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A New Dynasty in 1916?

by John J. Reilly

Like many what-ifs, this one was suggested by something that almost happened. The provisional
president of China in 1916, a general named Yuan Shikai (1859--1916), actually did declare
himself emperor, though he had to back down after a few months. As is also the case with many
what-ifs, there are some pretty good reasons for why the attempt to found a new dynasty failed.
What I would like to do here is sketch a historical configuration in which the successful launching
of a new dynasty would have been easier. Then I would like to speculate for a bit about what the
implications of continued monarchy in China would have been for the rest of the 20th century.

Before describing Yuan's unsuccessful dynastic project, I would like to thank the people who
alerted me to errors in the original version of this essay that I posted to the newsgroups
alt.history.what-if and soc.history.what-if. One of the things that I have discovered is that
mention of this incident still excites emotional condemnation. Maybe for good reason. My only
excuse for my errors is that the brief accounts in John King Fairbank's books, "The United States
and China" and "China: A New History," are a bit misleading.

Additionally, I am calling the hypothetical new dynasty discussed here simply "The New
Dynasty." In an earlier draft, I had cleverly called it "The Xin Dynasty," on the grounds that "Xin"
means "new." Further research reminded me that the usurper Wang Mang had established a
regime with the same pronunciation 2000 years ago. A little knowledge is an embarrassing thing.

Yuan Shikai was the chief architect of the New Army that was created in the terminal phase of
the Qing Dynasty. Although considered to be a friend of the reformers who sought to establish a
constitutional monarchy, he supported the Dowager Empress in her last, unhappily successful
effort to stifle reform in the final years of the dynasty. He was involuntarily retired at the time of
her death in 1908. At the time of the Revolution of 1911, however, he was recalled to Peking to
save the dynasty. To the surprise of the last Qing officials, however, he supported the insurgents.

The end of the imperial system in 1911 seemed at first to have been accomplished without any
major national calamity. At any rate, there were no peasant uprisings or civil war. The revolution
was sparked by the revolt of a major army garrison; others soon followed suit. The provinces, led
by local assemblies, essentially seceded from the central government. The leader of China's
modernizing forces, Dr. Sun Yatsen, was briefly made provisional president by a national
parliament. However, when the last emperor finally abdicated in 1912 under pressure by Yuan
Shikai, Sun deferred to Yuan. Yuan, after all, did have greater governmental experience. He also
had the army, at least in North China.

On becoming provisional president, Yuan quickly suppressed the national parliament and the
assemblies. The government of the country at the local level was returned to the magistrates.
During 1915, he took steps toward establishing a new dynasty. His bid for the throne was mildly
favored by the British, but strongly opposed by the Japanese. The attempt to secure Japanese
acquiescence was at least one factor in his agreement to most of Japan's very harsh "21
Demands," which severely impinged on Chinese sovereignty. In any case, there were other
reasons for staying on the good side of the Japanese at that time. The British were wholly
preoccupied by the First World War, so their Japanese allies at least temporarily had a free hand
in East Asia. (Besides their Chinese initiatives, the Japanese used the opportunity to pick up
Germany's colonial possessions in the region.)

Despite the unfavorable diplomatic situation, Yuan declared himself emperor at the beginning of
1916. It did not work. He could not get foreign support, military or financial, though investors
had hitherto regarded him as a good credit risk. He was opposed by his own generals for a
variety of reasons, and he had forfeited the support of the nation's reformers. He abandoned the
monarchical experiment in March. He died in June, reportedly of natural causes.

Yuan was probably not the man to found a new dynasty in any case. His career had been made in
the crepuscular world of the late Qing. One of the benefits of dynastic change is that it allows for
a fresh start in policies and personnel; Yuan offered neither. Let us assume, however, that a more
attractive personality had attempted a similar enterprise. Is there any plausible set of historical
circumstances under which the New Dynasty could have been established in 1916?

Yuan's most pressing handicap was probably that the advent of the First World War left him to
face the Japanese alone. While there is a good argument to be made that a war like the First
World War was almost inevitable, there is no particular reason why the war had to start at the
time and in the way it did. Worse marksmanship in Sarajevo in 1914 could easily have delayed
the start of the World War by a year or more. Even had it started in 1914, a cease-fire might have
been declared when the armies deadlocked in the West. For that matter, the war would have
been over by 1915 had the Schlieffen Plan worked. A quick defeat for Britain, before it had
invested heavily in men and emotions, would not have done the British Empire any immediate
harm. Rather the opposite, in fact. One suspects that, like the Russians after their string of
defeats in the Balkans and the Far East in the early years of the century, the British would have
determined not to lose further ground anywhere in the world. This would have predisposed the
British to oppose Japanese policy in China simply for the sake of opposing.

