Born in 1859 to a relatively modest family with a military background, Yuán Shìkǎi grew up in Hénán province—a landlocked province in East-Central China. From a young age, he dreamt of a career in civil service, but performed poorly on examinations, which pushed him to a career in the military instead. Early action saw him in Korea backing the Joseon dynasty against encroachment by soldiers from the Empire of Japan. While there, Yuán displayed skilled judgment and a decisive nature, garnering him influence into the Joseon court, acting simultaneously as an envoy from China and a confidant to Korea. Tensions between China and Japan continued to grow despite Chinese attempts at détente, and the First Sino-Japanese War ensued—a rather decisive Japanese victory in less than nine months that resulted in numerous territorial possessions falling from the Chinese Qīng dynasty. Given the latter’s reduced status and vulnerability to threats, both foreign and domestic, it became essential that China have a well-trained military. As such, Yuán was tasked with organizing what would become China’s first modern army, endearing himself to the influential dowager empress Cíxī, aunt to the Guāngxù emperor, a connection which would prove important through the final period of Qīng-controlled China.
Possibly aiding in the coup that saw the empress dowager depose her nephew and send him into house arrest, Yuán was made the Governor of Shāndōng in 1899. At this time, the Boxer Rebellion—an uprising by a martial society so-called because of their athletic training and adherence to tradition—broke out, with Yuán choosing to take part in quelling the actions of the "boxers" as they were threatening the spheres of influence presented by western nations. Wanting to continue the trend of modernization—not just in the military but for China as a whole—Yuán saw the boxers as a threat to progress. Following this uprising, he continued to garner more powerful roles within the now crumbling Qīng dynasty and presented himself favorably to the western nations whose spheres of influence were protected from the actions of the boxers. Following the successive deaths of the emperor and the empress dowager—one day apart in November 1908—Yuán took a less active role as the imperial court was dominated by Prince Chún, regent for the newly-installed—and final—Qīng emperor (and the prince’s son). Pǔyí (becoming the Xuāntǒng emperor) was not yet three years old at the time of his accession, and the entirety of his brief "reign" was fraught with turmoil. Revolutionaries like Sūn Yìxiān (Sun Yat-sen) sought an end to the empire and the creation of a republic. After the Wǔchāng Uprising late in 1911, the southern provinces broke free and declared a republic with Sūn elected as their president. The northern provinces, however, remained undecided, and Yuán was brought in to negotiate between the Qīng dynasty and the revolutionaries. In the end, he obtained the abdication of the boy-emperor and, in turn, had himself installed as the president of the new republic.
The ensuing few years saw a great deal of strife between Yuán and the Guómíndǎng (Chinese Nationalist Party or KMT for short), with Sūn fleeing to Japan and calling for another uprising—this time against Yuán. Meanwhile, Yuán continued his gradual consolidation of power, bordering upon absolute despite his "President of the Republic" title. In early 1914, he disbanded the parliament. In its stead he installed a group of 66 lackeys to grant some semblance of legitimacy to his reworking of the constitution, declaring representative democracy as ineffective. This coalescing of authority culminated in Yuán’s revival of an imperial monarchy, with him at the helm. In late 1915, he titled himself the Hóngxiàn emperor, beginning a brief, ill advised, and extremely unpopular reign. By the following March, he was forced to abandon this dream, with numerous provinces threatening revolt. Less than three months later, he succumbed to uremia, passing away at the age of 56.
Numismatically, Yuán is well represented upon coinage. During his tenure as president, a large silver coin (along with its minors) was issued bearing the uniformed bust of the general-turned-politician. Around his head reads a legend referring to the year of the republic in which it was issued, while the reverse presents the denomination (in the case of the "dollars") 壹圓 ("one yuán") within a wreath. Though represented similarly when transliterated into English, Yuán’s family name and the "yuán" represented here are, in fact, different characters, with a synonym for this "yuán" being used when referring to the currency unit today (元). Owing to the output of the "Yuan Shih-kai" dollars, they have become immensely popular with the collecting base, with numerous die varieties identified, and with more actively being discovered. Our Official Auction of the Hong Kong Show will present an excellent opportunity for expert and novice alike, with a host of Yuán’s coinage, "dollars" and otherwise, being offered in the live and online portions. Whether you are seeking gem examples with stunning toning or seldom seen die varieties, this auction will have something for everyone!
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We are always seeking coins, medals, and pieces of paper money for our future sales, and are currently accepting submissions (until May 4th) for our upcoming CCO (Collectors Choice Online) auction in June 2020. Following that, our next larger format sales will be our Official Auction of the ANA World’s Fair of Money and our Official Auction of the Hong Kong Show, both in August 2020! If you would like to learn more about consigning, whether a singular item or an entire collection, please contact one of our consignment directors today and we will assist you in achieving the best possible return on your material.