Yuan Shikai

Yuan Shikai (1859-1916) was an important politician and militarist in China's modern history. He had a major influence during the last years of the Qing Dynasty (1644-1912).

As a relatively young man, Yuan was sent to Korea as supreme adviser on Korean government policies, and after his return he was in charge of training new troops. He played an important role in promoting modernization and in forcing Emperor Pu Yi's abdication.

Yuan Shikai was elected the first official president of the Republic of China (1911-1949), and was active in establishing modern industrial, judicial and educational systems as well as unifying the currency. He even tried to restore the monarchy in China, and proclaimed himself the Hongxian Emperor; though in this he failed.

Early Life

On September 16th, 1859, Yuan Shikai was born into an aristocratic family in Yuanzhai village of Henan Province. He started to learn the Confucian classics at six years of age. In his youth, however, he was more interested in military strategy, fencing and boxing.

In 1876, Yuan married a girl from the Yu family, and in 1878 she bore him a son named Yuan Keding. Shikai took the imperial examination twice (in 1876 and 1879 respectively) to pursue a civil-service career, but he failed both times, so instead made up his mind to enter politics through joining the army.

Under the influence of the Westernization Movement (a movement aiming to learn from Western countries), Yuan Shikai gave his allegiance to Wu Changqing, the commander of the Huai Army, and in May 1881 became an assistant to Wu.

Years in Korea

In 1882, during the Joseon Dynasty in Korea, Heungseon Dawongun, father of the Gaozong Emperor of Korea, tried to seize power through a military coup. This led to a struggle between him and Empress Myeongseong.

The empress asked the Qing government to send troops to quell the coup. Yuan Shikai was sent to Korea by Li Hongzhang, viceroy of Zhili (presently Hebei Province), to suppress the rebels, and he succeeded.

As a result, Heungseon Dawongun was escorted as a prisoner to Baoding (of Hebei Province), and the 23-year-old Yuan Shikai was appointed supreme adviser on Korean government policies by Li Hongzhang and stationed in Korea. He helped to train Korea’s new army and to control Korean taxes, and he earned unanimous approval from Korean nobles during his stay in Korea.

In 1884, Japanese troops stationed in Korea attempted to kidnap the Korean Emperor Li Xi (the Gaozong Emperor) during a military coup. Li Xi asked the Qing government for help, and Yuan Shikai commanded the Huai Army and helped the Koreans defeat the Japanese, protecting Korea and the Qing government's interests in Korea; for which he gained favor in the eyes of Li Hongzhang.

When the Dongxuedang uprising broke out in Korea in 1894, Yuan Shikai advised the Korean Emperor to ask for assistance from the Qing government. Later, the Japanese army sent more troops to Korea and attempted to start a war. Before the First Sino-Japanese War, Yuan Shikai returned to China via Inchon, masquerading as a peasant. Due to his outstanding record in Korea, Yuan was recommended by Li Hongzhang to be in charge of training the new army.

Establishing the New Army

Yuan Shikai started to train the new army in Tianjin in 1895. Later, he was in charge of training and expanding the Dingwu Army under the command of Li Hongzhang, and the Dingwu Army evolved into the Beiyang Army, the main land force in the late Qing Dynasty (1644-1912). Most warlords during the Republic of China (1911-1949) had been trained in the Beiyang Army; including Xu Shichang, Duan Qirui, Feng Guozhang, Wang Shizhen, Caokun and Zhang Xun.

In 1897 Yuan Shikai was promoted to chief prosecutor of the Zhili (presently Hebei Province) high court, and he was still in charge of drilling troops. In June 1898, the 39-year-old Yuan Shikai was promoted to President of the Board of Industry.

The pro-emperor party pinned their hopes on Yuan's new army, and Tan Sitong (a leader of the Wu Hsu Reform of 1898) once advised Yuan Shikai to send troops to besiege the Empress Dowager in the Summer Palace. Yuan, however, didn't take Tan's advice and instead reported Tan's plot to Rong Lu, a pro-empress figure, resulting in the failure of the Wu Hsu Reform of 1898 and the arrest of the Guangxu Emperor.

