Yuan Shikai (1859-1916), an important politician and militarist in China's modern history, was the founder of the Northern New Army who had a substantial influence in the late Qing Dynasty (1644-1912) in all aspects. Yuan Shikai was sent to Korea as a supreme adviser on Korean government policies in his early years, and was in charge of training new troops after his return. He played an important role in events such as promoting the modernization reform and forcing Emperor Pu Yi's abdication in the late Qing Dynasty (1644-1912).

Yuan Shikai was elected the first official president of the Republic of China (1911-1949), and was very active in establishing the modern industry, judicial and educational systems as well as unifying the currency. He even tried to restore the monarchy of China and proclaimed himself the Hongxian Emperor in his short life, although he ended up with failure.

Early Life

Yuan Shikai was born in an aristocratic family in Yuanzhaicun, Wangminkou Town, Xiangcheng City of Henan Province on September 16th in the 9th year (1859) of the Xianfeng Emperor's reign in the Qing Dynasty (1644-1912). He started to learn the Confucian classics at six years old; however, he was more interested in military strategy, fencing and boxing in his youth.

Yuan Shikai married a girl from the Yu family in 1876, and she bore him a son named Yuan Keding in 1878. Yuan Shikai took the imperial examination twice (in 1876 and 1879 respectively) to pursue a civil-service post, failing both, so he made up his mind to enter into politics through joining the army. Under the influence of the Westernization Movement (a movement aiming at learning from Western countries) in the late Qing Dynasty (1644-1912), Yuan Shikai went over to Wu Changqing, the general of the Huai Army, and became an assistant to Wu Changqing in May 1881.

Years in Korea

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

The empress asked the Qing government to send troops to stop 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 to Baoding (of Hebei Province) as a prisoner, and the 23-year-old Yuan Shikai was appointed the supreme adviser on Korean government policies by Li Hongzhang and stationed in Korea, assisting Korea to train the new army and to control Korean taxes, and he obtained unanimous approval from Korean nobles during his stay in Korea.

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

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

Establishing the New Army

Yuan Shikai had started to train the new army in Tianjin since 1895. Later on, he was in charge of training and expanding the Dingwu Army under the order 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 came from the Beiyang Army during the Republic of China (1911-1949), including Xu Shichang, Duan Qirui, Feng Guozhang, Wang Shizhen, Caokun and Zhang Xun.

Yuan Shikai was promoted to the chief prosecutor of Zhili (presently Hebei Province) high court in 1887, and he was still in charge of drilling troops. In June of 1889, 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 in the late Qing Dynasty (1644-1912), 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; however, Yuan Shikai 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.

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

New Policy Period of the Late Qing Dynasty

After the Boxer Protocol of 1901 was signed, the Guangxu Emperor implemented new policies due to internal and external pressures, which were greatly supported by Yuan Shikai. Shandong University was established under the advocate of Yuan Shikai in 1901. The Drilling Army Ground was set up in Beijing in 1903, and then Yuan Shikai was fully in charge of drilling the Beiyang Army. Later on, Yuan Shikai 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 successively in November 1908, and the young prince, Pu Yi (later the last emperor of the Qing Empire), ascended the throne with his father, Zai Feng, as regent. Zai Feng hated Yuan Shikai very much owing to Yuan's new policies and Yuan's performance in the Wu Hsu Reform. Zai Feng suspected that Yuan betrayed the reforming party, which directly led to the Guangxu Emperor's imprisonment. Yuan Shikai was dismissed from his government position as soon as Zai became the regent, and Yuan had to bury himself in Anyang of Henan Province.

Becoming President of the Republic of China

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

Yuan Shikai clearly knew that the full-scale suppression of the Wuchang Uprising would lead to his unusefulness in the sight of the Qing rulers, so he began to negotiate with the revolutionaries instead of suppressing them.
Yuan Shikai and Li Yuanhong negotiated and reached an agreement on convening the national assembly to vote for the presidency on December 18th, 1911. The representatives from 17 provinces of South China elected Sun Yat-sen as the first provisional president of the Republic of China on December 29th, 1911, and Sun swore in at Nanjing on January 1st, 1912, proclaiming the establishment of the Republic of China. Out of anger, Yuan Shikai ordered his army to attack Wuhan and Nanjing, and the revolutionaries retreated in defeat again and again.

