China’s Warlord Era and Yuan’s Monarchical Fiasco (1912-1928)
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China’s Warlord Era and Yuan’s Monarchical Fiasco (1912-1928)

October 9, 2019


On the 12th of February 1912 Puyi, China’s
Last Emperor, abdicated. China now commenced into uncharted political
territory: it became a republic. One day after Puyi’s abdication, Dr. Sun
Yat-sen, provisional president of the Chinese republic, abdicated in favour of general Yuan
Shikai, given that he’d respect the Chinese republic. Yuan Shikai had other plans however, among
which eventually reinstating the monarchy. Not for nostalgic and sentimental reasons,
though. No… he himself would be the emperor of China. -intro- China’s New Republic Once Yuan Shikai was inaugurated as president,
one of his first acts was to acknowledge the independence of Eastern Mongolia and Tibet. Both had declared their independence once
Puyi had abdicated. As a result, Yuan’s regime earned international
recognition. Japan had come into contact with Yuan back
in 1885 when he was China’s viceroy in Korea. They were well aware of Yuan’s antics and
were the most reluctant of international powers. After some pressure they eventually caved
in anyway. The Republic of China under president Yuan
Shikai was now internationally recognized. One of the first problems that presented itself
to the new republic were its state finances. They were in disarray. The Beijing treasury was depleted and provinces
barely paid their taxes. Against extremely unfavourable terms Yuan
managed to receive a ‘reorganisation loan’ from the International Consortium, a group
of international bankers that also issued loans back when the Qing wanted to nationalize
railways. In short, the republic of China immediately
became dependent upon foreign loans and capital. Now, as for the governmental institutions
of China, drastic reform was required. A council was tasked with ensuring the establishment
of a healthy Chinese democracy. A provisional constitution was drafted in
March of 1912 and procedures were designed to ensure the formation of a legitimate government. On April 5 it was voted to move the provisional
government to Beijing (from Nanjing, which had been the revolutionary capital). China was now officially, for the first time,
a real united republic. It now began preparing for their first ever
national elections, which would be held in December that year. Only about 40 million men were allowed to
vote. A mere 10 percent of the population! Women, illiterates, those that were bankrupt
and opium smokers were some of the groups excluded from voting rights. The Guomindang vs Yuan Considering the establishment of democratic
institutions, Dr. Sun Yat-sen figured his revolutionary alliance, the Tongmenghui, was
ripe to transform into a party that was able to participate in a democracy. In August the Tongmenghui transformed into
the Guomindang. Sun Yat-sen became its chairman and Song Jiaoren
its prime minister, tasked with its organization. Song, just 30 years old, was adamant about
ensuring the protection of the rights of parliament and the limiting of the president’s powers. The situation had it that Yuan Shikai dominated
the provisional cabinet, as he had merely appointed loyalists and confidants. As the December election came closer, it was
clear the Guomindang enjoyed mass support over their 3 main rivals: the Progressive
Party (headed by Liang Qichao,famous for his role during China’s 100 days reform), the
Republican Party and the Unification party. These parties were three of the main contestants. In total, there were over 300 parties that
had a chance to receive at least one seat in parliament. In his struggle to maintain his power, Yuan
resorted to bribery, military force, assassinations, coerced the parliament, revised the constitution
and eventually he would even attempt to revive the monarchy. For now, as December rolled along China’s
first ever democratic elections were held. It was an incredible success for the Guomindang,
winning 269 out of the 596 seats in the lower house and 123 of the 274 Senate seats. It meant the Guomindang now had a strong mandate
to push for the election of the president and a dominant role in establishing the cabinet. The members of parliament that were elected
now made their way to Beijing to start fulfilling their posts. Song Jiaoren, overjoyed with the success of
his party, took the train to Beijing from Shanghai. About to board a train, waiting on the platform,
a man walked up to Song and shot him twice. It was the 20th of March. Song would die 2 days later, 2 weeks before
his 31st birthday and a few days before he was expected to be elected as China’s Prime
Minister. It is widely believed Yuan Shikai was the
chief orchestrator of the assassination. But all those that were either implicated
or investigating the assassination were themselves murdered, or simply disappeared. Yuan never faced justice for ordering the
assassination – in fact, a traditionally anti-Qing revolutionist weapon, Yuan Shikai now adopted
assassination as a way to remain in power. He had already ordered various assassinations
on pro revolutionist generals. He gave a signal to all of China: the power-holder
is above the law. After Song’s murder, the Guomindang delegates
that did assemble in parliament quickly attempted to curb Yuan’s influence by developing a
permanent constitution and demanding a new, open presidential election. National finances were another issue: the
unfavourable loan by the consortium was heavily criticized. It seemed he was mortgaging China’s revenues
to foreigners. Borrowing 21 million pound-sterling from the
six-power consortium of Western powers, China would have to repay with interest until 1960,
