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...