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

Yuan Shikai forced Emperor Pu Yi to abdicate the throne on February 12th, 1912, and Empress Yulong was reluctant to accept Yuan's proposal. Finally, she ordered Yuan to form the cabinet of the Republic of China, which symbolized the fall of the Qing Dynasty (1644-1912).

The house of councilors of Nanjing officially elected Yuan Shikai as the provisional President of the Republic of China on February 15th, 1912. According to the provisional constitution of the Republic of China, Yuan Shikai's power was greatly weakened owing to the parliamentary government system. Yuan Shikai modified the provisional constitution of the Republic of China in May 1914, and he changed the parliamentary government system to a presidential government system.

The Twenty-One Treaty of Japan

The First World War broke out in 1914. Japan sent troops to take over the German occupied territory in Jiaozhou Bay and Jiao–Jinan Railway in Shandong Province, and the government of the Republic of China was powerless to prevent the incident. As the European countries were at war in Europe, Japan seized the opportunity to propose 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 of the Republic of China.

Centered with the items of Japan's Twenty-One Demands, the negotiation between the Republic of China and Japan lasted from February 2nd to May 7th, 1915. After a series of bargaining, Yuan Shikai accepted Japan's Twenty-One Demands on May 8th, 1915.

Monarchy's Revival

With the support of congressmen, university students and mass petitioning groups in December 1915, Yuan Shikai established the constitutional monarchy and the Empire of China. He held a special representative assembly on November 20th, 1915, during which he was voted unanimously as the Emperor of the Empire of China, and he swore in as Emperor on December 12th, 1915.

As the constitutional monarchy system was carried out in the Empire of China, the Presidential Palace was renamed Xinhua Palace by Yuan Shikai, and the new royalty norms were promulgated, including demolishing the system of eunuchs, the system of selecting maids-in-waiting and the system of tribute-presenting. However, the constitutional monarchy system was objected to by various warlords from South China, who rose in revolt one after another.

Death of Yuan Shikai

General Cai E and General Tang Jiyao staged a revolt to crusade against Yuan Shikai on December 25th, 1915, followed by generals from Guizhou Province and Guangxi Province. Yuan Shikai was forced to disestablish the emperor system in March, and he appointed Duan Qirui, the Secretary of State, to suppress the insurrectionary army from South China.

Yuan Shikai was so disheartened that he fell sick in May 1915, and he died of uremia at the age of 57 on June 6th, 1916. Yuan Shikai was buried in Anyang of Henan Province on August 24th, 1916.

Historical Assessments and Legacies of Yuan Shikai

Comparatively speaking, there are more negative comments about Yuan Shikai than there are positive ones in the history of China, under the influence of the political interests of various parties. Yuan Shikai is also highly criticized for signing the shameful Twenty-One Treaty with Japan, which greatly weakened China's prestige in the world.

However, some scholars consider Yuan Shikai as a real reformer owing to his great contributions to China in many aspects in the modern history of China. Yuan Shikai made great contributions to China's military, economy, education and politics, and he forced Emperor Pu Yi to peacefully abdicate the throne, completely terminating the 2,000-year feudalism (from the Zhou Dynasty right up to the early Republican period) in Chinese history.

Military Legacy

Yuan Shikai was a wise and salty man who was very versed in military strategy. Yuan had been in charge of establishing regular armies and polices since 1903, and formed the first modern army of China 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).

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

Yuan Shikai took action immediately to defeat the Japanese army during Korea's Jiashen Coup in 1884, successfully shattering Japan's attempt to overthrow the Korean regime and greatly expanding China's influence on Korea, and he was highly praised by Li Hongzhang for this.

Economic Legacy

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

As for industry, Yuan Shikai issued a series of decrees and regulations to promote the development of China's national industries during his reign, including raising import duty and lowering export duty, encouraging native products and supporting the domestic industrial and commercial enterprises.

As for agriculture, Yuan Shikai established agricultural education bases and promoted new agricultural technology, which greatly promoted the development of agriculture in the Republic of China (1911-1949).
As for finance, Yuan Shikai 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 advocated literacy and education, established new schools, abolished the old-fashioned imperial examination and encouraged students to learn from Western countries and Japan. He established Shandong University, raised funds from multiple sources to train teachers, introduced the modern Western educational system to the Chinese people, and he also ordered the implementation of the 4-year free compulsory education in China.

Political Legacy

Yuan Shikai's great achievements in politics were fully reflected in his far-reaching reforming measures in government structure, bureaucratic establishments, law and local autonomy.

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

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