Friday, 21 June 2019

Focus on NIAS Press: Yuan Shikai. By Patrick Fuliang Shan

The Nordic Institute of Asian Studies (NIAS), an integrated part of the University of Copenhagen, is an academically independent Nordic research and resource centre, focusing on modern Asia from a predominantly social sciences perspective.

NIAS Press is a globally focused publisher with the rigorous academic standards expected of a university press, but with the speed and decisiveness of a commercial publisher. Its lists cover all areas of Asian Studies, but it specialises in publishing innovative research on modern east and southeast Asian society.

This week, we're exploring NIAS Press in a series of three posts. In this third and final post, one of the Press' authors, Patrick Fuliang Shan, talks about his new book, on the first regular president of China, Yuan Shikai: A Reappraisal.

Dr. Patrick Fuliang Shan is a professor in the department of history at Grand Valley State University in the United States, where he teaches Chinese history, east Asian history, and world history. His earlier book, Taming China’s Wilderness: Immigration, Settlement, and the Shaping of the Heilongjiang Frontier, 1900-1931 probes the history of China’s northeastern frontier during a crucial period of historical transformation. He has published widely in journals and anthologies. He is a past president of the Chinese Historians in the United States.

Yuan Shikai: A Reappraisal is the first book in more than half a century to study Yuan Shikai, his life, and his political career. It sheds new light on the controversial history of this talented administrator, valiant general, and committed moderniser - and a man who, ever since his death, has been denounced as a national thief who usurped the fruits of the 1911 Revolution which overthrew the last empire in China. The book rectifies the traditional negative view by utilizing numerous new primary sources and by citing abundant recent publications. It explains that Yuan built the first modern army and implemented a series of reforms to modernize China. More crucially, he played a key role in directing the 1911 Revolution into a less bloody national conflict. However, his fatal mistake was his imperial endeavor in establishing a new dynasty in 1916, which led to a nation-wide civil war and his own death. Overall, Yuan Shikai: A Reappraisal offers a comprehensive analysis of Yuan’s life and his complex role in the shaping of modern Chinese history.

So, over to Dr. Patrick Fuliang Shan...

The long negative image of Yuan Shikai (1859-1916), the first regular president of the Republic of China from 1912 to 1916, is deeply embedded in modern Chinese culture and history. He is decried as a despicable traitor who sold out the reformers of 1898, he is denounced as the most regressive of politicians who defended the old feudalist system, he is reviled as the most notorious usurper who snatched away the fruit of the 1911 Revolution, and he is condemned as the most ruthless one among the reactionaries. Because of the above-mentioned accusations, Yuan has been viewed as a historical villain. His villainy is recorded in Chinese letters of all sorts and his negative image has penetrated into the global literature.

A fair assessment of Yuan Shikai as a historical figure does not verify all of those accusations. In fact, he was a progressive modernizer, an open-minded official, a talented administrator, and a front-runner of progressive policies. A close examination of his negative image shows that he begot his wicked names, simply because he was the enemy of the Nationalist Party after the establishment of the Republic of China in 1912 and because he mercilessly suppressed the Second Revolution which was launched by Sun Yat-sen, the leader of the Nationalist Party in 1913.

Among all those accusations, perhaps, the most evil was that he was the national usurper of China’s revolution. However, a careful study of Yuan Shikai during the 1911 Revolution reveals a different story. Henceforth, it is necessary here to highlight Yuan in that revolution in order to examine his important role in turning it into a less bloody national conflict.

Nearly three years before the revolution, Yuan Shikai was ousted from power by the Manchu nobles of the Qing Empire, because he was viewed as a threat. As a Chinese statesman, Yuan had built his reputation as a talented administrator in the previous decades. Yet, he was not a Manchu, and his powerful standing at the imperial court posed as a menace to those Manchu nobles who sacked him from his official positions. Unfortunately for them, the anti-Manchu revolution broke out in Wuchang, one of the tri-cities of Wuhan on October 10, 1911. To save the wobbling regime, those Manchu nobles had to call Yuan back, because they needed his help to suppress the revolution.
This means that Yuan Shikai from the very beginning was but a counterrevolutionary, as he was determined to save the dynasty. However, when he got to the frontline, he encountered numerous tough problems. Although his troops occupied Hankou and Hanyang, Wuchang (the last of the tri-city of Wuhan) proved to a difficult stronghold to attack, while Yuan himself had already lost a lot of his well-trained soldiers. Furthermore, he faced financial problems, logistic troubles, and military difficulties. A quick victory to cross the longest river in China, the Yangtze River, to take over Wuchang was not a realistic military plan.

While facing all these challenges, Yuan Shikai instead proposed to settle the national crisis through a peaceful negotiation rather than continuing his blood-shedding military attacks. Consequently, the negotiation dragged on for months. The two sides could not reach a deal, because of their opposing political agendas. Yuan’s stance was to build a constitutional monarchy, but Sun Yat-sen’s goal as to overthrow the Manchu rule and to establish a republic. At this crucial moment, Sun proclaimed the establishment of the Republic of China on January 1, 1911, with himself as the provisional president, which was not recognized by Yuan. Obviously, two political regimes co-existed in China in early 1912: the Republic of China in the south and the Qing Empire in the north.

Needless to say, Yuan Shikai was furious at Sun Yatsen’s move, but he believed that the tough negotiation must be shifted from the former topic of political settlement to the new one of national unification, for which the imperial abdication was a prerequisite.

Without a doubt, China plunged into an imbroglio during the first two months of 1912. Should Yuan Shikai continue to fight or should he persuade the imperial household to abdicate? He chose the second option, because it meant a peaceful solution, for which he was successful. The emperor abdicated in February 1912. Yuan was appointed the provisional president and then president of the Republic of China, while Sun Yat-sen temporarily retreated from the political arena. China became a unified country under the leadership of Yuan Shikai.

Yuan Shikai’s reputation quickly reached its apex in 1912, as he was hailed as China’s George Washington. Sun Yat-sen remarked that “as for the persuasion of the Qing to abdicate, the building of the republic, and the creation of North-South unity, Mr. Yuan Shikai’s contributions are solely indispensable.” Nobody in 1912 condemned Yuan Shikai as a usurper or a national thief. Those rhetorical political terms were the products of a much later time. A balanced analysis shows that Yuan indeed took advantage of the complicated situation and calculated his potential gains and losses. Nevertheless, all political participants in the revolution felt blessed with multiple satisfactions, at least for the time being. Interesting enough, all of them praised Yuan as an indispensable national leader. The negative image that later attached itself to him now needs an objective review.

In China’s transition from empire to republic, Yuan Shikai was a symbolic representative. His role in the national transformation was so crucial that an objective historical assessment is much needed. Although he later on became a notorious man who endeavored to build a new dynasty, his many positive roles should not be ignored. This book intends to offer a revisionist perspective by viewing Yuan in a broad historical background rather than seeing him from a narrowly politicized lens.

Details: Yuan Shikai: A Reappraisal is published in paperback by NIAS Press. Priced in local currencies.