Yuan Shih-k’ai by Jerome Chen

YuanAh, hostile biography. Today I’ll be discussing what I’ve picked up reading a book about Yuan Shih-k’ai (now just Yuan Shikai), the first President of post-revolutionary China. He’s one of those figures I’d never even heard of, and when I stumbled upon Jerome Chen’s eponymously titled  biography of the man, I decided to read it mostly out of curiosity regarding his role in Seoul in the turbulent 1880s.

I’d assumed his involvement there was the main reason the book was in the library’s holdings at all, to be honest, but it turns out he’s actually more like China’s equivalent of Syngman Rhee, except that just before his downfall, he decided to try and get instated as Emperor of China. (The idea of a reinstatement of monarchy was popular there in 1915.) By Chen’s estimation, Yuan was a general failure, basically mocked by the people and hated by anyone whose opinion mattered.

The biography has a few interesting tidbits, though.

For one thing, the Boxers Rebellion took place during Yuan’s tenure as governor of Shandong, and among the things he did immediately was to check whether the Boxers actually had supernatural powers:

A number of Boxers willing to put themselves to the test were killed by his firing squad. Previous demonstrations had reportedly left the Boxers unscathed (proving only, one supposes, that Yuan’s marksmen were more accurate than their predecessors), Yuan charged that even in force the Boxers were ineffective, noting that once 400 to 500 of them attacked a single church and failed to take it. “How can they wipe out foreigners? Even if they could recruit millions of people and roam around everywhere, spreading like bush fires, what effect would they have?”(46)

Boxers. Many of them really did believe their own hype, the poor bastards.

One wonders what Yuan’s men thought of the process of testing, as well as how many “many” actually means? Did they just keep shooting Boxers until nobody left was willing to test his mystical powers? How long did that take? The Boxers, like the Taipings, are interesting examples because of the cult-like aspects of their organization, which go hand-in-hand with the radical goals of their movement.

Of course, one of the things that Yuan is remembered for is what Chen calls (in a rhetorically very Red moment) “flunkyism”: he was an ardent and somewhat naïve internationalist, believing that developed/Western nations would be willing to help China out as it sought to modernize and develop itself. Perhaps this was why he was so eager to take on loans from anyone willing to make them: Belgium, America, Britain, and so on.

Britain, meanwhile, took a hardline with Yuan’s China:

The British attitude was clearly summarized in the Times on September 5, 1913: “The Chinese republic has been plainly warned that it will not be recognized by the British government until it undertakes to respect the autonomy of Tibet, in accordance with well-understood treaty obligations.” Yuan had stirred up the issue of Tibet in April 1913 by reasserting China’s claim to the area. Britain had protested, and following the Dalai Lama’s return from Indian on July 24, a revolt broke out. In August, Sir John Jordan sent a note recognizing China’s suzerainity over the area but denying her sovereignty. The note protested China’s “interference with the internal affairs of Tibet” and presented Britain’s conditions for recognizing Yuan’s government. (141-42)

In fact, the press in China was indignant—understandably, given that the Britain that was worriedly hand-wringing about Chinese imperialism then owned the biggest empire on Earth—and neither the Chinese government nor the Chinese assembly ratified the conventions penned at the Simla Conference in October of that year… but that didn’t stop Yuan from recognizing Tibet’s autonomy… and the republic of China being recognized by Britain on the very same day. (The power of telegraphs at work!) There were similar wranglings over Mongolia at the same time, with China and Russia playing chicken over the territory. (The Russians had made a massive loan to the Mongolians, in exchange for overseeing their finances!)

As for Japan, well, that’s interesting. According to Chen:

The revolutionary years in China were years of Japanese passivity toward the Asian continent. On the question of recognition, she had only two demands—that the powers act in unison, and that the British and Japanese ministers arrange for a declaration on the subject of treaty rights before recognition. (145)

That’s interesting because, if you ask a Korean what the years of 1911-1915 were like, they don’t paint a picture of Japanese passivity at all: Japan had been actively trying to horn in on Korea since the 1880s, and was in the process of taking over the Korean peninsula at the time. Japan does manage to pose a threat in Chen’s narrative, mind you: Sir John Jordan characterized Japan as “a highwayman well armed” with whom there was no reasoning. (Indeed, he says Japan was even worse than Germany had been toward Belgium, though a Reuter dispatch at the time suggested that “the real root of the problem is the fact that [China] still looks down on Japan” (156) and couldn’t see its way to respecting Japan as an equal, much less an equal of developed nations… something that, at least militarily, the rest of the world was to some degree forced to do when Japan trounced the Russians in the Russo-Japanese war not long before.) Meanwhile The U.S. State Department was leery to side with China: Wilson feared that it would provoke Japanese hostility toward China, at the very least, and figured the Japanese were being pushy enough already.

