This is a fine essay of alternative history by John Reilly, regarding an early twentieth century China in which someone managed to cobble together enough Confucian orthodoxy to proclaim themselves Emperor, of a sort, sparing China Chairman Mao and the Cultural Revolution.
In a fascinating aside, John gets at what is really interesting about alternative history: events across space and time in human history seem to exhibit patterns. In some ways, history is a panoply of detail, a pageant of colors. In other ways, the same damn thing just keeps happening over and over again, and the former can obscure the latter.
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.
Copyright © 1998 by John J. Reilly