Yuan Shikai (1859-1916) was a military leader and politician in late imperial China. He was president of the Republic of China from 1912 to 1916. He came to prominence after meritorious military service in Korea (at that time a vassal state of China) in the 1880s, and was appointed to command the modern Beiyang Army created after the humiliations of the Sino-Japanese War of 1894-95. During the Boxer Rebellion of 1899-1900 he was governor of Shandong, and adopted firm measures to drive the Boxers out of his province.
In the last years of the Qing dynasty he was forced into retirement by courtiers jealous of his power, but after the Wuchang rebellion of 10 October 1911 escalated into a nationwide anti-imperial movement, he was recalled by the Qing and made prime minister in a last-ditch attempt to retain power. Yuan, however, was secretly negotiating with the republican rebels and, having forced them into a military stalemate, was able to name the terms for his support. Sun Yat-sen, the provisional president of the republic, stood down. On 1 January 1912, Yuan became president.
Almost immediately he began to restrict the activities of the newly elected national assembly, and after the assassination in 1913 of Song Jiaoren, parliamentary leader of the Nationalist Party, or KMT. Sun Yat-sen responded with a nationwide revolt called the Second Revolution. Yuan was able to crush dissent, and was hailed by the foreign powers as the 'strong leader' they had sought for China.
The Twenty-One Demands
However, in 1915 Japan, taking advantage of the preoccupation of the western powers with the war in Europe, was able to force Yuan to accede to its Twenty-One Demands, a humiliating list of concessions which, had they been fully implemented, would have reduced China to little more than the status of a Japanese protectorate.
Yuan's power base was the Beiyang Army. He had appointed Beiyang officers as provincial governors when he first came to power. The onrush of events in Beijing forced the president delegate ever more authority. He grew distant from key officers. In 1913, the military governors were granted wide authority to deal with the KMT rebellion. The Beiyang officers were well-trained for the role of warlords. After all, they had watched Yuan maneuver and frustrate the Qing government for many years.
In 1915, Japan's Twenty-One demands aroused much public opposition. Yuan eventually accepted thirteen of these demands. Yuan proclaimed himself emperor in 1915. Although they had little sense of loyalty to the Republic, the Beiyang officers decided to take advantage of the uproar against Yuan's empire to assert themselves as autonomous warlords. Zhang Zuolin was one of a handful of senior officers who supported Yuan's proclamation. In gratitude, Yuan made Zhang military commander for Manchuria, a large frontier district in the northeast. At this time, Manchuria was thinly populated. But it would develop quickly in the years that followed. Faced with nearly unanimous opposition, Yuan renounced his imperial pretensions after only a few months. He died shortly afterwards.
Yuan's concentration of power into the hands of a military elite made, in the short term, for effective, if reactionary, government. However, he left no obvious heir, and although a junta of military leaders ruled China subsequently, within a very few years this began to collapse into faction and civil war. The so-called Warlord Era in Chinese history is generally reckoned as lasting from 1916 to 1928, but warlordism was a major factor in Chinese politics right up to the Communist victory in 1949, and even after that the Communist rulers were very sensitive to any manifestations of regionalism and warlordism within their own ranks.