In the early morning hours of July 1st, 1917, Peking was a capital on the edge.
From the beginning of the Great War, China had debated whether or not to enter the conflict, even going so far as offering the British 50,000 troops to invade the German colonial city of Tsingtao. But internal divisions – both within China and among the Entente – kept Peking on the sidelines of a war occurring in their own backyard.
For the past year, the debate over the war had divided the capital between President Li Yuanhong and Premier Duan Qirui. Yuanhong, the successor to General-turned-President-turned-Emperor-turned-President again Yuan Shikai, wanted to keep China out of Europe’s squabbles. Qirui saw an opportunity to exert Chinese power abroad in hopes of securing European alliances that might undo the various concessions the nation had endured, including the “Twenty-One Demands” foisted upon them by Japan in 1915. But despite his internal popularity with Peking’s politicians and various warlords, few wanted to follow Qirui into war. Yuanhong had seemingly put an end to the debate as he dismissed Qirui from power.
The troops that entered Peking that morning were not supporters of Qirui, nor were they loyalists to the otherwise unpopular central government. The troops of General Zhang Xun had an entirely different future for China in mind – a return to the Imperial model and restoration of the Qing Dynasty. The shape of the war in Europe would depend on the outcome of a coup in China.
The dissolution of the nearly 300-year reign of the Qing Dynasty in 1912 had left China with a massive power vacuum. Rebellious southern provinces, various generals and pro-republican politicians each had sought power for themselves, with little unifying an already fractured empire. One man had appeared capable of bringing together such disspitate parties – General Yuan Shikai. Through alliances, guile and force, Shikai positioned himself as the first President of the newly formed Republic of China. Continue reading