Yüan Shih-k'ai (1859-1916), an outstanding Chinese military leader, held the balance of power when the Revolution of 1911 broke out and used it to secure the presidency. He became increasingly dictatorial but failed to establish himself as emperor of a new dynasty.
Yüan Shih-k'ai came from a family of Honan officials who had gained prominence in fighting the Nien rebels during the 1850s and 1860s. Though educated in the classics, he preferred the strenuous life. Having failed twice to obtain the chü-jen degree (the second level of the traditional examination system), he purchased a title and used family connections to acquire a post with a maritime defense unit in Shantung Province.
Yüan's opportunity to prove his abilities came as a result of the Sino-Japanese rivalry in Korea. In 1882, when an uprising provided Japan with an opportunity to consolidate its position, Yüan played a leading role in the successful Chinese intervention. During the turbulent years leading up to the Sino-Japanese War of 1894-1895, he remained on duty in Korea.
Yüan's energy and resourcefulness won the attention of Li Hung-chang, and in 1885 Yüan was named commissioner of commerce and Chinese Resident in Korea. In this capacity, he developed a reputation as a skillful diplomat, a master of political intrigue, and a masterful military organizer. As a response to the xenophobic Tunghak uprising, he urged the launching of the Chinese military expedition that helped to precipitate the Sino-Japanese War. Returning to China just before the outbreak of hostilities, he won further recognition from high Manchu officials for his skillful organization of Chinese logistical operations.
China's defeat underscored the necessity of military reform. As commander of the Newly Created Army (a linear descendant of Li Hung-chang's Anhwei Army), Yüan, aided by German officers, introduced Western principles of training and organization. The army was financed by the central government but developed a personal loyalty to its commander. Yüan deftly overcame criticism of hostile officials and temporarily succeeded in keeping powerful friends at court while also developing a favorable reputation among reformers. However, during the Hundred Days Reform of 1898, Yüan had to choose between these increasingly polarized elements. Asked to support a palace coup against the empress dowager, he refused and, according to most accounts, betrayed the conspirators to the conservative leader, Jung Lu.
In December 1899 Yüan was appointed governor of Shantung and charged with handling the Boxer Rebellion. Yüan resisted pressure from the court, where a controlling faction was sympathetic to these antiforeign zealots. Refusing to commit his troops to battle, he used the emergency to augment his forces. He thereby emerged as the strongest military leader in North China and, equally important, a man in the good graces of the foreign powers. In November 1901 he succeeded the late Li Hung-chang as governor general of the metropolitan province of Chihli and as high commissioner of military and foreign affairs in North China.
In accordance with the court's newly found enthusiasm for reform, Yüan carried out policies of educational, economic, and military modernization. Now assured of ample political and financial support, he extended the network of personal relationships that provided the foundations of the Peiyang military clique. Yüan's increasing power caused acute apprehension among his enemies, and by August 1907 hostile forces in the court had deprived him of his high positions and transferred from his command four of his six army divisions. The death of the empress dowager in November 1908 removed his strongest supporter, and on Jan. 2, 1909, he was forced into retirement.
The Wuchang uprising of Oct. 10, 1911, gave Yüan opportunity for revenge. Imperiled by the wildfire spread of revolt through South China, the desperate court begged him to save the dynasty. Instead he used his leverage to act as power broker between the court and the revolutionists. In Peking, the infant emperor was forced to abdicate in favor of a republic, and in Nanking, Sun Yat-sen was persuaded to resign the provisional presidency in favor of Yüan Shih-k'ai.
Following his inauguration on March 12, 1912, Yüan interpreted the provisional constitution to enhance his personal power and to thwart the desire of those who favored a Western-style republic. By June 1912 even his premier and protégé, T'ang Shao-yi, had resigned in protest; the Cabinet became a pliant tool of President Yüan. For a time Yüan managed to work with Sun Yat-sen and Huang Hsing, leaders of the revolutionary T'ung-meng hui, but Sung Chiaojen, who reorganized this body into the Kuomintang, steadfastly opposed his autocratic rule.
On March 20, 1913, Sung was assassinated shortly after he had led his party to victory in the National Assembly elections. Strengthened by a £125 million loan from a foreign consortium, Yüan went on to ban the Kuomintang and seize the provinces under its control. Resistance to this move, the so-called "second revolution," was brief and ineffectual. On Oct. 10, 1913, Yüan was installed as full-fledged president of the republic. Exactly three months later, he dissolved the National Assembly and replaced it with a "political council," which drafted a "constitutional compact" granting dictatorial powers to the president. Yüan was made president for life.
Yüan's domestic triumphs soon were overshadowed by threats from abroad. The outbreak of World War I in 1914 preoccupied the European powers and left Japan a free hand in China. Japan lost no time in seizing the German concessions in Shantung and in presenting Yüan with the Twenty-one Demands, which would turn China into a protectorate. Yüan stalled as long as he dared but finally capitulated to all but the most severe of the demands.
With the encouragement of high-ranking advisers, including Professor Frank Goodnow of Columbia University and a number of Japanese, Yüan now moved decisively toward the throne. On Jan. 1, 1916, Yüan Shin-k'ai became the Hung-hsien emperor. However, the carefully planned revival of Confucian institutions and the generation of favorable "public opinion" provided weak bulwarks against the massive protest that accompanied this move. Even Yüan's staunchest supporters found it difficult to accept his imperial pretensions. Following a series of revolts in southwestern China, Yüan set aside the throne. His reign had lasted 83 days.
The reestablishment of the republic failed to restore Yüan's power. His lieutenants, who had become independent regional satraps, refused to rally behind their discredited leader. When Yüan succumbed to uremia on June 6, 1916, many said he had "died of a broken heart." In a sense, this may indeed have been true.
The principal Western-language work on Yüan is Jerome Ch'en, Yüan Shih-k'ai, 1859-1916 (1961). Another major source is Ralph L. Powell, The Rise of Chinese Military Power, 1895-1912 (1955). Useful background material is in Li Chien-nung, The Political History of China, 1840-1928 (1956), and O. Edmund Clubb, 20th Century China (1964).