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Y: Yuan Shikai

A coin with Yuan Shikai's portrait, issued in 1914

China’s first elected leader or its last emperor?

Yuan Shikai took centre stage at a critical moment in history as China stumbled out of the imperial era to become a young republic.

In control of the country’s strongest military force, Yuan became president of the Republic of China (ROC) in 1912 after winning the majority of votes in the first presidential election.

Yet the general-turned-politician was soon to become more notorious after an ill-fated attempt to restore the monarchy, with himself as emperor.

Military man

Born in 1859, Yuan wasn’t a good student. After failing the exams for the civil service twice, he chose a military career. In 1882 his brigade was sent to Korea, then a subject nation of China, to prevent Japanese encroachment on the peninsula (which shielded northeastern China, the Qing Dynasty’s home turf).

Even as a young man, Yuan was regarded as a military genius. With limited financial support from the Qing court he was able to train a modern army to counter Japan’s military threat, becoming a de facto governor of Korea for nine years until China’s disastrous defeat in the First Sino-Japanese War that began in 1894.

After that humiliation, the task of training a modernised army corps to Western standards fell on Yuan. First deployed in Tianjin – a strategic point in any invasion of Beijing – the new troops would evolve into the Beiyang Army, the largest and best-trained force in northern China.

When guns spoke louder than words

Yuan’s political stature grew and he was personally involved in key events at the turn of the 20th century which shaped China’s fate.

In 1898 after the failed “Hundred Days of Reform” led by Emperor Guangxu (a puppet ruler, for all excepting these 100 days), Yuan is said to have played a crucial role in preventing the overthrow of the Empress Dowager Cixi, the real power behind the throne. Guangxu was put under house arrest for the remainder of his life.

Yuan also played a decisive role in the Xinhai Revolution (see X for Xinhai Revolution) that aimed at replacing the Qing rulers after Cixi died in November 1908 (suspiciously; her nephew Guangxu had died only a few hours earlier). Puyi, a toddler, was then picked to succeed to the throne.

Fearing Yuan’s growing clout, the Qing court dismissed him briefly but his loyal subordinates remained in control of the Beiyang Army. On October 10, 1911 rebel forces captured the city of Wuchang, forcing the Qing court to bring Yuan back to quell the revolution. Had he stayed loyal to the Qing, a civil war would have ensued. Yet he could see the empire was doomed, so he struck a deal with the revolutionaries, forcing Puyi to abdicate but guaranteeing his personal safety. On February 12, 1912, the day the Qing Dynasty (and imperial China) ended, Yuan was elected as the first formal president of the ROC (Sun Yat-sen, the founder of the new republic, had spent a few months as temporary president).

Did Yuan want to become emperor?

The young ROC was fragile. The nation was on the verge of being split up between provincial warlords and encroaching foreign powers, especially Japan. In control of China’s largest and best-equipped army, Yuan seemed the only choice to hold the country together.

It was also a turbulent period where traditional and newer (mostly imported) ideas clashed, often violently. The revolutionaries, best represented by Sun’s KMT party, saw parliamentary democracy as the best option but conservatives argued they were naïve and that it would only plunge the nation deeper into chaos.

Swinging between the revolutionary and conservative camps, Yuan finally concluded that a stronger, authoritarian leader was needed. He then contrived to make himself president for life, before proclaiming a new imperial dynasty with himself as emperor in 1915.

The self-anointment proved a colossal misjudgement. Emperor Hongxian, as Yuan styled himself, irked the KMT as well as the left-wingers who would later found the Communist Party of China (CPC). Foreign governments also disapproved of what was criticised as a backward step in China’s political development. With an array of critics attacking him in the fledgling media, Yuan lost control of his own “gun barrels” as his old lieutenants from the Beiyang Army refused to fight for him. He abolished his ill-fated monarchy in March 1916 and died three months later, going into the history books as one of modern China’s most-despised figures.

What lessons were learned from Yuan?

In order to stay in power China’s ruling Communist Party learned that it needed to retain control over the “two barrels” – i.e. the gun (the military) and the pen (media and propaganda). One of Mao’s best-known sayings was that “political power grows out of the barrel of the gun”. But more recently China’s leaders have refocused on media loyalty to the Party. The country’s Great Firewall prevents criticism from overseas being read online. And at home there’s a heavy layer of regulation and censorship across the media, the internet and the entertainment industry.


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