Eki Hioki, trying hard to be dapper. (Source)
Eki Hioki, trying hard to be dapper. (Source)

To be fair, Japan’s spokesman does a pretty good job of making Japan look bad: Minister Hioki Eki, who was tasked with presenting Yuan’s government with the demands of the Japanese government (the notorious Twenty-One Demands), basically described the Japanese rationale as the logical response to the disarray in Beijing:

The present crisis throughout the world virtually forces my government to take far-reaching action. When there is a fire in a jeweler’s shop, the neighbors cannot be expected to refrain from helping themselves. (156)

Because, hey, looters gonna loot, I guess?

It’s a funny moment: visit Tokyo and you’ll probably run across at least one example of this same rhetoric, albeit half-sanitized and dressed up for modern audiences (especially at a place like the Yasukuni Shrine/Museum): no talk of the necessity and naturalness of looting, but a lot of the “we had no choice” because of “the present crisis throughout the world”… except that one suspects Hioki doesn’t mean the crisis of Western colonialism, just the crisis of war between the Western powers… and of course, these days they leave out all mention of, like, how Japan looting Asia was as natural as any propoerty crime during a neighborhood disaster. Mind you, Hioki is referring not only to the Great War, but also the utter mess in Beijing… and the response by the Chinese was a huge outcry, a boycott of Japanese goods, and an even more bellicose and pushy Japan.

That mess in Beijing, which opened the door to Japanese and other aggression, is part of why Yuan manages to come out looking even more at fault than anyone else for the troubles that would follow in China. He was seen as a superstitious power-monger by the people, as one urban legend that circulated among his officers in 1915:

Yuan had a habit of taking a short nap after lunch and having a cup of tea immediately afterwards. A boy was given the job of bringing him the tea.

One day when the boy went into the bedroom, carrying the tea in an exquisite jade cup, he saw, not his master, but a huge toad sitting on the couch. Stunned, he dropped the cup on the floor. Fortunately, the noise did not disturb the sleeping president.

The boy tiptoed out of the room and then ran to an elderly servant who treated him as a son. He told the old man what had happened and tearfully begged him to make up some story that would keep Yuan from punishing him for breaking the valuable cup. The old man pondered a while and then told the child what to say, should their master ask any questions.

Presently, Yuan woke  up to find his tea in a porcelain beaker. He at once summoned the boy and asked him where the jade cup was. The boy answered truthfully.

“Broken?” Yuan’s tone was severe. But the boy calmly explained, “Yes, Sir, because I saw something very strange.” “What?” demanded the master, visibly annoyed. “When I came in here a moment ago with a cup of tea, I did not see you, Sir, on the couch, but…” “But what? You liar?” “But a five-clawed golden dragon.” “Rubbish!” the master shouted, but his anger suddenly left him. He opened a drawer, took out a hundred-dollar bill, and thrust it into the boy’s hand. He cautioned him not to mention a word of what he had just seen to anyone else. (159)

Yuan’s officers were snickering about this not only because Yuan was widely understood to be superstitious, and known to have designs on the imperial throne, but also because he was not regal, more a toad than a dragon when all was said and done. 1

Besides, Yuan’s was a China where insane things were happening, including government hits arranged in the most ridiculous way. Sung Chiao-jen, the leader of the Kuomintang (the opposition party), was assassinated at Yuan’s order, shot in Shanghai right on the platform where he was supposed to board a train to Peking (Beijing). Yuan had to issue a warrant for the arrest of the shooter, but soon, all was made clear:

On the day after Sung’s death, an antique dealer walked into a Shanghai police station and made his statement: “Ten days ago, I delivered some antiques to Mr. Ying Kuei-hsing…, a customer of mine for some time. He showed me a photograph of a man and asked me to kill him at a certain place and time. He promised to give me a thousand dollars for the job. I am, as you can see, merely a businessman and have never killed anyone; so I refused. This morning I saw the same photograph in the papers.” Acting on this clue, the police arrested Ying in a private brothel in Shanghai. The next day, in a search of Ying’s home the police found a revolver with only two bullets in the chamber, three copies of the secret code used by the cabinet, and several telegrams in this code—some between Ying and Premier Chao Ping-chun’s confidential secretary, Hung Shu-tsu, and some between Ying and one Wu Shih-ying.

Long story short, there was a trial; afterward, Wu ended up dead in his cell, Ying was liberated by gangster buddies and moved to the German settlement in Tsingtao (Qingdao), and it was pretty clear to everyone that Yuan was involved, try as he might to have his secret police pin the blame one someone else, including an organization, no kidding, called the Women’s Assassination group. Poor Yuan was stupid enough to have let a government-organized, government-funded hit on the leader of the opposition be organized in such a slapdash way that random businessmen were being invited to kill the target for money, so I suppose it’s not surprising his attempted cover-up was that inept. Sun Yat-Sen went so far as to call for all-out war on Yuan, fearing he’d ruin China in the long run.