In any case, this was the direction in which British policy had long been evolving. By 1914, British
were already dubious about their alliance with Japan and they scrapped it as soon as they
decently could after the War. A unified China that needed the protection of the Royal Navy
against Japan would not have endangered British interests at Hong Kong and Shanghai, but it
would have been a formidable barrier to further Japanese expansion.

Rectifying the international situation, however, solves only the proximate problem. The deeper
difficulty that a new dynasty would have faced would have been a crisis of legitimacy. Chinese
dynasties made perfect sense in terms of Confucian ideology; they had been the only imaginable
form of national government for upwards of two millennia. The Qing had indeed been
overthrown in part because they were Manchurian foreigners. However, the movement against
them had been informed, not simply by Han nationalism, but by a critique of the Confucian
heritage itself.

Throughout Chinese history, successful brigands and ambitious generals had become acceptable
as the founders of dynasties by signaling their intention to follow traditional precedents of
government and morality. There was almost an established drill to go through, down to the
wording of key proclamations. After a period of interdynastic chaos, even a personally horrible
candidate who honored the forms could nevertheless get the support of the local gentry and
magistrates. They did not have to like a would-be dynastic founder; they simply needed to be
assured that government would again become predictable and comprehensible.

It was precisely this cultural consensus that reformers in China had spent the prior 50 years
destroying. Though no democrat, Yuan Shikai still falls into this class. His modernized national
army, and his use of it as the primary instrument of government, was as un-Confucian as the
democratic assemblies favored by Sun Yatsen. There were plenty of tradition-minded people in
China still in 1916, even among the literate elites. However, they were not for the most part the
people who managed new enterprises or who understood modern administrative techniques.
Yuan could not have created a dynasty on the traditional model without bringing the country
back to 1800.

On the other hand, even if a traditional monarchy was not possible, it does not follow that no
monarchy would have been possible. The 20th century has not lacked for monarchies that
justified themselves by simultaneous appeals to tradition and the project of modernization.
There was a gaggle of them in the Balkans between the First and Second World Wars, kings of
shaky new states who make themselves dictators when parliamentary government stopped
working. In practice, these regimes were not much different from the party dictatorships
elsewhere in Europe.

The most successful example was not in Europe, but in the Middle East. There, the new Pahlavi
Dynasty of Persia (which it taught the world to call "Iran") attempted a program of national
modernization comparable to, but milder than, the reconstruction of Turkey undertaken by
Kemal Ataturk and his successors. To be a Pahlavi Shah was not quite the same thing as being a
Shah in prior Persian history had been. The Pahlavi Shahs had new bases of social support and a
novel relationship with the outside world. Still, some of the ancient terminology of government
lent a bit of credibility to the letterheads of the new regime. We should remember that it
actually lasted quite a long time for a government of ruthless modernizers, until the late 1970s.
It is conceivable that a competent candidate could have established an analogous government in
China, and so might have become "emperor" in a similarly qualified sense.

So how would a new dynasty have affected Chinese history for the first half of the 20th century?
Such speculation may require less imagination than might at first appear. The reality of the New
Dynasty would be that, while in some respects traditional in form, the government would
actually have been a moderately conservative military dictatorship. We don't have to speculate
about what such a regime would have looked like: the Nationalist government provides the
model. There would have been two major differences, however.

First, the New Dynasty would have had a far greater measure of legitimacy than the Nationalists
ever achieved, even during the brief period before the Japanese invasion when they governed
almost the whole country. Legitimacy and hypocrisy are often inversely related. The Nationalist
government pretended to be running a republic; it delivered less than it promised. The New
Dynasty, on the other hand, would have been pretending to be a Confucian monarchy. All it
would have needed to do is govern the country better than did the Qing in the 19th century. This
would not have been a tall order.

The biggest advantage, however, would be that a dynasty established around 1916 might have
succeeded in preventing the warlord era entirely. This does not require a great leap of faith.
After all, before 1916, even Yuan Shikai had shown some ability to put uppity provincial
commanders in their place.

There are a few things that we might reasonably assume about our hypothetical New Dynasty.
As we have seen, it would probably have had British support. Partly for that reason, it would
have had more credibility with international investors than did the Republic. If it also had just
enough features of a parliamentary democracy to garner some support among the business class
and intellectuals, then it seems likely that a formal monarchy would have been better able to
control potential warlords than was the Republic. Deleting the warlord era would not only have
spared the country the damage and disorder of that period, it would also have probably spared
China Communism.

