Born in 1859, Yuan Shikai was part of a relatively affluent clan in Xiangcheng, Henan province. He was never a good student, but he excelled in physical activity; after twice failing the imperial examinations necessary to become a civil servant, he chose a military career. His father’s connections helped secure him a post in the Qing brigade of Anhui army, commanded by Li Hongzhang. In 1882, the brigade was sent to Korea to prevent Japanese encroachment in the region. As Li’s protégé, Yuan proved himself during more than a decade’s service in Korea, serving as Chinese commissioner in Seoul until just before the outbreak of the Sino-Japanese War (1894-95).
After that conflict, Yuan became the officer most responsible for building the Chinese military back up after its humiliating defeat by Japan. Along with other conservative military leaders, he helped the Empress Dowager Cixi regain effective power from her nephew, the young Emperor Guangxu, after he tried to institute a number of progressive reforms in 1898. With Cixi’s support, Yuan gained more and more power and influence. While the Boxer Rebellion of 1900—in which large groups of ordinary Chinese organized violent protests against foreigners in China, Westernized Chinese and especially Chinese Christians—again weakened the military, Yuan’s division emerged intact. In 1901, Yuan was named viceroy of Zhili, the region surrounding Beijing; he later became a grand councilor.
Cixi and Guangxu died within a day of each other in 1908, and Yuan’s opponents (including the regent of the new emperor, Puyi, who was still an infant) took the opportunity to get rid of him. Stripping him of his offices, they sent him home to Henan province. But when revolution broke out in October 1911, and regional elites throughout China rose up against the imperial dynasty, Qing rulers called Yuan back to the capital again. As prime minister and head of the Qing army, Yuan had commanded his forces into the rebel-controlled city of Wuhan by December 1911, forcing the leaders of the revolution to negotiate.
Sun Yat-sen, the leader of the Revolutionary Alliance, had been in the United States raising money for the cause when the revolution broke out. He returned to China by Christmas, and was named provisional president of the Republic of China, based in Nanjing. Entrusted with full power by the Qing court, Yuan Shikai made a deal with the revolutionaries. In February 1912, he convinced Longyu, the mother of the young emperor, that the only way to save the lives of the imperial family was to issue a proclamation in support of the republican government. She did so on February 12, abdicating on behalf of 6-year-old emperor Puyi and ending more than 2,000 years of imperial rule in China. A day later, according to the agreement, Sun resigned, and Yuan Shikai became the first president of the Republic of China.
With an empty treasury, no constitution and provincial warlords vying for influence, the republic’s beginnings were chaotic, to say the least. Elections in early 1913 resulted in huge gains for the Nationalist Party (Kuomintang), which increasingly clashed with Yuan and his agenda. When the party’s chairman, Song Jiaoren, was murdered that March, the trail of evidence pointed to Yuan’s government, though he was never officially blamed. Before he could be arrested, Sun Yat-sen fled to Japan in late 1913, calling for a second rebellion—this time against Yuan Shikai.
After crushing that revolt, Yuan consolidated power, crushing any hopes for parliamentary democracy. His appeasement of Japan—including acceptance of many of the infamous “Twenty-One Demands” issued in 1915—further damaged his popularity. Seeking to increase his authority, Yuan announced the creation of a new imperial dynasty, the Hongxian, with himself as “Great Emperor of China.”
His actions immediately aroused widespread indignation, uniting Yuan’s opponents and his former supporters—even the most conservative members of the military—against him. Japan backed this opposition, while the British government, once a source of financial support for Yuan’s regime, was preoccupied with World War I. Left without the support of even his former generals, Yuan backed down, and on March 22 he put an end to the Hongxian Empire after only 83 days. With cries mounting for his resignation as president, the ailing Yuan died just three months later, at the age of 56. His death ushered in a 12-year stretch known as the warlord era, during which local generals in China’s provinces continually challenged the weak central authority of the Republic of China.