In 1899 Yuan was appointed governor of Shandong Province and he led his new army into Jinan to suppress the Boxers (the Righteous and Harmonious Fists fighting the foreign invaders). Owing to Yuan's tough policies, the Boxers couldn't find a foothold in Shandong, so they fled to Tianjin and Beijing. In 1900, the Eight Power Allied Forces (Britain, France, Russia, the US, Germany, Italy, Japan and Austria) ransacked Beijing, but Shandong remained stable under Yuan's governance. When Li Hongzhang was promoted to Chancellor of the Beiyang Army in November 1901, Yuan Shikai was also promoted, and became a notable figure in the history of China.

New Policy Period of the Late Qing Dynasty

After the Boxer Protocol was signed in 1901, due to internal and external pressures, the Guangxu Emperor implemented many new policies, which were strongly supported by Yuan Shikai. Shandong University was established in 1901 under Yuan’s advocacy.

The Army Drilling Ground was set up in Beijing in 1903, and then Yuan was in charge of drilling the Beiyang Army. Later, Yuan was also involved in setting up industrial and mining establishments, railways, a police force and new-style universities, and he eventually abolished the time-honored imperial examination.

The Guangxu Emperor and Empress Dowager passed away on successive days in November 1908, and the young prince Pu Yi (later the last emperor of the Qing Dynasty) ascended the throne, with his father Zai Feng as regent. Zai Feng hated Yuan Shikai with a vengeance, because of Yuan's new policies and his behavior at the time of the Wu Hsu Reform. Zai Feng suspected that Yuan had betrayed the reforming party, which had led directly to the Guangxu Emperor's imprisonment. So as soon as Zai became regent, Yuan was dismissed from his government position and had to make himself scarce in Anyang, of Henan Province.

Becoming President of the Republic of China

When the Wuchang Uprising broke out on October 10th, 1911, led by Li Yuanhong, neither the warlords from the northern provinces nor the Beiyang Army had a clear stance for or against the uprising. On November 1st, 1911, the Guangxu Emperor appointed Yuan Shikai as Chancellor (Prime Minister), because Yuan had gained support from various parties. Yuan arrived in Beijing on November 13th and formed his new cabinet three days later.

Yuan understood clearly that full-scale suppression of the Wuchang Uprising would lead to his redundancy in the eyes of the Qing rulers, so he began to negotiate with the revolutionaries, rather than suppressing them. Yuan negotiated with Li Yuanhong and reached an agreement to convene a national assembly to vote for the presidency on December 18th, 1911.

On December 29th, 1911, representatives from 17 provinces of southern China elected Sun Yat-sen as the first provisional president of the Republic of China, and Sun was sworn in at Nanjing on January 1st, 1912, proclaiming the establishment of the Republic of China. Angry about this outcome, Yuan ordered his army to attack Wuhan and Nanjing, and the revolutionaries retreated again and again.

Owing to their weak military position, the United League led by Sun Yat-sen had to negotiate with Yuan Shikai, and Sun promised Yuan that he would surrender the position of President of the Republic of China to Yuan if Emperor Pu Yi abdicated.

Yuan forced Pu Yi to abdicate on February 12th, 1912, though Empress Yulong was reluctant to accept this. In the end, she ordered Yuan to form a cabinet for the Republic of China and this represented the formal fall of the Qing Dynasty (1644-1912).

On February 15th, 1912, the house of councilors in Nanjing officially elected Yuan Shikai as the provisional President of the Republic of China. Under the provisional constitution of the Republic of China, however, Yuan's power was greatly weakened by the system of parliamentary government. In May 1914, Yuan modified the provisional constitution, and he changed the system of government from a parliamentary to a presidential one.

The Twenty-One Demands Treaty with Japan

The First World War broke out in 1914. Japan sent troops to take over the German occupied territory in Jiaozhou Bay and the Jiao–Jinan Railway in Shandong Province, and the government of the Republic of China was powerless to prevent this. While European countries were at war in Europe, Japan proposed the so-called Twenty-One Demands to Yuan Shikai, including expanding Japan's rights and benefits in Manchuria and Mongolia and hiring Japanese people as councilors to the Republic of China.

Negotiations between the Republic of China and Japan, based on Japan's Twenty-One Demands, lasted from February 2nd to May 7th, 1915. Finally, on May 8th, 1915, Yuan Shikai accepted Japan's Twenty-One Demands.

