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2. Yuan Shih-Kai

A constitution had been framed at Nanking in the early days of the revolution; and of course it was a visionary thing based on the supposition that parliamentary government was forthwith a possibility in China.

Yuan subscribed to it perforce, and put it into operation until its utter uselessness was evidenced — the members merely squabbled and dealt with the pettiest of matters. Then Yuan was obliged to abrogate the constitution for a time and make himself Dictator. This gave Sun Yat-sen the opportunity to resume his functions as an agitator, and he at once set to work the machinery of the Kuomintang; but what Yuan had done was so obviously necessary that he would have had the support of all — except professimial agitators and the disgruntled members of the abrogated parliament — if only he had said: I took my oath to the Nanking constitution, and I have given it a trial; but quite obviously it cannot work without a period of preparation, and so it has been necessary that for a time I exercise full power.

I reassert my oath of allegiance to the republic, and as soon as possible will give effect to it in full.' If only he had said that and acted in accordance with it he might have won the game; but that is exactly what he did not do.

To understand what happened one must realize conditions in the palace — such a very different thing to his previous yamen at Tientsin. Those great red walls; those towering gates; the magnificence and the magnitude of it all, and the glamour. One can hardly doubt that, when the old Buddha was alive, he wondered what would happen when she — the already tottering prop of the Manchu dynasty — died. He would have had no imagination if he had not dreamt of possibilities. That a change of dynasty might come was more than whispered in those days. When Yuan was Governor at Chinanfu a famous soothsayer, at a feast, had prophesied great things for him and, curiously enough, still greater things — which could only mean Imperial honours — to an expectant Taotai on his staff. That would affect Yuan more than if it had been prophesied about himself.(1)
1 — Basse was at that feast and told me the story. The expectant Taotai was Tong Shao-yi.

No doubt it was the potentialities of Yuan, in addition to that past betrayal of Kwanghsii, that caused his forced retirement by the Regency; and no doubt it was because even the latter was capable of seeing another danger, that only Yuan might avert, that it did not have him executed. But there came the revolution, and Yuan saw — not at once perhaps — how his game was to lead it; that therein lay the only chance to materialize his dream. So it can be taken that from the beginning of the emergency Yuan was tinged — I do not say tainted, because it was so very natural — with imperialistic dreams. But Yuan was a practical person, not a mere dreamer of dreams, and he would never have tried to make his dreams come true unless he considered the chances for doing so were good; and he would have known they were impossible except with the general goodwill of the country.

But Yuan was in that monstrous palace; and, being there, was no more in touch with the world that lay outside; he became dependent on his entourage for all his information, and mostly they were sycophants pandering to his latent tendency of aspiration to the throne and seeking to turn it to their benefit. To that end they were prepared to do a monstrous gamble — and with loaded dice. They stood to win a mighty lot if they could engineer a monarchy — the son of one of them had married Yuan's daughter — and if their efforts failed, it would not matter much to them; it would be Yuan who would have to stand the brunt. Having got as far as that no scruples would interfere with any action needed for the furtherance of their scheme.

How much Yuan knew of the machinations of that crowd it is impossible to say. My own information was that it was very little, and his dying words confirm that supposition: I did not wish to be Emperor; those around me said that the people wanted a king and named me for the throne. I believed and was misled.' (1)

1 — The Fight for the Republic, by Putnam Weale.

The leader of this very complicated and highly organized conspiracy was Liang Shih-yi, the Premier, who was and is, perhaps, the cleverest man in China. Under the dictatorship, named the Presidential System, there was a Senate, and Liang Shih-yi had it in his grip. The provinces were ruled by military governors who would find it impossible — at all events to start with — to question orders from Peking. Then there was a foreign adviser, an American — of all people in the world — who wrote a lengthy memorandum setting forth the virtues of constitutional government and its suitableness to China.

So there were the means for the conspiracy to work with: an obsequious Senate, a set of frightened Military Governors, and an authoritative dictum. Against these were arrayed such public opinion as China was then capable of showing and the judgment of nearly every official outside the capital. Liang knew this well enough, but he counted on inertia giving him time enough to effect a fait accompli, and on then being able to maintain it with the army. So he set his scheme in motion.

The Senate passed a law referring the question of a monarchy to a provincial referendum; then the several provincial authorities were instructed to provide that the referendum should be favourable by manipulating who should be the voters. So one by one the petitions from the provinces came in praying that Yuan should ascend the throne; and Yuan read them with gratified surprise at the ease with which so great a thing could be effected. He was the only one they could possibly deceive; his deception could be their only purpose; that fact alone is evidence of his ignorance of the machinations of Liang Shih-yi.

I was told that somewhere near the Coal Hill within the palace grounds, but partly cut off from it, had been established a printing office; and that there were reproduced the provincial papers with such alterations as were needed for Yuan's deception.(1) So not only from the provincial petitions but in those papers he read of the clamour of the people for his kingship.

Liang Shih-yi was a psychologist; he knew how even with the strongest man one can play upon credulity where it marches with his wishes.
1 — I have recently obtained reliable confirmation of this story.

It seems probable and accords with my information that at that time Yuan was happily busy with ceremonial matters.

There was a study of the robes of State of former dynasties tailors came to and fro; samples were discussed and patterns chosen. I myself, introduced into the palace by my friends, saw Yuan's wardrobe ready for the enthronement. Yet at that time the country was in an uproar at the impending treachery to the constitution. A letter from a Chinese naval officer gives this little picture: — ` Not only did the theatres give performances of the "Emperor's Dream "; the news-vendors in the streets, while shouting out their papers, made comical allusions to Yuan, and these expressions became catchwords bandied about by children; further, officials became outcasts among the merchants and the gentry.'

