The President of the Chinese Republic
An Intimate Character Sketch of the Man Who is Now at the Head of Four Hundred Million People—The Oldest Nation Under the Sun Translated from the French.
WESTERN NATIONS know very little of the man who now bears the title of President of the Chinese Republic. The following sketch of his career and character is by the pen of one of his intimate friends supplied to the Parisian Magazine Lectures pour Tous from which we quote:
The day in October, 1911, when Yuan Che Kai, minister in disgrace, was commanded by Imperial decree to subdue the revolution which had just broken out at Hankow marked the termination of a dynasty which in China had lasted four thousand years; it also marked the starting point of a new regime now called the Republic.
The President of the Chinese Republic, although a man of letters is not literary by profession. It is rather as a soldier that he has gained distinction. With regard to accomplishments purely civil without which it was impossible to gain
preferment under the ancient Chinese regime, his success must be attributed to his qualities as a born leader of men, to his farsightedness and to his perseverance.
Born in the .Province of Hounan, so characteristic of the North of China, with its plains and valleys, its rich yellow soil, its mild and genial winters, its prolific crop of a soil diligently cultivated, he early had an opportunity of displaying his talents. China had hardly recovered from the Anglo-French invasion of 1860, from the Tai Ping revolt and from the great Mussulman war. Commissioner of the Empire at the Corean Court, Yuan CheKai, suddenly found himself struggling with a new adversary, Japan. It was there, no doubt, he first saw signs of the developments which were to draw China into the modern movement.
No lesson which could be learned from defeat was lost upon him; and when in 1900 the Europeans aroused the fanaticism of the Boxers; when the court allowed, these bands of desperadoes to make war on Europe, while looking on to see what would happen, Yuan Che Kai, then Governor of Shan Tung, adopted a firm attitude of friendship to the foreigners. From that time on there has existed between him and them a sympathetic understanding. Yuan foresaw that these “barbarians” would later become the involuntary regenerators of China and protected them in their temporary effacement. The foreigners for their part recognized what manner of man this was, a man nearer to themselves owTing to his possessing the qualities they most appreciated, and from that time sincere and cordial relations have always existed between him and them. When Yuan undertook the reorganization of the army of the North he quickly obtained all the support iie required. He accomplished the task he had undertaken, and at the grand manoeuvres the “barbarians,” who had been invited, were quick to recognize the fact that the unruly “tigers” of fornwdays had given place to men of a very different stamp, in fact, to soldiers.
Yuan’s importance in the State continued to increase. He was made Chancellor at the Court, viceroy of the Province of Tche-li. and was in dailv touch wdth his European friends. One of the closest of these was Mesny, a Frenchman who lost his life fighting the plague in Manchuria, and whose death was a severe blow to Yuan, whose favorite physician he was.
While at the height of prosperity, however, a reverse of fortune suddenly eclipsed Yuan for the time being. In 1908, both the Dowager Empress and the Emperor Kouang Sin died suddenly in somewhat mysterious circumstances. The disappearance of his protectress meant disgrace and exile for him, in fact, he was fortunate to escape with his life.
Prince Tch’ouen, brother of the iate Emperor, who had become regent, the new emperor being only four years old, ordered Yuan to retire to his estate at Hou Nan “to nurse his leg from which he was suffering,” and in a few hours
the Viceroy of the North took his departure. He retired to his palace at Chang Fou which he had fitted up and furnished in princely style worthy of a grandee of ancient China. The magnificent gTand hall where he received distinguished visitors was constructed of modern materials on plans in vogue in Chinese palaces from time immemorial. The roof was supported by massive red pillars and the woodwork consisted of beautifully carved and gilded panels, all of them of imperial origin—“tokens of esteem” presented by the Empress Dowager to her favorite minister, or bestowed upon him, at her dictation, by her dear nephew, and prisoner, the Emperor.
Yuan’s stay in this palatial residence and his period of disgrace seemed likely to be indefinitely prolonged, when in October, 1911, occurred the disturbances at Won Tchang, Hankow and Han Yang, first signs of the rising against the Empire, organized by the revolutionary party under Sun Yat Sen and his supporters. Such an insurrection might easily have been suppressed. It was neither organized, nor foreseen by those who benefited from it; and as it happened, it was successful. In a few hours the Viceroy of Hou Nan was a fugitive, his yamen was in flames and his troops were firing in a half-hearted manner upon an adversary who was soon master of the artillery and of some hundreds of thousands of men.
