(2) The North-South Peace Conference and Yuan Shikai’s Ascendancy as the Provisional President

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After the 1911 Wuchang Uprising (武昌起義), most of China’s provinces declared independence successively. Yuan Shikai (袁世凱), who had been dismissed, was hastily recalled and appointed the Prime Minister of the Cabinet. He was tasked with leading an expedition to quell the revolution in the south. To seek benefits as a middleman, the manipulative Yuan intimidated the revolutionaries with force, while threatening the Qing government with the revolutionaries.

On 1 December, a ceasefire agreement for the Wuhan (武漢) region was reached between the South and the North. Shortly afterwards, Yuan sent Tang Shaoyi (唐紹儀) as his representative to meet with Wu Tingfang (伍廷芳, also known as Ng Choy or Ng Acho), the representative of the independent provinces, for the North-South Peace Conference.

The negotiations were suspended when the Republic of China was established on 1 January 1912. By then, Yuan’s Beiyang Army (北洋軍) had already captured two of the “Three Towns of Wuhan” (武漢三鎮). To prevent the division of the nation by civil war, Sun Yat-sen (孫中山) agreed to cede the position of provisional president to Yuan under three conditions: he must facilitate the Qing Emperor to abdicate, approve the Republic, and uphold the Constitution.

On January 26, numerous Beiyang generals telegrammed their support for the Republic. On 12 February, Emperor Xuantong (宣統) announced his “voluntary” abdication under Yuan’s coercion. Sun then tendered his resignation. On 15 February, the senate elected Yuan as the Provisional President of the Republic of China. The new government originally intended to make Nanjing (南京) the capital of the Republic. However, Yuan refused to leave his turf in the North, under the pretext of preventing a mutiny there. He insisted on assuming office in Beijing (北京) on 10 March and the revolutionaries compromised.

Why did Sun Yat-sen cede his position of the Provisional President of the Republic of China to Yuan Shikai when he had already assumed office?

See answer below.

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In 1909, after dismissed by the regent Zaifeng (載灃, or Prince Chun﹝醇親王﹞), Yuan Shikai returned to his hometown in Henan Province (河南). The photo shows the retired Yuan fishing. Although he had been dismissed, he still had tremendous influence in the Beiyang Army, the strongest military force in Qing China at that time.

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When the Wuchang Uprising broke out in 1911 and numerous provinces responded, the Qing government had no choice but to recall Yuan Shikai to lead the Beiyang Army to suppress the revolution. On the left: Feng Guozhang (馮國璋), the Beiyang general ordered by Yuan to suppress the revolution in Hubei Province (湖北); on the right: the Beiyang Army equipped with German machine guns during the attack on Wuhan. It was far superior to the revolutionary army in terms of training and equipment.

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By the end of 1911, the Beiyang Army bombarded the revolutionary army’s base in Wuhan. It captured Hankou (漢口) and Hanyang (漢陽) on 2 and 27 November respectively, leaving Wuchang in dire straits.

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Instead of following up his victory by wiping out the revolution, Yuan Shikai agreed to start the North-South Peace Conference. Pictured is a photo of Tang Shaoyi (left), representing the North; Wu Tingfang (right), representing the South; and a British Edward Selby Little.

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At that time, Yuan Shikai’s Beiyang Army was the only force the Qing government could rely on. Meanwhile, the revolutionaries were unable to resist the Beiyang Army. To manipulate the situation to his benefit, Yuan intimidated the revolutionaries by force, while using them to threaten the Qing government into peace negotiations with the South. On 18 December, the North-South Peace Conference officially commenced in Shanghai (上海). Wu Tingfang and Tang Shaoyi were representatives of the South and the North respectively. Edward Selby Little, both a British representative of the foreign merchants in Shanghai and an intermediary, participated the peace talks with the foreign consuls of six nations.

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Keen to put an end to the monarchy as soon as possible and prevent the division of the nation by civil war, Sun Yat-sen strove for Yuan Shikai’s support for the Republic, and was willing to resign and let Yuan become the provisional president. On the left: a group photo titled “Photo commemorating President Sun’s tendering of resignation to the Provisional Senate, taken in the founding year of the Republic of China (中華民國元年孫大總統向臨時參議院辭職攝影)”. The sixth figure from the left in the front row is Sun. On the right: an illustration in the French newspaper Le Petit Journal that depicts Yuan cutting off his queue to show support for the Republic the day after he was elected as the provisional president (16 February 1912).

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On 22 January 1911, Sun Yat-sen issued a statement pledging to resign and cede his position to Yuan Shikai as long as the latter supported the Qing emperor’s abdication. On 26 January, acting on Yuan’s implicit orders, numerous Beiyang generals telegrammed their support for the Republic. On 13 February 1912, the day after the Qing emperor’s abdication, Yuan also telegrammed his support for the Republic. Sun immediately resigned to the provisional senate and it was approved a day later. On February 15, the provisional senate officially elected Yuan as the Provisional President of the Republic of China.

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To limit Yuan Shikai’s power as the provisional president, Sun Yat-sen made upholding the Constitution and assuming office in Nanjing two of the conditions for him to comply with. On 27 February, Sun sent a special envoy group to escort Yuan to Nanjing. Pictured is a photo of the special envoy group in Beijing. In the front row, the first figure from the left is Wang Jingwei (汪精衛) and the fourth figure from the right is Cai Yuanpei (蔡元培).

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Between 29 February and 6 March, the Beiyang general Cao Kun (曹錕) fabricated a “mutiny” in Beijing under Yuan Shikai’s orders. Widespread arson and looting occurred in the city, killing numerous civilians (see picture). The incident provided an excuse for Yuan to stay at his turf in Beijing and not to leave for Nanjing, the revolutionaries’ power base.

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On 10 March 1912, Yuan Shikai assumed the post of the provisional president in Beijing. Pictured is a photo of him with his Beiyang generals at the oath-taking ceremony.

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A photo of Sun Yat-sen (right) and Tang Shaoyi. After assuming office as the provisional president, Yuan Shikai appointed Tang as the Premier of the Cabinet.

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Sun Yat-sen in a group photo taken on 3 April 1912 before he departed Nanjing for Shanghai. The first three figures from left in the front row are Huang Xing (黃興), Tang Shaoyi, and Sun Yat-sen respectively.

Why did Sun Yat-sen cede his position of the Provisional President of the Republic of China to Yuan Shikai when he had already assumed office?

Although the Republic of China was established, the revolutionary party in the south was militarily weak and could not stand up to Yuan Shikai’s Beiyang Army. Before the Qing emperor abdicated, two of the “Three Towns of Wuhan” they first conquered during the Xinhai Revolution (辛亥革命, or 1911 Revolution) were recaptured by the Beiyang Army. Even among the revolutionaries, a significant number - including core members such as Huang Xing and Hu Hanmin (胡漢民) - advocated Yuan’s succession to throne. Thus, Sun Yat-sen agreed to cede the presidency to Yuan under the conditions that the latter would facilitate the Qing emperor’s abdication, approve the Republic, and uphold the Constitution. His decision was driven by the objective and overall circumstances; it also amply demonstrated his selflessness and integrity. Hence, after assuming office as the provisional president, Sun immediately telegrammed Yuan to reassure him that he “filled the position temporarily and in name only, and it is actually awaiting you”. When Yuan took up office, Sun immediately had the provisional senate announce the Provisional Constitution of the Republic of China (《中華民國臨時約法》) to supervise Yuan.

Sources of most photos used in this feature piece: Fotoe and misc. photo sources.

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