- Yuan Shikai: A Reappraisal by Patrick Fuliang Shan
Since his death, Yuan Shikai has been one of the most controversial historical figures in modern China. For a long time, almost all the orthodox propaganda and scholarly works in both the Republican and the People's Republican periods have consistently portrayed Yuan Shikai as traitor, reactionary, or national thief. Despite the recent revisionist studies in both China and the West that attempt to correct some of the stereotyped misperceptions about Yuan Shikai's betrayal in the 1898 reform, brutality in suppressing the Boxers' Uprising, opportunism in the late Qing, and his usurpation in 1915, a comprehensive and serious study on Yuan Shikai has yet to have been undertaken. Thanks to the newly released personal documents and correspondence of Yuan Shikai, Patrick Shan is able to take a new look at Yuan and write this book. In his book, Shan provide readers with a powerful and mostly convincing reappraisal of Yuan based on both primary sources with due attention to traditional and revisionist scholarship. It will surely be a significant addition to the study of Yuan Shikai as well as modern China in the years to come.
Shan makes numerous contributions in this outstanding book. To cite a few, Shan has detailed Yuan's role in protecting Qing sovereign status in Korea by blocking the Korean government from using nationalist labels such as "Great Korea," by detailing Yuan's military training in Xiaozhan, and recounting his tackling the Italian concession in Tianjin. Contrary to the prominent assumption that Duan Qirui was Yuan's confidant, Shan shows evidence that Yuan had tried to curtail Duan's military power by appointing him as the Minister of the Department of the Army and chairman of the Board of Generals in 1914. In his conclusion, Shan gives fresh stories about Mao's decision to protect Yuan's tomb in the Cultural Revolution.
Shan's book contains twelve chapters that highlight the most critical periods of Yuan's career and life. The first two chapters discuss the rise of Yuan's family and Yuan's early life, including his struggles with the civil service examination, an eternal but failed dream of Yuan. The third chapter talks about Yuan's military experience in Korea in which Yuan's strong family connections, his excellent personal discipline and talent, and the support of higher-ranking officials helped him climb swiftly up the power ladder. After returning to China in the wake of a humiliating loss to Japan, Yuan was assigned by the court and his patron Li Hongzhang to train a new army at Xiaozhan. In this chapter, Shan argues that the new army laid the foundation for Yuan's power base from the turbulent years in the late Qing to the early [End Page 137] Republic. The negative image of being a traitor during the 1898 reform seems to have been indelible among Chinese. But Shan asserts that Yuan in nature was a reformer just like Kang Youwei and Liang Qichao. Yuan not only helped found the Strengthen Leaning Society but also participated in it at times (p. 78). Kang voiced a high regard for Yuan and believed that Yuan, probably the only reform-minded military officer Kang could trust, was able to assist the reformers when in need. The key difference between Yuan and Kang, as Shan notes, was that Yuan was relatively conservative while Kang was more radical and sought to "found a parliamentary system." In the meantime, Yuan also carefully maintained cordial relations with Ronglu, a Manchu noble. Shan questions Yuan's betrayal of Tan Sitong and the reformers and believes that Yuan has been wrongly faulted because empress dowager Cixi cracked down on the "coup" before Yuan's alleged report to Ronglu (p. 84).
As with his betrayal in 1898, Yuan's decision to repress the boxers in Shandong has also drawn much criticism. In Chapter Six, Shan remarks that Yuan disliked the boxers as bandits and wanted to eradicate them as quickly as...