But Liang Shih-yi had miscalculated the force of opposition.

One by one the provinces declared against the monarchy; and so eventually Yuan got to know the truth and issued a decree cancelling the Empire — a decree that merely caused derision and the cry that he must go. And now my friend Li — the Admiral — seceded with his fleet, and so ruined the principle that I had worked so hard for: that the fleet should never take a part in politics. I believe that it was when Yuan heard of this secession that he died from Bright's disease, aggravated by rage at the way in which he had been deceived. There is a ghastly story published that in his rage he slaughtered a favourite concubine; I mention it only to say that unquestionably that story is not true.

I have told the tale of the monarchy attempt as I knew it at the time. As an impression I still believe it true — in outline but I was a strong partisan of Yuan, and it is more than possible that my picture of events gives too favourable an idea of his irresponsibility. There were many executions and several murders on his behalf, and of the latter a reputed one was of a peculiarly atrocious character. It is said that General Feng Kuo-cheng, being contemptuously opposed to the monarchy, had been marked for killing, and that my friend Admiral Tseng, who was devoted to Yuan — though I know that he disapproved his monarchical ambition — had been ordered to arrange it. Instead of doing so he warned Feng, and because of that was himself murdered in Shanghai. A short time before the murder I had an audience — referred to later — with the Emperor,' as he was already called, and he, knowing my association with Tseng, asked after him. Then he said,' He is an honest man, isn't he? ' As it was translated, that sentence was a question, and not a statement with an invitation for acquiescence. I was astonished at it and wondered what it meant. But I cannot believe that Yuan was a party to the murder of his devoted friend.

Whatever may be the truth about him the fact remains that men like Sir John Jordan, Sir Francis Aglen and, what is more significant, the foreign bankers, put their faith in Yuan; for plainly he was the only man who could resolve the situation caused by the revolution — there was no one else to back. And, even when his intention to become an Emperor was known, the folly and the danger of it was not fully realized by foreigners; there was an assumption that he knew what he was doing; but that of course was just what he did not know.

How I became involved as his active partisan will be told in another chapter; here I will tell the story of my visits to Peking when Yuan was President. Among his entourage were several of my friends, ex-naval officers, and when I was in Peking in April 1914, they invited me to lunch in the palace, and after it I was to have an interview with Yuan. It had been some months before that I had prevented the fleet from going over to the rebels, and that was the explanation of why I was invited. I was being shown round the palace garden and was looking at the well down which the Pearl concubine, the favourite of the Emperor, was thrown by the orders of the Empress Dowager before she fled from her capital in the Boxer time, when I got a violent attack of gall-stone which later made me unconscious; so that luncheon and the interview fell through. But in September 1915 the Inspector-General told me to come to Peking, as the Minister of the Navy wished to consult me. Some time previously the Ministry had made plans for a naval harbour at Nimrod Sound to the southward of Shanghai, and they had submitted it to the President for approval; and he asked had Mr. Tyler's opinion on the project been obtained. Of course it had not — there was no reason why it should have been — but the President now called for it.

So I was asked to come and bless the scheme, but instead of doing so I condemned it — financially and technically. The Minister was my friend, and I regretted to have to upset his project; but he took it very well. Then I got a message from the President that he would promote me to the Second Class Order of the Excellent Crop because of what I had done to keep the navy loyal. I declined it because my chief, the Inspector-General, had not yet got it; so I was given instead the Second Class of the Order of the Striped Tiger, which was then a military Order only, and therefore more interesting. I was told that there was strong opposition in the Council to giving this Order to a foreigner, but that the President insisted. And now the date was fixed for a private audience with Yuan; but before I come to that there are other things to tell.

My special friend on Yuan's staff was certainly no sycophant.

He was alive to the danger of the President's ambition and dreaded it. It was not he who told me of the printing press — that story came later and after Yuan's death — but he told me of the deception that was played upon the President — the withholding of the truth and the fabricated news. I asked, 'Why don't you undeceive him? ' and got the answer, I wish I could, but it is quite impossible. It has gone too far; think of those coronation robes I've shown you ! Even if I told the truth and sacrificed my life — that would be certain — it would not alter the decision; and it would but ruin the only chance that after all he may succeed.'

The idea, of course, occurred to me to tell the Emperor the truth about the situation; once more I thought of how a single man may on occasion tip the balance of events; my mind went back to that abortive Memorial that I wrote for Basse; and I realized that there was no one but myself could do this thing. But it was not to be, if only because it was finally arranged that Sir Francis Aglen was also to be invited to the audience.

And so we met the Emperor.' The audience was a mere formality and compliment; the only remark of note he made to me was that about the honesty of Admiral Tseng, to which reference has been made, and which still leaves me wondering as to what it meant. For the last time I saw a man whom, from my many previous interviews with him, I looked on as a friend: a heavy bulky figure of a man, asthmatic and apoplectic in appearance; a very kindly look and smile, which gave — at all events to me — a sense of genial appreciation.

We saw him at the zenith of his being fooled, when he believed himself acclaimed throughout the land as Emperor, when his mind was bent on the design of robes and the form of ceremonies. And a few weeks later he learnt the truth and died. A great man was Yuan Shih-kai and a tragic failure.