Yuan Shikai (1859-1916) was an important military and political leader during some of the most tumultuous years in Chinese history. The China of his day was under intense foreign pressure. Foreign aggression began with the Opium Wars of the mid-nineteenth century against the West. In the late nineteenth century, Japan added to the pressure, aligning with the West by demanding extraterritoriality and special economic rights in China. China was further humiliated by the foreign triumph during the Boxer Rebellion (1899–1901). Also, China's government was disintegrating as the decrepit and ineffectual Qing Dynasty (1644-1912) finally collapsed. As President, Yuan inherited all these challenges.
Yuan was born into a fairly affluent and well-connected family. As a youth, he was athletic, but his academic record was mediocre. He failed exams which would have opened the door to a good career as a civil servant. He decided to pursue a military career, aided by his father's clout.
He enjoyed great success as a military leader. Yuan helped maintain Chinese control of Korea and stave off Japanese aggression there in the 1880s. After China's defeat at Japan's hands in 1895, he helped rebuild the shattered Chinese army. He was the most important military leader in China by the time of the Boxer Rebellion.
In 1912, he became the first president of the Republic of China. Yuan was overwhelmed by the myriad challenges he faced. China was broke and provincial warlords refused to accept his authority. Yuan was ruthless and ambitious: he proclaimed himself to be the new emperor. Meanwhile, Japanese aggression led to the the signing on the Twenty-One Demands. Beset by numerous difficulties—both internal and external—Yuan passed away at the age of 56.