The legacy of Yuan Shikai, China’s disastrous first president

Society & Culture

Yuan Shikai was one of the most significant men in the last decades of the Qing dynasty and the early years of the Republic. He served as China’s first president, but his career ended ignominiously. His legacy has not aged well, either.

This Week in China’s History: December 11, 1915

Let’s imagine it this way.

A man is successful. Powerful and important. He’s made his way to the top of his field, accumulating personal loyalty, and more than a few enemies, on his way to becoming one of the most recognizable names in the country.

Unexpectedly, he decides he wants to be president. He defeats the obvious candidate — the one everyone assumed would be president — and gains the top office.

But then things don’t go as planned. He has never worked well within institutions designed to limit executive power, and the authoritarian tactics that had sustained him in his previous positions aren’t suited to democracy. His popularity wanes. Rivals appear poised to replace him. Frustrated by limits on his power, he thwarts the democratic process and places his own interests and fate ahead of the country’s.

I am of course talking about Yuán Shìkǎi 袁世凯. Who did you think I meant?

Yuan was one of the most significant men in the last decades of the Qing dynasty and the early years of the Republic. He served as China’s first president, but his career ended ignominiously. This week, we look back to the days following December 11, 1915, when China’s legislative body reported to Yuan that he had been elected — unanimously, no less! — to become Emperor, undoing the Republican revolution of 1911 and creating a new Chinese Empire (中华帝国 zhōnghuá dìguó).

For such a major figure, surprisingly little has been published on Yuan: Patrick Fuliang Shan’s 2018 study, Yuan Shikai: A Reappraisal, is the first English-language biography of Yuan in nearly 60 years. Shan’s meticulous research and revisionist tendencies create a powerful reappraisal — as his subtitle indicates — of Yuan’s career. There is plenty to dig in on, but today, we focus on only the last, unhappy episode that led both Nationalist and Communist historiography to revile Yuan as the betrayer of the revolution, the man who led China into decades of weakness and fragmentation.

It is not hard to see why history judged Yuan Shikai harshly. Sun Yat-sen (孫中山 Sūn Zhōngshān) was the celebrity of the 1911 Revolution. Trained as a doctor and raised partly in Hawaii, Sun projected the cosmopolitan internationalism republicans sought . Yuan, in contrast, was a military man who had cultivated personal loyalty in his ascent through the ranks. The story went that Sun’s principles and vision were the spirit of 1911, but Yuan’s guns and troops enabled him, not Sun, to become the Republic’s president. This image of Yuan as a usurper overshadowed his numerous important roles, in the Sino-Japanese War of 1894-95, the 100 Days of 1898, the Boxer Uprising, and the New Policies of the Qing, just to name a few.

This simplistic image of Yuan (which I have fed into with my opening paragraphs — mea culpa) obscures some positive contributions, including economic development and educational reforms. At the time of his presidency, Yuan was a genuinely popular figure, compared to George Washington for his role in founding China’s republic. He did not, however, countenance political pluralism. From the start of his presidency he worked to concentrate power, conflicting with his former revolutionary allies whose new Nationalist Party (国民党 Guómíndǎng, i.e., KMT), took democracy as one of its central tenets. Its leaders, including Sun Yat-sen, railed against Yuan’s autocracy as they had against the Qing. When the KMT’s Sòng Jiàorén 宋敎仁 appeared poised to win popular support and challenge Yuan as Prime Minister, Yuan had him assassinated, prompting the KMT to launch the Second Revolution in the summer of 1913. Yuan crushed the movement, outlawing the Guomindang — its members fled to exile, internal and abroad — and disbanding the parliament in January 1914.

“In his mind,” as Shan puts it, “the greatest threat facing China was national instability, and for that reason he wasted no time in enforcing centralist measures.” Looking at Yuan’s steady march of autocracy, it is easy to argue that his monarchism began as soon as he took office. That may be, but Yuan publicly endorsed republicanism and dismissed rumors that he would recreate a monarchy even while he was eliminating or marginalizing opponents.

Pressure for monarchy came from other sources, including Yáng Dù 杨度, a former Qing official who published calls for Constitutional Monarchy, and Columbia Professor Frank Goodnow, who advised Yuan and criticized, in a pamphlet called “On Republicanism and Monarchy,” China’s rapid change from monarchy to democracy. By the summer of 1915, many in Yuan’s cabinet were agitating to restore the monarchy. In tactics that would today be called “astroturfing,” officials like finance minister Liáng Shìyí 梁士诒 financed and organized groups that claimed to represent, for example, rickshaw pullers, women, Confucians, and even “beggars” who wanted Yuan to become emperor.

It is hard to say whether Yuan was persuaded — by influential advisers or popular demonstrations — or had wanted all along to be emperor, but by autumn he was fitting himself for imperial robes.

Rather than simply assert power, Yuan contrived an elaborate quasi-democratic mechanism to achieve his goal. Having disbanded the parliament, Yuan decreed that a “National Representative Assembly” would gather one vote from every county in China, as well as other groups, on the question of restoring the monarchy. The “election” was carefully controlled: representatives were vetted to ensure they supported the proposal, and travel to their provincial capital was paid for. The process began in October, and on December 11, 1915, the results of the election were announced. Of 1,993 votes cast, all of them voted for Yuan to become China’s emperor.

Presented with the unanimous request he had engineered, Yuan doubled down on his strategy of making autocracy appear democratic, and at first refused to accept the invitation. Only after a second invitation lavished Yuan with praise for his accomplishments and insisted that he was irreplaceable did he accede. On December 13, he publicly accepted the invitation. On January 1, 1916, the new Hongxian Era of the Great Chinese Empire began.

There has been much reconsideration of Yuan Shikai’s career, but about this, there is consensus: the restoration of monarchy was a disaster. Of course, republicans, revolutionaries, and intellectuals railed against the change. Sun Yat-sen immediately called for resistance to the move, and organized an army that occupied a handful of cities in Shandong. Others opposed to the power play mobilized provincial armies against the central government.

Now even the officers and officials who had hitched their wagon to Yuan’s star turned on their patron. Many who had previously tolerated Yuan’s concentration of power and dismantling of state institutions thought the move to monarchy was a bridge too far.

A turbulent spring led Yuan to renounce the monarchy even before he was enthroned (an elaborate ceremony that had been planned was postponed and then cancelled). After 83 days, he ended the Hongxian reign on March 23, 1916, but resumed his role as president, a move that further enraged his opponents. A half-dozen southern provinces declared independence, and they weren’t the only ones in open rebellion or demanding that Yuan resign.

He never did quit. As central authority disintegrated and rebellion spread, Yuan Shikai died on June 6, 1916, at 56 years old. His last act, designating Lí Yuánhóng 黎元洪 as his successor, was one final attempt to stabilize the government, but it was too late. The contradiction of Yuan’s casket lying draped with the imperial robes he had never worn summed up the state he had left China in. Even though the rebellious provinces pledged loyalty to Li Yuanhong, the institution of the central government had been damaged beyond easy repair. The “Warlord Era” was beginning; it would be a decade before China had a strong central government.

It is perhaps too easy to blame Yuan Shikai’s power grab for the failure of that first republic. Numerous other contingencies and actions played a role. Yet it is unavoidably true, in ways that resonate, that when political leaders undermine the very institutions that they stand atop, the consequences are often lasting — and often redound not to the would-be autocrat, but to the democracy they tried to undo.

This Week in China’s History is a weekly column.