When he was elected president of China in 1912, Yuan Shikai was hailed as his nation’s George Washington, yet four years later he would die as the leader of a country in turmoil after a failed bid to become its emperor. In Yuan Shikai: A Reappraisal
(University of British Columbia Press, 2018), Patrick Fuliang Shan
uses recent studies of Yuan’s career to examine this controversial figure in a new light. A member of a prominent family of public servants, Yuan’s failure to pass the civil service exams led him instead to adopt a more congenital career in the military. There he quickly established a reputation as an effective imperial official and military reformer, most notably in training China’s first modern army in the aftermath of the First Sino-Japanese War. His subsequent success in a series of increasingly prominent postings culminated in his appointment as Foreign Secretary in 1907, only to be dismissed a year later when his patroness the Dowager Empress Cixi died. Recalled in 1911 to deal with the rebellion in Wuchang, his military credentials made him an indispensable addition to the new republic after the abdication of the last Qing emperor. As Shan demonstrates, Shikai’s popularity declined with his growing assumption of authority, to the point where his attempt to revive the monarchy left him isolated and facing rebellions left unresolved at his death in 1916.