Yuan Shikai

Yuan Shikai
or Yüan Shih-kai

born Sept. 16, 1859, Xiangcheng, Henan province, China
died June 6, 1916, Beijing

Chinese army leader and first president of the Republic of China (1912–16).

He began his military career serving in Korea in the 1880s. In 1885 he was made Chinese commissioner at Seoul; his promotion of China's interests contributed to the outbreak of the Sino-Japanese War (1894–95). The war destroyed China's navy and army, and the task of training a new army fell to Yuan. When his division was the only one to survive the Boxer Rebellion (1900), his political stature increased. He played a decisive part in China's modernization and defense programs and enjoyed the support of the empress dowager Cixi. On her death he was dismissed, only to be called back following the overthrow of the Qing dynasty in 1911–12, when he became the first president of the new republic. Impatient with the new National Assembly, he ordered the assassination of Song Jiaoren, leader of the Nationalist Party in 1913. He quelled a subsequent revolt, but his efforts to found his own dynasty (1915–16) failed. See also Sun Yat-sen.

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▪ president of China
Wade-Giles romanization  Yüan Shih-k'ai , courtesy name (zi)  Weiting , literary name (hao)  Rong'an 
born 1859, Henan province, China
died June 6, 1916
 Chinese army leader and reformist minister in the twilight of the Qing dynasty (until 1911) and then first president of the Republic of China (1912–16).

      Yuan was from a landed military family of Xiangcheng in Henan province. In his youth he showed a propensity for pleasure-seeking and excelled in physical activity rather than scholarship, although he was obviously a man of remarkable astuteness. He failed to win even the lowest of the classical-examination degrees but was to have the distinction of being the first Han Chinese to hold a viceroyalty and to become a grand councillor without any academic qualification. In the last days of the empire, he was made a marquess.

      Yuan began his career in the Qing brigade of the Anhui army, commanded by Li Hongzhang, which was dispatched to Korea in 1882 to try to prevent Japanese encroachment in the area. The political crises of that remote kingdom repeatedly offered him opportunities to prove the correctness of his judgment and the promptness of his action, especially in military and economic affairs. In 1885 he was made Chinese commissioner at Seoul, and his energetic and loyal service to the throne contributed to the outbreak of the Sino-Japanese War of 1894–95.

      With the destruction of China's navy and army by Japan in the war, the Qing capital of Beijing was exposed to external and internal attack; in consequence, the training of a new army became an urgent task that fell on Yuan. As the division under his command was the only remnant of China's army that survived the Boxer Rebellion of 1900, Yuan's political stature became greater than that of all others, and in 1901 he was given the viceroyalty of the metropolitan province. In that office, and later as a grand councillor, he was to play a decisive part in China's modernization and defense programs; throughout, he enjoyed the trust and unflinching support of the dowager empress Cixi. On the death of the empress (1908), his opponents, notably the regent for the infant emperor, stripped him of all his offices and sent him home. Nevertheless, when the tide of revolution threatened to engulf the Qing dynasty, the throne was to need his service once more.

      At this critical juncture, Yuan appeared to conservatives and revolutionaries alike as the only man who could lead the country to peace and unity, and so both the emperor in Beijing and the provisional president in Nanjing recommended Yuan to be the first president of China. The treasury then was empty; the provinces were in the hands of local war lords; a permanent constitution was still in the making; and the newly elected National Assembly was, to Yuan, too quarrelsome and too cumbersome for the good of the country. When his plan for a gigantic foreign loan was obstructed by the Nationalist Party (Kuomintang) in the National Assembly, he ruthlessly murdered the chairman of the party and undermined the assembly, thus bringing about a revolt against him in 1913. His victory in that struggle marked the end of all hopes for parliamentary democracy in China. Thereafter, he contrived to make himself president for life and then boldly announced a new imperial dynasty with himself as emperor in 1915–16. Yuan's last attempt, ironically, sowed dissension even among the conservative civilian and military forces that had supported him. Widespread opposition, backed by Japan, rose to challenge his authority. Yuan found his European friends preoccupied by World War I and his old lieutenants unwilling to fight. He was forced to abolish the newly announced monarchy in March 1916 and died three months later.

Jerome Ch'en

Additional Reading
For a comprehensive study of the life and times of Yüan Shih-k'ai, see Jerome Ch'en, Yüan Shih-k'ai: Brutus Assumes the Purple, 2nd ed. (1972), which includes an extensive bibliography. Other accounts that provide information on the role of Yüan Shih-k'ai in revolutionary events are Harold Schiffrin, Sun Yat-sen and the Origins of the Chinese Revolution (1968); and E.P. Young, Presidency of Yüan Shih-k'ai (1977).

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Universalium. 2010.

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