“Yuan Shikai: A Reappraisal” by Patrick Fuliang Shan

Yuan Shikai (Wikimedia Commons) Yuan Shikai (Wikimedia Commons)

In his introduction to this new biography of Yuan Shikai, Patrick Fuliang Shan makes reference to the long-held view of Yuan as a stereotypical historical villain—or, in Chinese, fanmian lishi renwu. The Chinese phrase is perhaps the more apposite, as one literal translation would be “a person on the wrong side of history”. Whatever one’s view of Yuan Shikai, who rose to governmental and military power in the late 19th century before becoming China’s first permanent president in 1912, it is fairly uncontroversial to assert that he ended up, on a few occasions, on what would later come to be viewed as the “wrong side” of various historical moments. 

Let us itemize his charge sheet. He is condemned for his treachery when, after the Guangxu Emperor tried to bring forward much-needed reform of the ailing Qing dynasty in 1898, Yuan sided with the conservatives and betrayed the Emperor to the Empress Dowager Cixi. When the Qing dynasty did fall in 1911, Yuan’s military power base in the north made him a necessary evil for the Nationalists; having been declared President, Yuan had the presumptive new Prime Minister of the country, who would have checked his presidential power, assassinated on a Shanghai train station platform in 1913. And, having been persuaded that the Chinese people were simply not ready for democracy, Yuan would, in late 1915, declare himself to be the country’s new Emperor—a brazen act which triggered almost immediate revolt in the country’s south.

In many ways, Patrick Fuliang Shan’s Yuan Shikai is a fairly conventional academic biography, working chronologically through Yuan’s life, from his childhood in Henan Province to his death from uremia in 1916

However, Shan’s account of his subject, indicated to an extent by the book’s subtitle “A Reappraisal”, amounts to a radical reframing of Yuan’s historical image in the west. Drawing on a recent 36-volume Chinese-language collection of Yuan’s Complete Works, which includes thousands of official documents and personal letters, Shan offers us a portrait of Yuan as conservative reformer, keen to see the Qing reshape itself so as to safeguard its survival, and whose ultimate undoing in historiographical terms was his ill-advised resurrection of imperial rule.

Shan’s account amounts to a radical reframing of Yuan’s historical image.

Yuan Shikai: A Reappraisal , Patrick Fuliang Shan (UBC Press, September 2018)
Yuan Shikai: A Reappraisal, Patrick Fuliang Shan (UBC Press, September 2018)

Yuan was born in 1859 in Henan, a land-locked province in central-eastern China, near its border with Anhui, Jiangsu and Shandong. His ancestors had successfully climbed the ladder of the imperial bureaucracy, meeting with widespread success in the national examinations. Yuan’s uncle, Jiasan had achieved the highest of the three degree classifications, and became a high-ranking official in Beijing. Yuan, though, failed his examinations not once but twice; a major setback given their power to define the trajectory of a young man’s life, as well as the years of work which had gone into studying for them. Yuan did almost the only thing he could do: he joined the army, and in 1882, shipped out for Korea, where he would spend the next twelve years.

He climbed the ranks quickly, and became imperial commissioner to Korea, acting as the key diplomatic link between China and its tributary state across the Yellow Sea. Yuan would later take his share of the blame for the political mistakes which would lead to the First Sino-Japanese War. Fought for influence over Korea, the conflict ended with China signing a humiliating treaty ceding control of Taiwan, and agreeing to pay 200 million taels of silver in reparation.

The war drew attention to the lack of organization and discipline in China’s army, and when Yuan returned from Korea, he was appointed to oversee the military’s modernization. He would spend the next few years recruiting and training a large, modern fighting force, loyal to him; a force that would act as the foundation for his political power in the years to come.

The question of how to exercise that power became almost immediately relevant, when in 1898 the Guangxu Emperor announced a series of radical reforms intended to modernize the bureaucracy which governed China. As the conventional version of the story goes, the Emperor, aware that the Empress Dowager was plotting against him, sent an emissary named Tan Sitong to talk to Yuan and persuade him to use his military force to eliminate the conservative faction at court. Yuan instead relayed this plan to the conservatives, who detained the Emperor and essentially imprisoned him for the rest of his life on a lake island in the imperial gardens to the west of the Forbidden City.

After his death, Yuan would be condemned by all sides.

As Shan relates, however, this account is flawed: Tan Sitong appeared to Yuan in their meeting as an “armed madman”, of whom he was intrinsically suspicious—Yuan wondered whether the emperor’s secret request was even genuine. The chronology of the subsequent coup d’etat would also seem to suggest that Yuan’s “betrayal” was not decisive; the information had already come to the Empress Dowager from elsewhere. The Guangxu Emperor died believing Yuan had betrayed him, nevertheless: he would write the three characters of Yuan Shikai out on paper each day before tearing them to tiny pieces.

This would not be the last occasion on which Yuan would be characterized as an obstacle to reform. Yuan’s star continued to rise after 1898, having proved his worth to the Empress Dowager. After her death, the Qing continued its gradual declining trajectory and, in the aftermath of the Wuchang Uprising of 1911, Yuan equivocated, reluctant to take sides. He played his hand with typical guile and ended up as President, despite severe reservations on the part of the revolutionary administration in the South. They were right to worry; Yuan would apparently engineer the assassination of Song Jiaoren, who was poised to become Prime Minister, and would then act in 1915 to reinstate the imperial system; his death the following year was a blessed relief for all concerned.

Shan is reluctant to assert that Yuan was directly involved in Song’s assasination, and passes over the accusation:


Recent studies indicate that Yuan was not involved, and point out that the assassination did not meet his political needs.


The lack of reliable primary sources with regard to this controversy, as well as the others which have defined Yuan’s historical image, means we will likely never know with any certainty exactly what role he played in this decisive moment in China’s early republic.


After his death, Yuan would be condemned by all sides; the Nationalists characterized him as a figure who had thrown away the promise of the early republic, while during the Cultural Revolution, his name was used to condemn one of Liu Shaoqi’s allies, because he had “wrestled away the fruits of the Cultural Revolution.” Mao Zedong visited his mausoleum in Henan in 1952, and declared that it should be preserved as a negative example for future generations.

Yuan emerges here, however, as a figure who represents, in Shan’s neat phrase


the incomplete transformation of early-twentieth-century China with regard to social reform, political change, and cultural advancement.


Shan’s excellent biography—the first in English since 1961—challenges us to think critically about our preconceptions, and the way in which prevailing historical narratives emerge, rejecting those appealing but ultimately unhelpful binary characterizations which too often blight the telling of China’s recent past.

Jonathan Chatwin is the author of travelogue Long Peace Street: A walk in modern China. He holds a PhD in English Literature, and is author of Anywhere Out of the World, a literary biography of the traveller and writer Bruce Chatwin.