amounting to over triple the amount borrowed. Feeling the heat, Yuan Shikai used bribes
to buy off Guomindang legislators in parliament. Those that refused to rescind their seat were
soon visited and harassed by the police and military. Guomindang military governors were dismissed
in Southern provinces during May.. Southern provinces rose up against Yuan and
declared their independence. But they were no match for Yuan’s professional
army and senior commanders. The rebellion was swiftly crushed. Within 2 months Nanjing was captured by the
reactionary general Zhang Xun. He would in later years attempt to put Puyi
on the throne again. On October 6th Yuan Shikai was elected president
after strong arming the parliament into voting for him. It took three ballots to get a majority, but
yeah, there wasn’t really anything parliament could do to oppose him at this point. Once elected, Yuan marked the Guomindang as
a seditious organization and ordered it to be dissolved. Sun, Huang and other Kuomintang leaders fled
to Japan. Their dreams of a Chinese republic in shambles. In January 1914, in true autocratic fashion,
Yuan dissolved the parliament. Within a month the provincial assemblies and
local government organizations were dissolved as well. His cabinet resigned shortly after. Yuan was now officially China’s dictator. Yuan’s Monarchical Fiasco Yuan now had to legitimize his dictatorial
reign. On May 1st 1914 a constitutional compact,
drafted by 66 men from his cabinet, replaced the constitution. Yuan now had unlimited power over war, finance,
foreign policy and citizens’ rights. He relied on loans, as his annual income through
taxes was only 2 million Yen, whereas the Qing’s annual income was 260 million.He
ran a deficit of 13 million every month. Yuan attempted to push through several reforms
nevertheless. Using overpaid and underused foreign advisors,
he hired a foreign policy expert, railway specialist, military attaché and jurist. He wanted to establish an independent Judiciary,
ironic, considering he just subverted the constitution. Basically, in all these sectors Yuan had big
ambitious plans… they were a bit unrealistic as well, considering the circumstances. Still, in 1914 the first world war broke out
in Europe. This bloody slaughter couldn’t have come
at a better time for Yuan. Without foreign interference, Yuan figured
he’d be able to cement his position as China’s autocrat. European powers were preoccupied in Europe,
but one nation was motivated as ever to get involved in China. The Japanese, formally allied with Britain
since 1902, declared war on Germany in August 1914 and started to occupy the German concessions
in China. It was time to execute its design to expand
influence in China. The so-called 21 Demands were presented to
Yuan. Japan wanted even more economic rights, joint
control of China’s iron and coal works and China had to permit Japanese military and
police in northern China. Yuan was very well aware of China’s military
inferiority and tried to modify some conditions but yielded nonetheless. It wasn’t worth the fight, his hands were
tied. Before the demands could be implemented, however,
its content was leaked to the Chinese press. Anti-Japanese and Anti-Yuan nationalism swept
China. Once again, provinces started declaring their
independence, disgruntled with Yuan so willing to capitulate to Japanese demands. As opposition grew louder, so did Yuan’s
crackdowns against the opposition. Newspapers were censored and forced to run
articles glorifying Yuan. Perhaps in order to polish his prestige, rumours
were spread many people actually wanted Yuan to reinstate the monarchy. After some appropriate “hesitation” on
Yuan’s side, in December 1915 a representative assembly voted, allegedly unanimously, in
favour of Yuan to become emperor. All 1993 of them. It would not last for long. Foreign observers and advisors figured the
Chinese yearned for a central figure of power… but it was a miscalculation. The backlash was enormous. Barely anyone was eager to welcome a new imperial
dynasty. Officers, allies, officials and his military
protegés abandoned him en masse. Once again, massive protests swept the country
and provinces started declaring their independence. Yuan declared he’d reverse the monarchy,
but Western support he was hoping for was not forthcoming and his prestige was in shambles. He died on June 16th 1916 at the age of 56,
a broken man. Rumours that he was poisoned last to this
day. The 21 demands by Japan were not instated,
nor did Yuan manage to establish his empire. Li Yuanhong who reluctantly became the face
of the Wuhan revolutionaries, now, once again reluctantly, accepted the defamed position
of president. His future as president was not bright, however. The Warlord Era It didn’t take long for China to deteriorate
into political chaos. Regional military chieftains, known as warlords,
led their respective provincial armies into battle against each other. Back in 1911 revolutionaries without an army
but with a party did not manage to consolidate their power. During the Warlord era between 1916 and 1928,
warlords with armies but no parties proved equally ineffective. It goes without saying that this period was
pushing to the limits the amount of suffering the Chinese population could take. Within a year of Li Yuanhong becoming president,
a military coup occurred. Zhang Xun served as Field Marshal under Li,
yet in June 1917 he seized Beijing and declared the restoration of the Qing dynasty under
Puyi, now an 11 year old boy. Many civilians in Beijing, including Kang
Youwei who resided there, hurried to the Forbidden City to serve the new Emperor. Within a month however, Beijing was sieged
by rival warlords and Zhang Xun was defeated. He fled to the Dutch legation, leaving Chinese