Chinese Communism as an insurgent movement was able to gain a foothold only because of the
breakdown of national authority in the 1920s. It was because the central government was in
eclipse that the Communists were able to establish bases in south-central China, and then to
escape to Yennan when those bases were attacked. There would still, of course, have been a
Communist Party in some form, but the New Dynasty government would not have needed to
make common cause with it, as the Nationalists did early in this period. (For a while, foreign
observers tended to think of the Nationalist Party as a Communist front.)

If China had not fallen into disunity, one suspects that the Communist Party would have been
more urban and less rural than in fact it was. After all, in this scenario the countryside would
have been better policed. In all likelihood, its history would have paralleled that of the Japanese
Communist Party; frequently suppressed, never destroyed, important primarily as an aggravating
factor during episodes of civil unrest.

Would the New Dynasty have performed much better against the Japanese in the `30s and `40s
than the Nationalists did? One of the axioms of world history is that military dictatorships have
incompetent militaries. They use their armies as police, and cops are not soldiers. Still, it is hard
to imagine that the New Dynasty army could have done worse than the Nationalists did. In any
case, assuming that a revived Chinese Empire would have been a long-term client of Britain, the
Japanese would have had to think twice before making provocative actions south of Manchuria.

The effect of a more coherent China, on the other hand, might have been to sharpen Japan's
strategy toward it. The Japanese war against China was a meandering series of campaigns, often
without discernible strategic purpose. A Chinese government that actually governed the country
would have made a far more valuable target. Japan might have confined their Chinese
operations to a single blitzkrieg campaign to compel China to neutrality for the great offensive of
1941, and it might have worked.

And as for the second half of the century? We will assume that the Japanese still lost the war.
Despite the havoc the war caused on the Asian mainland, it was always a naval war, and there is
no way Japan could have won it without forcing the United States to a negotiated peace in the
first few months. Would China then have proceeded more or less directly to full modernization,
on the model of Japan? Conceivably, but my own suspicion is that the second fifty years would
have been surprisingly like the history of the People's Republic.

The New Dynasty would no doubt have been greatly energized by being among the victors in the
war. This would be particularly the case if, as this scenario suggests, the country had been less
damaged by the conflict. Doubtless there would have been a decade or so of very rapid growth,
and the beginning of real prosperity in some regions. The problem is that a regime of this type
does not, in the long run, benefit from improving conditions. As the history of the Pahlavi regime
in Iran illustrates, the effect of modernization in an authoritarian context can often be to
manufacture an opposition that would not otherwise have existed. At the beginning of such
regimes, people are often grateful for the establishment of basic civil order. Later, when
economic conditions improve, they are content to look after their private lives. Finally, there will
be a self-assured middle class that asks the regime, "What have you done for us lately?" By that
point, the chief benefit that the regime could bestow would be to abolish itself. Such situations
lead to trouble.

The chronology could have been similar to that which happened in the real world: great disorder
in the 1960s, the restoration of social peace in the 1970s, followed by relaxation in the 1980s.
The jettisoning of the New Dynasty would probably have been the price of the restoration of
order. As happened after the overthrow of the last Shah of Iran, the successor regime would
probably have been more "conservative" in some ways. The conservatism, however, would have
been of the "social conservative" type. Confucian tradition would have been quite as capable as
Shia Islam of generating a critique of modernity. This sort of consideration never troubled the
People's Republic much, but then the Communist regime is explicitly dedicated to uprooting
Confucianism. The New Dynasty, in contrast, would have been based in part on a show of
respect for tradition. In other words, the regime would have had to preserve the standards by
which it would eventually be judged and found wanting.

There would, no doubt, have been vast differences from the China of today had an imperial
regime of some sort been reestablished after the Qing. Still, the upshot could have been that,
after about 1975, China would again have been a republic of sorts. Like India, it would have been
a vast country with greatly varying levels of development. Because of a lack of local tradition, it
would probably not have been a very democratic republic. Still, it would no doubt have been
friendly to private economic initiative, carried out in the context of overall government planning.

There is a fashion in certain history departments to encourage speculation about alternative


histories as a way of demonstrating the contingency and unpredictability of history. Fair enough,
but I myself have doubts about how much contingency and predictability history actually
manifests. No doubt it is true, as the chaos theorists tell us, that the flapping of a butterfly's
wings at Peking can cause tornadoes in Kansas a month later. From this, many students of
alternative history surmise that similarly tiny changes in the events of the past could create a
whole different world farther down the line. The reality is that, while a butterfly may cause
tornadoes, it cannot cause an ice age, or prevent winter from turning into spring. There are
principles of conservation in history, whereby many different routes can lead to a similar
destination. One of the uses of alternative history is to discern what was really inevitable.