Yuan Shikai (袁世凱; 16 September 1859 – 6 June 1916) was a Chinese military and government official who rose to power during the late Qing dynasty. He tried to save the dynasty with a number of modernization projects including bureaucratic, fiscal, judicial, educational, and other reforms, despite playing a key part in the failure of the Hundred Days’ Reform.

Yuan’s rise to fame began with his nominal participation in the First Sino-Japanese War as commander of the Chinese garrison forces in Korea. Unlike other officers, however, he avoided the humiliation of Chinese defeat by having been recalled to Beijing several days before the outbreak of conflict.

The Qing Court at the time was divided between progressives under the leadership of the Guangxu Emperor, and conservatives under the Empress Dowager Cixi, who had temporarily retreated to the Summer Palace as a place of “retirement”.

In 1905, acting on Yuan’s advice, Dowager-Empress Cixi issued a decree ending the traditional Confucian examination system that was formalized in 1906. She ordered the Ministry of Education to implement a system of primary and secondary schools and universities with state-mandated curriculum, modeled after the educational system of Meiji-period Japan.

The Empress Dowager and the Guangxu Emperor died within a day of each other in November 1908.

Sources indicate that the will of the emperor ordered Yuan’s execution. Nonetheless, he avoided death. In January 1909, he was relieved of all his posts by the regent, Prince Chun. The public reason for Yuan’s resignation was that he was returning to his home in the village of Huanshang due to a foot disease.

Yuan was in exile when the Wuchang Uprising took place on 10 October 1911 in Hubei province.

The court requested Yuan’s return on 27 October, but he repeatedly declined offers from the Qing court for his return, first as the Viceroy of Huguang, and then as Prime Minister of the Imperial Cabinet.

After further pleas by the Qing Court, Yuan agreed and eventually left his village for Beijing on 30 October, becoming Prime Minister on 1 November 1911.

The revolutionaries had elected Sun Yat-sen as the first Provisional President of the Republic of China, but they were in a weak position militarily, so they negotiated with the Qing, using Yuan as an intermediary. Yuan arranged for the abdication of the child emperor Pu Yi in return for being granted the position of President of the Republic of China.

Sun agreed to Yuan’s presidency after some internal bickering, but asked that the capital be situated in Nanjing. Yuan, however, wanted the geographic advantage of having the nation’s capital close to his base of military power.

The revolutionaries compromised, and the capital of the new republic was established in Beijing. Yuan Shikai was elected Provisional President of the Republic of China by the Nanjing Provisional Senate on 14 February 1912, and sworn in on 10 March of that year.

KMT’s main political goals was to ensure that the powers and independence of China’s Parliament be properly protected from the influence of the office of the President.

Tensions between the KMT and Yuan continued to intensify. Sun Yat-sen fled to Japan in August 1913 and called for a Second Revolution against Yuan.

In January 1914, China’s Parliament was formally dissolved. To give his government a semblance of legitimacy, Yuan convened a body of 66 men from his cabinet who, on 1 May 1914, produced a “constitutional compact” that effectively replaced China’s provisional constitution.

During Yuan’s presidency, a silver “dollar” (yuan in Chinese) carrying his portrait was introduced. This coin type was the first “dollar” coin of the central authorities of the Republic of China to be minted in significant quantities. It became a staple silver coin type during the first half of the 20th century and was struck for the last time as late as the 1950s.

On 20 November 1915, Yuan held a specially convened “Representative Assembly” which voted unanimously to offer Yuan the throne. On 12 December 1915, Yuan “accepted” the invitation and proclaimed himself Emperor of the Chinese Empire under the era name of Hongxian.

Yuan formally abandoned the empire on 22 March after being emperor for only 83 days; primarily due to these mounting revolts as well as declining health from uremia. This was not enough for his enemies, who called for his resignation as president, causing more provinces to rebel. Yuan died of uremia on 6 June 1916, at the age of fifty-six.

edited by staff


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