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China - The Third Revoluion - 1915-1916

Yuan Shih-k'ai counsellors and henchmen set going the gathering of monarchical support, and the isolating of opposition to the president becoming emperor and saving China. The machine was set in motion on August 30, 1915. Yuan's coronation was postponed, possibly because Japan and the Entente Powers had expressed apprehension lest the restoration of monarchy lead to internal disorders in China and a disturbance of the international equilibrium in the Far East. The justice of this apprehension soon appeared. To be sure, an attempt at mutiny on 05 December 1915, by a handful of insurgents on board the Chinese training-ship Chao-ho in the harbor of Shanghai, proved premature.

But a formidable insurrection raised its head late in December 1915, under the leadership of Tsai Ao, former military governor of Yunnan. Tsai Ao's declared purpose was the restoration of the parliamentary, constitutional republic. From Yunnan the republican rebellion spread to the neighboring provinces of Kweichau, Kiangsi, Hupeh, and Szechuan. Mutiny broke out at the very important city of Nanking and in Fukicn and Hunan provinces. The new revolution was on. Widespread rebellions ensued, and numerous provinces declared independence.

The affair arising in the southern province of Yunnan was of a distinctly anti-monarchical character. It broke out directly upon the announcement that the elections in all the provinces had shown the voice of China to be for a return to monarchy. That these elections, in one province at least, had been "doctored" by President Yuan Shi-kai in his ambition to become Emperor was indicated by the immediate appearance of a body of rebels variously estimated at from fifty to a hundred and fifty thousand; they spread over much of the province (despite the fact that it has never fully recovered from the massacres following previous rebellions) and into the adjacent province of Szechuan. Yunnan and Szechuan were economic contrasts in one former great resource - the poppy. Its product varied in value according to the locality in which it was produced, that of Yunnan being the cheapest and that of Szechuan the costliest. The cause of the rebellion, so far from being an enthusiasm for liberal ideas and triumphant democracy, was said to be the fierce discontent of the opium planters because the Peking Government had forbidden the further production of "the herb of dreams."

The province of Yunnan is in the extreme southwest of China, and is bounded by Tongking, Siam, and Burma. Its numerous deep defiles make it an ideal land for warfare, especially in the west and in the wild northern part, where it joins the mountainous Szechuan, the largest, richest, and most populous province of China proper - its population being generally assumed at this time to be about sixty million. Szechuan is also a difficult land for any government to manage if its population should become disaffected.

By early 1916 cablegrams might have created the impression that the President-Emperor of China (to express an anomalous position by an anomalous title) was hard pressed by armies of revolutionists such as were gathered at Canton in the days of the "Chinese revolution," under the leadership of a group of liberals educated in foreign lands and inspired by foreign ideals. But, while it was true that fighting was going on over an extensive area of Chinese territory, some observers at the time concluded that this fighting offered no menace at all to the plans of Yuan Shih-kai, and seemingly not less true that it had nothing to do with the revolutionary Liberals of Canton. The Chinese risings in early 1916 in the north and south were of note, especially that in the south. The northern rising in Mongolia had little to do with the change of form of government at Peking from a republic to a monarchy. Moreover, it is believed to have been instigated by Russia for her own purposes.

In early 1916 the fighting was practically confined to the Province of Yunnan, and Yunnan, tucked into a corner of British Burma, is 1,500 or 1,600 miles from Yuan Shih-kai's capital at Peking, and this in a country with almost no railroads and only very feebly supplied with roads. And against these exceedingly distant malcontents Yuan's forces seemed to be making quite considerable headway. The two neighboring provinces to the north and east of Yunnan are Szechuan and Kweichau. In each of these Yuan had a Military Governor in command of a sufficiently strong force, pressing in upon the Yunnan rebels. The upper waters of the Yang-tse-Kiang, which at that point bear the poetical name of Kincha-Kiang, "River of Golden Sand," make a deep bend south into the northern half of Yunnan; at this point Yuan's forces have just crossed the river, and drove southward against the rebel stronghold at Yunnan-fu, which means "the walled City of Yunnan." And from the Province of Kwang-Si, on the southeast of Yunnan, yet another of Yuan's armies crossed the Yunnan border and seized Kiang-nan.

The Yunnan rebels overran some of Szechuan. Towns were captured by the rebels, but there were also Government victories. with the rebels' approach to Chengtu in early 1916, with its million inhabitants, the capital of Szechuan, and the most progressive of pure Chinese cities, they drew near to the West China University, recently established by American initiative, with President Yuan's personal, moral, and financial support. The interesting and attractive character of the inhabitants of the great hill and mountain land as revealed by the initial labors of American educators caused some surmises as to whether a desire for republicanism may not have developed along China's western border not to be easily overthrown. Certainly, as has been well said, these remote Chinese, free from the impressions left by gunboat diplomacy, were in a better mood to appreciate republican ideas.

As the Republican insurrection made headway, Yuan Shih-kai faltered in his determination to assume the crown. On January 21 the formal coronation, tentatively scheduled for February 12, was postponed sine die. On March 22 Yuan proclaimed that he would abandon the monarchical scheme altogether and would revert to the republican form of government. The staunch republican Hsu Shih Chang, who had resigned as a protest against the monarchical restoration, now reentered the cabinet as secretary of state.

A special session of the Council of State, 27 March 1916, repealed all monarchical legislation and legally restored the republican regime. Nevertheless, the republican insurgents in the southern provinces, thoroughly hostile to Yuan, pursued their military campaign. By the end of May all of the southern provinces, Yunnan, Kwangsi, Kwangtung, Fokien, Chikiang, Kiangsi, Hunan, and Kweichau, were dominated by the rebels; among the central provinces, Szechuan was in rebel hands and others were more or less disaffected; further north, Shensi and Shansi were said to have declared independence and Shantung was rapidly being conquered by revolutionaries, apparently with unofficial Japanese support.

Meanwhile President Yuan Shih-kai made desperate efforts to 'retrieve his blunder. He agreed to surrender all civil authority to a responsible Republican cabinet, 22 April 1916, with Tuan Chi-jui, a conspicuous Republican leader, as premier and war minister. This concession was scorned, however, by 216 members of the National Assembly, who refused to be conciliated so long as Yuan remained president. With opposition at every quarter and the nation breaking up into warlord factions, Yuan Shikai died of natural causes on 06 June 1916.

The South once more was jubilant, declaring that at last it had won. But in 1916 as in 1912 it was not really a victory for the Southern party: it was a qualified victory for certain Southern military leaders in certain Southern provinces, Tsai-ao, the brilliant young Yunnan leader, who had done all the fighting, dying before he could consolidate his gains and make his weight really felt. Vice-President Li Yuan-hung, who now assumed office as President, although a thoroughly honest man, was a mere hostage in Peking without a single soldier from his native province of Hupeh to support him. It required the revolt of the whole navy to force the Northern military party to agree even to the restoration of the provisional Constitution and the re-convocation of the dissolved Parliament of 1913; and, therefore, under the surface, when Parliament reassembled it was simply the situation of 1913 over again, minus Yuan Shihkai.

With the death of Yuan, the danger of China reverting to an imperial regime practically ceased. And yet the South was not ready to discard the sword and turn to the plough. In the preceding five years of intermittent warfare the governors and military leaders of the southern provinces seem to have acquired such an unalterable habit of fighting that they could not stop fighting even when the raison d'etre of revolution had disappeared. When there is nobody in Peking to fight against, the "leaders" of the South fight among themselves. That is what happened soon after Yuan's death.

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Page last modified: 11-07-2011 03:27:17 ZULU