The government at Pekin immediately sent to oppose the revolutionaries a division of the troops loyal to the Manchurian dynasty. This Imperial army, well armed and consisting entirely of trained soldiers, was defeated.
The court at Pekin decided that one man and one only was capable of arresting the revolutionary movement, that man was Yuan Che Kai. The Emperor, a child of four, represented by the regent, the same who had driven Yuan from the court, promulgated a decree, appointing the exiled minister to the position of the Viceroy who was in flight, thus making him ruler of the two Hou provinces. Yuan’s reply was a polite refusal, he intended remaining at home “to nurse that leg of his from which he had been suffering for the past three years.”
A new edict was issued, more pressing, and commanding his acceptance. This time Yuan accepted, but not simply the position offered him, he insisted upon the command of the troops charged with the suppression of the rebellion. After some evasion and quibbling this was acceded to and he was nominated commander-in-ehief. He is ordered to leave immediately for the South; he accepts the position but postpones his departure. In that quarter things were going badly. At Hou Yang, captured by the revolutionaries, the latter occupied a hill dominating the arsenal of which they were already in possession. Again the Court urges the commander-in-chief to save the dynasty by his presence at the head of his troops, by his influence over the army he had lately formed, and over the officers whom he himself had lately appointed, choosing them from among the humblest of his adherents. He no longer
refuses, takes his time, announces his departure for the South ; he is supposed to have started and to have arrived; when lo ! he is still at Chang Fou surrounded by 5,000 men devoted to himself. Would he never start? was the query on everyone’s lips when suddenly he is en route, this time in reality, but for the North. He marches deliberately to Pekin preceded by two strong military detachments composed of his faithful Hounans.
Had he given way to any desire for revenge Yuan might have made a triumphant entry into Pekin, that of a conqueror or saviour. But he studiously avoided any exhibition of power. His actual entrance was at a railway station at the foot of the ramparts where he was met by a few Europeans who greeted him cordially and sympathetically. Surrounded by guards he was carried to a European carriage and driven to his own house. The next day, as a faithful minister, he made his official visit to the Emperor. But the more humiliated of the two was not he who in accordance with custom, had to lower his forehead nine times to the ground.
Here, then, we see Yuan again in Pekin, installed in his former residence. Effective and organized measures are taken to repress the rebellion. Thousands of men join the army of his faithful adherents. Han Yang and Hankow are retaken after a desperate battle, the chief heroism of which was “fighting in the rain.”
Then, when the north had been skilfully denuded of troops and the South no longer threatened any danger, it was given out, after a short delay, that the Regent was preparing a solemn abdication and that the discouraged revolutionaries were treating with the Imperial authorities. Here, then, was an incident without parallel in European history: The Manchus officially victors over the revolutionaries were actually handing over their power to the people represented by Yuan Che Kai. There remained, then, in power only Yuan who was shortly after elected “provisional president.” Picture to yourself. Pekin, the best planned, and most logically arranged city in the world. Take a glance at a plan of the town.
The first thing that strikes you is the way in which every house faces in the same direction. The four sides of the square Manchurian city are due North, South, East and West. From North to South run immense avenues connected by side streets. Every house, every yamen, every palace, has its front and chief entrance facing south.
In the centre of all. the palace, with its gardens, its lakes, its storehouses, its temples and hundreds of roofs covered with shell-like yellow tiles, forms the purple-violet enclosure; it is the “Forbidden violet city.” Quite an imperial
Surrounding this is the second town with its high yellow-roofed ramparts, peopled entirely by Manchus; this is the “yellow city.” This, in turn, is surrounded by the still larger Tartar city, the ramparts of which, about 40 feet
high, form a somewhat irregular square about 16 miles in circumference. Finally to the south is the Chinese city. Very few people are aware that the latter is but the portion of an original plan designed by a former powerful emperor of the ancient Ming dynasty whose intention it was that an immense Chinese city should surround entirely the tartar city which encloses the yellow city, within which is the violet city, which protects and guards the Emperor.
Here it is that to-day the Emperor who by bis Regent has abdicated, but is not defunct, lives side by side with the president still "provisional” but whose power is increasing from day to day.
The Emperor still occupies the central palaces. The new comer for a long time discreetly remained outside the palace. He at first occupied the residence of the Minister of War, at the northern end of the Tartar city, a large building constructed on the European plan. Then, again with marked discretion, he took up bis position near the Palace, in the gardens by the lakes, of which there are three—‘The Three Seas’ as they are called, The Northern, Central, and Southern. In choosing this latter residence he prudently caused a high brick wail to be erected at the point which separates the central from the Southern lake, thus entirely isolating it.