politics for good. Puyi remained in the Forbidden City until
1924. Considering the coup was suppressed by other
warlords, any credibility the central government had evaporated and the next decade was tainted
by feuding warlords. Often from extremely varying backgrounds,
they had several overlapping characteristics: Primarily, most had a strong personality and
a loyal subordinate force of soldiers and officers. That didn’t mean their characters didn’t
vary widely: some were former bandits, others were educated men attempting to instill a
sense of morality on their troops. Shanxi’s warlord, Yan Xishan stated he created
the perfect ideology to run his province – which was supported by the fact he was one of the
longest sitting warlords. Until 1949! At any rate, often a large city was subjected
to paying tax and ensuring these soldiers were fed. They were not the protectors of local civilians,
but were an absolute terror. Secondly, throughout the political chaos these
warlords often sought support from Chinese institutions. This meant seeking appointments to official
ranks, seats and documents signed by civil officials. They needed the support of civilian politicians
and government. The discrepancy and their power resulted from
the modern technological and military capabilities (such as steamboats, railways and certain
guns) in combination with political institutions that had not even existed for a decade. Lastly, the nature of warlords and their politics
was extremely confusing to nearly everyone. Sudden shifts in alliance and treason was
not uncommon. All warlords attempted to increase their political
power whilst acknowledging the existence of the Chinese state. There were 3 warlords that stood out. Not indebted to Yuan Shikai for their early
careers, two of them often teamed up on the third, double crossing each-other multiple
times. The first was Chang Tso-lin, the “Warlord
of Manchuria”. A bandit earlier in life, he allied with Japan
against Russia in 1905 and had been Mukden’s military governor ever since. The second was Wu Pei-fu, educated in the
Confucian classics and by Japanese officers. British and Chinese often publicly supported
him, as they figured he was the best bet for peace and stability in China. The third was Feng Yuhsiang. Originally a peasant, this large man was converted
to Protestantism which earned him the nickname “Christian General”. His troops were extremely well disciplined
and had the habit to bless his troops before going into battle. He fought under Wu Peifu’s command at first,
only to betray the Beiyang warlords in 1924 by launching a coup that broke their power. There were many more warlords. To give you an idea between 1922 and 1926
there were 6 wars between provinces. Official casualties have not been recorded
but the systematic pillaging, taxation and slaughter obviously caused incredible suffering
upon the Chinese population. End of World War I Under Premier and Warlord Duan Qirui, China
entered World War I on the Allied side under the pretense that if Germany was defeated,
the German concessions in Shandong would be returned. Imagine the surprise of China’s delegation
(and country as a whole) when they were told at the conference for the Versailles Treaty
that German concessions were to be given to Japan. Several more disadvantageous treaties had
been signed behind the back of most Chinese, granting the Japanese more influence on the
mainland. During this warlord chaos Sun Yat-sen managed
to return to China. In 1917 he arrived in Canton and for the next
years played a visible but inconclusive role in Chinese politics. Looking back at his political career, he too
must have realized China seemed much weaker and more divided than it would have been under
the Qing. It is testament to his tenacity and perseverance
that he continued his struggle and followed the dream he had envisioned for China. The ‘betrayal’ of the Versailles Treaty
sparked a new generation of nationalists and anti-Western sentiment. These would struggle for a better China the
coming decades, often taking very different political approaches. I feel this is a good time to wrap up this
documentary series about the fall of the Qing dynasty, over 70 years of Chinese wars, rebellions,
upheavals and reforms. Epilogue to the entire documentary We have come to an end of this documentary
about the downfall of the Qing dynasty. Reading about the last decades of the Qing
dynasty has been captivating, interesting, frustrating at times, but never has it been
boring or a chore. I could go on and extend this documentary
to the power struggle within the Guomindang after Sun’s death, the rise of China’s
communist party and Mao Zedong, the ensuing civil war, Japan occupying China in World
War 2 or even the civil war after World War 2, once again between communists and nationalists. All the way up to the Communist victory in
1949, and perhaps even further than that. I could. And perhaps I will. For now, I have over 80 pages of script and
over 130 pages of notes pertaining to this documentary series. If you have watched it up to this point, over
2 hours of footage in total, I hope you learned a bit and found it interesting. It has been an incredible joy to work on this. Hundreds of hours were spent and I don’t
think I could have spent them any better. Thank you for watching. I am humbled by the positive response this
project has received and I am planning on creating many more in-depth documentaries
such as this one. I am already working on one, and for the next
two months uploading will remain, as usual, at two videos per week. If you have any suggestions for future topics,
feel free to leave a comment. Don’t forget to subscribe. See you next time.

