demands, Japan demanded an extension of extraterritoriality, the sale of businesses in debt to Japan, and the turning over of Qingdao to Japan as a concession. When these demands were made public, hostility within China was expressed in nationwide anti-Japanese demonstrations and an effective national boycott of Japanese goods. Yuan's eventual decision to agree to nearly all of the demands led to a decline in the popularity of Yuan's government among contemporary Chinese, although many of the requests were mere extensions of Qing treaties. Western pressure later forced Japan to water down some of its demands.

Revival of the Monarchy

To build up his own authority, Yuan began to re-institute elements of state Confucianism. As the main proponent of reviving Qing state religious observances, Yuan effectively participated as emperor in rituals held at the Qing Temple of Heaven. In late 1915, rumors were floated of a popular consensus that the monarchy should be revived. 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 that the Republic had only been effective as a transitional phase to end Manchu rule. He reasoned that China's political situation demanded the stability that only a monarchy could ensure. The American political scientist Frank Johnson Goodnow suggested a similar idea. Negotiators representing the government of Japan had also offered to support Yuan's ambitions as one of the rewards for Yuan's support of the Twenty-One Demands.

In 20 November 1915, Yuan held a specially convened "Representative Assembly" which voted unanimously in favor of having Yuan become emperor. On 12 December 1915, Yuan agreed to become the next emperor and proclaimed himself Emperor of the Chinese Empire (中華帝國大皇帝) under the era name of Hongxian (洪憲; i.e. Constitutional Abundance) beginning 1 January 1916. Soon after becoming emperor, Yuan placed an order with the former imperial potters for a 40,000-piece porcelain set costing 1.4 million yuan, a large jade seal, and two imperial robes costing 400,000 yuan each.

Public and International Reactions to the Monarchy's Revival

By expecting widespread domestic and international support for his reign, Yuan Shikai and his supporters had miscalculated. Many of Yuan's closest supporters abandoned him, and the solidarity of Yuan's Beiyang clique of military protégés dissolved. There were open protests throughout China denouncing Yuan. International governments, including Japan, proved suddenly indifferent or openly hostile to him, not giving him the recognition anticipated. Sun Yat-sen, who had fled to Tokyo and set up a base there, actively organized efforts to overthrow Yuan. Yuan's sons publicly fought over the title of "Crown Prince", and his former loyal subordinates like Duan Qirui and Xu Shichang left him one by one to create their own factions.

Abandonment of the Monarchy and Death

Faced with widespread opposition, Yuan repeatedly delayed the accession rites in order to appease his foes, but his prestige was irreparably damaged and province after province continued to voice disapproval. On 25 December 1915, Yunnan 's military governor, Cai E, rebelled, launching the National Protection War. The governor of Guiyang followed in January 1916, and Guangxi declared independence in March. Funding for Yuan's accession ceremony was cut on 1 March, and he formally abandoned monarchism on 22 March. This was not enough for his enemies, who called for his resignation as president. More provinces rebelled until Yuan died from uremia on 5 June 1916, at the age of fifty-six. His death was announced the following day. His remains were moved to his home province and placed in a large mausoleum. 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 and deemed an "idiot" by his father; 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

The major effects of Yuan's rule on China are mostly considered negative. Although he trained and organized one of China's first modern armies and introduced far-ranging modernisations in law and social areas, the loyalty Yuan had fostered among his armed forces split into warlords after his death, undermining the authority of the central government. Yuan did little to improve civilian economic or technological development, and financed his regime through large foreign loans. He is criticized for weakening Chinese morale and international prestige, and for allowing the Japanese to gain broad concessions over his government.

After Yuan's death, there was an effort by Li Yuanhong to revive the Republic by recalling the legislators who had been ejected in 1913, but this effort was confused and ineffective in asserting central control. Li lacked any support from the military. There was a short-lived effort in 1917 to revive the qing dynasty led by the loyalist general Zhang Xun, but his forces were defeated by rival warlords later that year. After the collapse of Zhang's movement, all pretense of strength from the central government collapsed, and China descended into a period of warlordism. Over the next several decades, the offices of both the president and Parliament became the tools of militarists, and the politicians in Peking became dependent on regional governors for their support and political survival.

After Yuan's death, China was left without any generally recognized central authority, and the nation's army quickly fragmented into forces of competing warlords. For this reason he is sometimes called "the Father of the Warlords". However, it is not accurate to attribute China's subsequent age of warlordism as a personal preference, since in his career as a military reformer he had attempted to forge a modern army based on the Japanese model. Throughout his lifetime, he demonstrated an understanding of staffing, military education, and regular transfers of officer personnel, combining these skills to create China's first modern military organisation. After his return to power in 1911, however, he seemed willing to sacrifice his legacy of military reform for imperial ambitions, and instead ruled by a combination of violence and bribery that destroyed the idealism of the early Republican movement.

