Yuan Shikai undertook a cynical coup d’etat against Sun Yat-sen’s newborn republican government in China. In an effort to legitimize this power grab, Yuan hired one of Sun’s foreign advisors, an American political science professor named Frank Goodnow, to draft a new Chinese constitution.
Yuan Shikai’s Dictatorship in China
Professor Goodnow distrusted direct democracy, believing that the Chinese people were not yet politically mature enough to govern themselves. Consequently, when the new Chinese constitution was finally completed in 1914, it featured a very strong president with virtually unlimited executive authority.
The president was to be elected for a 10-year-term, with no limit to the number of terms he could serve. And he was further empowered to nominate his own successor. Taken together, these executive prerogatives ensured that Yuan Shikai could, if he so chose, remain president of China for life.
Thus armed with a new constitutional mandate, Yuan Shikai stepped up his drive to restore the dynastic system. First, he revived various Confucian rituals that had been abandoned at the time of the republican revolution, including the imperial rites of ancestral sacrifice performed at Beijing’s Temple of Heaven. He then convened, on his own initiative, a National Congress of Representatives, which voted dutifully—and unanimously—to restore the symbols and ceremonies of the Dragon Throne.
This is a transcript from the video series The Fall and Rise of China. Watch it now, on The Great Courses Plus.
The World War Disrupted Plans for a Dynastic Revival
Yuan Shikai might well have succeeded in his grand scheme of dynastic restoration had it not been for the unexpected outbreak of World War I, in August 1914. With the major foreign powers, the Western powers, in particular, focusing all their efforts and attention on the war in Europe, Japan now made its move in China.
Japan had nominally entered the war as an ally of France and Britain against the Austro-Hungarian Empire. But Japan’s military governors saw an opportunity to expand their own strategic foothold in China. And they grabbed it.
Back in 1900, at the conclusion of the Boxer Rebellion, the major foreign powers had all agreed, at the urging of the United States, to refrain from colonizing China or from seeking exclusive territorial privileges and concessions at the expense of other powers.
Learn more about the ‘normalization’ of U.S.–China relations.
The Open Door Policy
Though cloaked in the loftiest of democratic principles and Christian moral values, such as respect for China’s sovereignty and the reaffirmation of America’s sacred duty to protect the powerless Chinese against the rapacious Europeans, in reality, it was far from that. Some historians have even called it a covenant among thieves.
Fifteen years after the Open Door policy was formally endorsed by the nations of Europe, Japan set about quietly seeking to close the Open Door. So in January 1915, the Japanese government presented Chinese President Yuan Shikai with a shocking document.
Learn more about the end of the empire, 1900–1911.
The 21 Demands against China
Known as the ‘21 Demands’, the document called for China to recognize Japan’s paramount commercial and diplomatic interests, not only in Shandong Province but in Manchuria and Inner Mongolia as well.
In addition, the 21 Demands called for joint Sino-Japanese control of China’s infant iron and steel industries, and for Japanese advisors to assume key posts in China’s civil administration, as well as in its national army and police. If fully implemented, the 21 Demands would have reduced China to the status of a virtual Japanese semi-colony.
Yuan Shikai tried to bargain with them. In exchange for accepting the 21 Demands, Yuan asked for Japan to grant diplomatic recognition to his new imperial regime and to provide substantial financial aid to help modernize China’s industrial and military establishments.
Caught between a rock and a hard place, Yuan reckoned that given Japan’s vastly superior military power, resistance to the 21 Demands would be futile without firm European support. But such support was unlikely to be forthcoming in the midst of a major war in Europe. And so in May of 1915, Yuan Shikai reluctantly accepted the Japanese demands.
Learn more about Chiang’s last stand, 1945–1949.
The Public Came to Help and Yuan’s Plans for a New Dynasty Were Done for
But before a final deal could be struck, the contents of the 21 Demands were leaked to the public. There was an immediate angry outcry, as Chinese students, intellectuals, and members of the new commercial middle class accused Yuan Shikai of betraying China’s national honor. Within weeks, a movement to boycott all Japanese goods quickly spread to more than a dozen cities along China’s eastern seaboard.
Undaunted by this powerful patriotic backlash, Yuan Shikai forged ahead with his plan to restore the monarchy. In mid-December 1915 he declared that the following year, 1916, would mark the beginning of a new imperial reign, called the ‘Glorious Constitution’ (or Hongxian).
In the provinces, opposition to Yuan’s imperial restoration campaign rapidly gained momentum. Yunnan Province was the first to rebel, declaring its independence from Yuan in late December. This was followed in short order by Guizhou, Guangxi, Guangdong, Zhejiang, Shaanxi, Sichuan, and Hunan.
Urged by his advisors to retire from the presidency and travel abroad, Yuan stubbornly refused. Abandoned by his closest associates, and now— belatedly—overcome with shame and grief, Yuan died unexpectedly, on June 6, 1916.
Common Questions about How Yuan Shikai Strove for a Dynastic Revival in China
Japan’s 21 Demands included asking for control of some of China’s industries like steel and iron and asking for specific positions in the country to be held by Japanese people. If fully implemented, the 21 Demands would have reduced China to the status of a virtual Japanese semi-colony.
Yuan Shikai’s goal was a dynastic revival; he first revived various Confucian rituals and then restored the symbols and ceremonies of the Dragon Throne.
If Yuan Shikai wanted to, he could remain in the president’s position for his entire lifetime. This was because the elections were every 10 years with no limit to the number of terms that could be served. The president was further empowered to nominate his own successor.