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  1. This is the last chronological video of my End of Empire series. I am very humbled by the positive response this series has received and am already working on the next big project!

    Timecodes

    0:44 China's New Republic

    2:35 The Guomindang vs Yuan Shikai

    6:49 Yuan's Monarchical Fiasco

    10:08 The Warlord Era

    13:48 The End of World War 1

    15:06 Epilogue to the entire documentary

    Sources

    Baum, R. (2010). The Fall and Rise of China. The Great Courses: Modern History.

    Fairbank, J. K., & Reischauer, E. O. (1989). China: tradition & transformation (Vol. 57). Boston: Houghton Mifflin Company.

    Horst, D. (1977). Geschiedenis van China. Het Spectrum.

    Spence, J. D. (1990). The search for modern China. WW Norton & Company.

  2. Imagine if China didn't break after the fall of Qing, Japan wouldn't join the axis as they couldn't possibly conquer a unified China state and the there would be no rise of the communist and Chinese people would have democracy and freedom and can play a larger role during World War 2 and the cold war(if that happens) as Republic of China was a historical friend of Russia and Germany.

  3. The my least favorite part of Chinese history. Stupid Yuan Shika then stupid Warlord. Can’t believe Yuan Shika let Tibet and Mongolia gain independence also giving Japan the demand.

  4. Thank you for this series. I would have liked to see more episodes on the warlords. Looking forward to your next big project nonetheless. 💪😎

  5. Yeah man thanks for the documentary,mus'nt be easy when the channel is still relatively small. Very kind of you to do it!

  6. Just got back from China. Fell in love with the culture and amazed at how advanced they have become. Your videos helped me put in perspective how they became a world superpower in such a short time. Its jaw dropping. China IS the future, and here is the US we need to get our heads out of our butts and put down the foam we are #1 fingers or we arw going to get left far behind.

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