Monarchy's Revival

On November 20th, 1915, Yuan convened a special representative assembly, at which he was voted unanimously to be the next Emperor of China. In December, with the support of congressmen, university students and mass petitioning groups, Yuan established a constitutional monarchy and the Empire of China. He was sworn in as Emperor on December 12th, 1915.

As a new constitutional monarchy was to be implemented in the Empire of China, Yuan renamed the Presidential Palace as Xinhua (New China) Palace. New norms for royalty were promulgated, including demolishing the system of eunuchs, the system of selecting maids-in-waiting and the system of presenting tribute. This new constitutional monarchy, however, was opposed by various warlords from southern China, who rose up one after another in revolt.


On December 25th, 1915, General Cai E and General Tang Jiyao announced their opposition to Yuan Shikai, followed by generals from Guizhou Province and Guangxi Province. In March the following year, Yuan Shikai was forced to disestablish the new empire, and he appointed Duan Qirui, the Secretary of State, to suppress the insurrectionary army from southern China.

Yuan was disheartened and fell sick in May 1916, dying of uremia at the age of 57 on June 6th, 1916. He was buried on August 24th, 1916, in Anyang of Henan Province.

Historical Legacy

Retrospectively, there are more negative assessments of Yuan Shikai than there are positive ones. He is strongly criticized for having signed the humiliating Twenty-One Demands Treaty with Japan, which greatly weakened China's prestige in the world.

Some scholars, however, view Yuan as a great reformer, owing to his contributions to China in many aspects of its modern history. He made great contributions to China's military, economy, education and politics, and he forced Emperor Pu Yi to abdicate the throne peacefully, bringing an end to 2,000 years of feudalism (from the Zhou Dynasty right up to the early Republican period).

Military Legacy

Yuan Shikai was a wise and sharp man, well-versed in military strategy. He took action immediately to defeat the Japanese army during Korea's abortive coup attempt in 1884, successfully shattering Japan's efforts to overthrow the Korean regime and greatly expanding China's influence on Korea. He was highly praised for this by Li Hongzhang.

After taking over the Beiyang Army, Yuan built up new armies, reformed the old armies and restructured police units, completely separating the police force and the army.

Yuan was in charge of establishing regular armies and policies from 1903 onwards and formed China’s first modern army in Hebei Province. He also hired German drillmasters to drill his troops and set up modern military schools, training a number of military talents; five of whom were elected as presidents or prime ministers of the Republic of China (1911-1949).

Economic Legacy

Yuan Shikai raised money for and in 1905 supervised the construction of China’s first railway (Beijing–Zhangjiakou). During the early years of the Republic of China (1911-1949), much attention was paid by Yuan to industry, agriculture, and commerce; especially to industry. Over 4,000 new factories were built between 1912 and 1914, and great progress was made in paper-making, the metallurgical industry and the mining industry.

During his reign, Yuan issued a series of decrees and regulations which promoted the development of China's national industries, including raising import duty and lowering export duty, encouraging native products and supporting domestic industrial and commercial enterprises.

As for agriculture, Yuan established agricultural education bases and promoted new agricultural technology, which greatly promoted the development of agriculture in the early years of the Republic.

As for finance, Yuan issued government bonds, reformed currencies and taxes, and established banks, which not only greatly eased the financial crisis of the government, but promoted China's modernization financially.

Educational Legacy

Yuan Shikai supported literacy and education, established new schools, abolished the old-fashioned imperial examination and encouraged students to learn from Western countries and from Japan. He established Shandong University, raised funds from multiple sources to train teachers, introduced the modern Western educational system to Chinese people, and also ordered the implementation of 4 years of free compulsory education in China.

Political Legacy

Yuan Shikai's greatest achievements in politics are reflected in his far-reaching reform of government structure, bureaucratic establishments, law and local autonomy.

Yuan played an active role in China's democratization process. He was the first to hold high the banner of constitutionalism, and established the first republic in Asia – the Republic of China (1911-1949). Yuan played a crucial role in reforming China's bureaucratic establishments, and he also made laws concerning officials' grades, appointments and dismissals, rewards and punishments, and salaries. On Yuan’s initiative, anti-corruption institutes were established for bringing corrupt officials to trial.

Yuan promoted and recommended appropriate legal personnel to higher positions, which greatly improved China's modern judicial system. He also actively participated in China's system of local autonomy, making Tianjin in Hebei Province the first autonomous city in the Republic of China (1911-1949).