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  • Yuan Shikai: A Reappraisal by Patrick Fuliang Shan
  • John Hickman
Shan, Patrick Fuliang. Yuan Shikai: A Reappraisal. Vancouver: University of British Columbia Press, 2018.

Offering a more balanced biography of a heretofore reviled leader requires intellectual courage. That is what Patrick Fuliang Shan, a professor of history at Grand Valley State University, displays with this new biography of Yuan Shikai, whose memory both nationalist and communist scholars often assail. Shan's Yuan Shikai: A Reappraisal presents the first president of the Republic of China as a leader who sought to negotiate the transition from the collapsing traditional monarchy to the emergence of a modern republic. While Yuan Shikai's initial opposition to the establishment of the republic, his elbowing aside of Dr. Sun Yat-sen as the provisional president of the republic, and his short-lived effort to establish himself as the founder of a new imperial dynasty are well known, Shan offers a fascinating narrative that traces his rise from provincial obscurity to national prominence. The result is a credible portrayal of an important figure in Asian history.

This account of Yuan Shikai's personal life and political career reveals his commitment to defending rather than overthrowing traditional Chinese values and institutions. Yuan Shikai was the scion of traditional bureaucratic landlord elites, a farming clan that occupied the borderland between Henan, Anhui, Jiangsu, and Shandong provinces that had succeeded in placing its talented young men in the imperial civil service for three generations. Raised in the polygamous household of an uncle, he carried on that tradition by marrying ten women and fathering thirty-two children. Yuan Shikai was born in a village that had been fortified against Nian rebels in the mid-nineteenth century and defending armed rebellion would characterize much of his life experience, which included the Tonghak Rebellion in Korea and the Boxer Rebellion in Shandong Province. Although Yuan Shikai acquired his first position in the civil service by purchasing official status after failing the civil service examinations, he won favorable attention when he displayed administrative talent in dealing with the famine relief efforts in Henan in the 1880s.

It was for his twelve years of service in Korea, however, that he achieved national prominence, first as a soldier and then as an administrator and diplomat. Yi Dynasty Korea was then an autonomous tributary state of Qing Dynasty China and in the last decades of the nineteenth century, both Korea and China confronted the challenges of internal political decay that was eagerly exploited [End Page 427] by a dynamic external aggressor. China had lost most of its client tributary states and was intent on maintaining hegemony in Korea because losing Korea would render the northern Chinese heartland even more geopolitically vulnerable. As Shan explains, Yuan Shikai thwarted Japanese ambitions in Korea.

From 1882 to 1885, he was a staff officer responsible for the logistics and discipline of the Chinese army after the Japanese military intervention and coup plotting during the reign of King Kojong. The royal court was beset by a factional struggle between conservatives and modernizers, the same cleavage that rent traditional ruling elites in China and Japan. Yuan Shikai's responsibilities expanded to include what would today be called supervision of civil-military affairs. During the December 1884 Kapsin coup by the Kaehwadang modernizing faction, which Japan supported, he persuaded many of the Korean troops he had trained to defect, which caused the coup to collapse and the Japanese to withdraw. From 1885 to 1878, Yuan Shikai served as the imperial commissioner in Korea, working to strengthen the ties that bound that kingdom to China. Achieving that depended on playing off factions in the court against each another while deepening Korea's dependence on China. While Yuan Shikai succeeded in maintaining Korea's tributary state status, he incurred the hostility of the Japanese, the Russians, and the Americans. He won the approval only of the British, who believed that their geopolitical interest would be furthered by an economically penetrable but not militarily weakened Qing Dynasty China.

The Tonghak Rebellion of April 1894 and China's defeat in the subsequent 1895 Sino-Japanese War resulted in only a temporary fall from imperial favor for...


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