Sun Yat-Sen.

And it seems they were right in that appraisal: before long, Yuan met his end, and it wasn’t a particularly good one. Here’s how one contemporary commentator, Liang Ch’i-ch’ao, opined:

Yuan does not know the difference between a man and a beast. All he knows about human beings is that they fear weapons and love gold, and it is by these two things that he rules the country. For four years, there have been no politics in Peking except the ghostly shadows of a knife and a piece of gold… Day in and day out he has enticed people by waving a piece of gold in front of their eyes and waving a knife at their backs. By bribery and terror, he has enslaved our people… For four years, there have been no moral standards among the elite of our country. It cannot be denied that seven or eight of every ten of them are now thoroughly corrupt and rotten. Who is responsible for this? I do not hesitate a moment in saying that it has been entirely due to Yuan Shih-k’ai…. If his empire exists and continues to exst for many years to come, good people will continue to become fewer and fewer, until they eventually disappear: only the bad ones will survive and the entire Chinese nation will lose all sense of human values. (193)

That may sound alarmist from our perspective, but then the world was a different place in the early 1900s: outright colonialism was the status quo in a lot of places, and the Chinese struggled to adapt their thinking to this world. They tended to mix both Social Darwinist ideas (wherein better developed nations achieve superiority and wipe out less-developed ones) with Confucian notions of virtue manifesting in the fate of the Chinese nation. Mencius’s notion was sometimes invoked regarding how the man who gets insulted publicly is usually a man who has already insulted himself; Mencius had indeed already argued that the nation that is attacked by outsiders, typically is one that has already attacked its own vitality, as Chen explains: Chinese commentators in the revolutionary era felt that most Chinese people weren’t really fit for citizenship so much as for slavery… but that wasn’t for some inborn, racial reason: it was simply a function of their being (like their nation) “undeveloped.” Indeed, just as in Japan and Korea, the ancestor-mythology (in China’s case, descent traced back to the Yellow Emperor, and resultant inborn divine intelligence) was being revived during this period.

Ch’en T’ien-hua, “a Hunan revolutionary who drowned himself in protest in 1905” and “is sometimes regarded as the most virulent anti-imperialist of the 1900’s (sic)” (202), pointed out in one of his essays that the stakes were very high for China: after all, Indian and Poland had both fallen prey to external colonizers, and Africa had been divided up disastrously. The disunity in China, he feared, posed the greatest threat since it left a weakness open that foreigners could use to gain a foothold. His sense of foreign power was situational, though: in his essay, he asked,

How did the foreigners become so strong? So rich? Are they born so? No, they have achieved their power and wealth only in the last two centuries. (202)

Thus Ch’en argued what others in Asia had argued before him: that the best way to resist foreign imperialism was to learn from the would-be colonizers, to master their tricks. According to Ch’en, the greatest of those tricks was widespread education; he believed that they had “ceased to regard or treat the uneducated as human beings” and that this “had fostered public spirit, patriotism, and unlimited military, political, artistic, and industrial progress.” (202) What Ch’en had in common with both Yuan and Sun Yat Sen was the assumption that the only way forward for China was a new Chinese imperialism: that no inherently anti-imperialist program was conceivable.

Reading this book, I couldn’t help but wonder how history might have gone had things played out just a little differently. There were certainly a number of instances where things might have worked out better for Yuan (though, note, that would likely have been worse for China in the short term). What might have happened if Yuan had somehow managed to weather the storms, gain extensive foreign support, and stay in control of China? It’s a similar question to the one that has fascinated me for years, about what might have happened if the Taipings had been able to do so, and either split China in half, or take over.

My snap of the bust of Hong Xiuquan, the leader of the Taiping Rebellion.
My snap of the bust of Hong Xiuquan housed at the Nanjing Taiping Museum. Hong was the leader of the Taiping Rebellion.

In the case of Yuan, I can’t help but imagine that Southern China would have revolted… after all, this was only a couple of generations after the Taiping Rebellion, and most of the southerners alive at the time had either experienced that uprising directly, or grown up hearing endless stories about it. Yuan would doubtless have been as terrible an emperor in the long run as he had been ineffectual in the short run…. certainly as awful and Hong Xiu’quan would have been. But who might have taken the throne after him? Might the idea of Chinese unity collapsed as he clung to what he could, while some other nation-state arose in the South? If the Great War (World War I) hadn’t broken out, Britain would have been free to support Yuan, in exchange, say, for the release of Tibet and Mongolia (and, probably, Xinjiang later on).

  1. This does echo back to an old declaration among the documents of the Taiping Rebellion, issuing a punishment of death for anyone seeing a mystical creature like a dragon, phoenix, or kirin and failing to report it to the Taiping authorities: magical beasts were a sign that someone worthy was about to become emperor… and that was law under the rebel Taiping government during (albeit very early into) Yuan’s own lifetime.

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