To approach the president, no form or ceremony is necessary. Everything is modern and on a military system. The uniforms of his soldiers fashioned on the German style are of light beige of a greenish hue, not displeasing and sometimes very becoming, with flat, peaked caps. The majority of the old soldiers who guard the person of Yuan Che Kai have served under him for years. From the humblest soldier to the generals he can rely upon every one of them.
Let us suppose we have passed the various barriers in order to get to this modern minister of war, and see what manner of man he is.
Corpulent, with a quick action, short figure, powerful thick neck, the first thing that strikes you is his prominent eyes which are very expressive and seem to overwhelm you with an admixture of cordiality and penetration. You feel that he guesses exactly what you are going to say but that he is ready to listen to you in order that he may be thoroughly informed on whatever you wish to talk about.
He is past 50 but there is nothing in him denoting the approach of old age. At home he is clothed in the long Chinese robes, not embroidered, but stitched with a bright colored silk. The sleeves no longer cover the hands as was formerly obligatory.
The president since the first days of the republic has abandoned the pigtail and his hair is cut short and falls regularly around the head, he wears a moustache, short, thick and drooping at the ends. His manner is sharp, simple and spontaneous. He preserves the ancient Chinese politeness, sometimes rather pompous, precedes his guest, guides him to his seat and makes all those small enquiries as to whence he comes, where he is going, etc., which prevent silence,
or any feeling of lack of cordiality. Under the new regime this old-time politeness is quickly disappearing and in ten years’ time will no longer exist except among the people and the peasants.
He leads a simple but active life. He has discontinued the ancient custom which required the Council of the Empire to meet every morning before dawn, but he is still an early riser. His first work is to examine the reports sent in from the provinces. For the last two years, almost every morning has brought in a report that there is a rising in such and such a town, or that the Mongols have ‘started out’ for war, they seem however never to arrive anywhere. He then receives the Europeans attached to his military staff, chief among whom are General Munthe a Norwegian, who for 17 years has been almost constantly with him, and Commandant Brissaud a Frenchman, an energetic and respected military councillor. Hours and meals are the same as those of the Chinese: 10 a.m. and 6 p.m.
The president has been compelled to observe a regime of strict seclusion. Previous to the decree of abdication, he could occasionally be seen wending his way to the palace or to one of the legations which are all situated together to the south of the Tartar Town. On one of these occasions he narrowly escaped falling victim to a bomb which killed three of his attendants. He was less troubled by the danger and the attempt on his life than by the death of his faithful servants. In adopting this system of self-sequestration, he is following the ancient custom of the Chinese emperors, who seldom showed themselves to their subjects, and such a course is also dictated by political considerations. He did not appear even at the opening of the Parliament, excusing himself on the ground of indisposition. When he is seen in public it is nearly always on some occasion of military display. His favorite publie are always his soldiers of the North. Thus on the anniversary fêtes which are already becoming somewhat numerous, including the “Commencement of the revolution,” the “Signing of the degree of abdication,” etc., he receives his foreign friends in the morning, and he then dons his general’s uniform. But as a matter of fact the functions which would bring together the members of the legations and the duly constituted Chinese official bodies have not yet been instituted; for this man who holds four hundred million people in his hands is still only called “Provisional President.”
In a laborious life such as his, the family life can to all appearances only occupy a secondary place; but in reality this is not so. The President carefully looks after the education of his numerous children. One of them, the eldest, Yuan-Ko-ting has received a thorough European education. He speaks French and English extremely well, and knows something of Japanese. To his honor, be it said, he has in no way neglected the ancient Chinese studies. Yuan-Koting stands as a model for his fellow Compatriot students, who are often too apt to despise the traditional methods
of education which after all are the basis of the future national progress. Two other sons have just left Pekin for an extensive European tour. This shows the importance Yuan Che Kai attaches to European teaching. He is the only Chinaman who has been able to unite in his own person an appreciation of the importance of profiting by the lessons and progressiveness of the West, together with those national qualities of quite a different kind which go to make up the basic elements and characteristics of the nation to which he belongs.
Will he succeed in establishing on a solid foundation a regime of which the very name itself sounds a paradox in China? Of this we can rest assured: that the destines of this people “the oldest under the sun,’’ could not be in stronger or firmer hands.