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 as Emperor is largely depicted as being influenced by external forces, especially that of his son, prince Yuan Keding.

A bixi (stone tortoise) with a stele in honor of Yuan Shikai, which was installed in Anyang's Huanyuan Park soon after his death, was (partly) restored in 1993.

Personal information

Paternal grandfather

Yuan Shusan (袁澍三)


Yuan Baozhong (袁保中) (1823–1874), courtesy name Shouchen (受臣)


Yuan Baoqing (袁保慶) (1825–1873), courtesy name Duchen (篤臣), pseudonym Yanzhi (延之), Yuan Baozhong's younger brother


Yu Yishang (于義上), daughter of Yu Ao (於鰲), a wealthy man from Shenqiu County, Henan ; married Yuan Shikai in 1876; mother of Yuan Keding

Major Concubines

Lady Shen (沈氏), previously a courtesan from Suzhou

Lady Lee (李氏), of Korean origin; mother of Yuan Bozhen, Yuan Kequan, Yuan Keqi, Yuan Kejian, and Yuan Kedu

Lady Kim (金氏), of Korean origin; mother of Yuan Kewen, Yuan Keliang, Yuan Shuzhen, Yuan Huanzhen, and Yuan Sizhen

Lady O (吳氏), of Korean origin; mother of Yuan Keduan, Yuan Zhongzhen, Yuan Cizhen, and Yuan Fuzhen

Lady Yang (楊氏), mother of Yuan Kehuan, Yuan Kezhen, Yuan Kejiu, Yuan Ke'an, Yuan Jizhen, and Yuan Lingzhen

Lady Ye (葉氏), previously a prostitute in Nanjing; mother of Yuan Kejie, Yuan Keyou, Yuan Fuzhen, Yuan Qizhen, and Yuan Ruizhen

Lady Zhang (張氏), originally from Henan

Lady Guo (郭氏), originally a prostitute from Suzhou ; mother of Yuan Kexiang, Yuan Kehe, and Yuan Huzhen

Lady Liu (劉氏), originally a maid to Yuan Shikai's fifth concubine Lady Yang; mother of Yuan Kefan and Yuan Yizhen


Yuan Keding (袁克定) (1878–1958), courtesy name Yuntai (雲台)

Yuan Kewen (袁克文) (1889–1931), courtesy name Baocen (豹岑)

Yuan Keliang (袁克良), married a daughter of Zhang Baixi

Yuan Keduan (袁克端), married He Shenji (何慎基) (daughter of He Zhongjing (何仲璟))

Yuan Kequan (袁克權) (1898–1941), courtesy name Gui'an (規庵), pseudonym Baina (百衲), married a daughter of Toteke Duanfang (托忒克.端方)

Yuan Kehuan (袁克桓), married Chen Zheng (陳徵) (daughter of Chen Qitai (陳啟泰))

Yuan Keqi (袁克齊), married a daughter of Sun Baoqi

Yuan Kezhen (袁克軫), married Zhou Ruizhu (周瑞珠) (daughter of Zhou Fu (周馥))

Yuan Kejiu (袁克玖), married Li Shaofang (黎紹芳) (29 December 1906 – 15 April 1945) (second daughter of Li Yuanhong) in 1934

Yuan Kejian (袁克堅), married a daughter of Lu Jianzhang (陸建章)

Yuan Ke'an (袁克安), married Li Baohui (李寶慧) (daughter of Li Shiming (李士銘))

Yuan Kedu (袁克度), married a daughter of the wealthy Luo Yunzhang (羅雲章)

Yuan Kexiang (袁克相), married firstly Zhang Shoufang (張壽芳) (granddaughter of Na Tong (那桐)), married secondly Chen Sixing (陳思行) (daughter of Chen Bingkun)

Yuan Kejie (袁克捷), married Lady Wang (王氏)

Yuan Kehe (袁克和), married a daughter of Zhang Diaochen (張調宸)

Yuan Kefan (袁克藩), died young

Yuan Keyou (克友), married a daughter of Yu Yunpeng (於雲鵬)

Famous grandsons and great-grandsons

Yuan's grandson, Luke Chia-Liu Yuan was a Chinese-American physicist.

Yuan's great-grandson, Li-Young Lee, is a Chinese-American writer and poet.

Last update 15-06-2012

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