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Forbidden City
Hall of Supreme Harmony 太和殿

The pillars in the Hall of Supreme Harmony are gilded with a cloud and dragon design. The raised patterns make the dragons shimmer in many different lights. Behind the pillar you can see the Xuanyuan Mirror 轩辕镜 (Xuānyuán Jìng). Xuanyuan is another name for the Yellow Emperor, Huang Di, the mythic first emperor of China. The pearl shaped ball was said to be able to tell a truth from a lie, good from evil, and right from wrong. It was also a test of the legitimacy of the emperor. If a false emperor, one who was not descended from Huang Di, attempted to sit on the throne, the pearl would drop down and kill him.

While it is unlikely that anyone took this story seriously, it is true that they took legitimacy very seriously. If the Mandate of Heaven was violated it was believed that country would fall on hard times and head for disaster. The heavens chose new rulers when the previous dynasty fell into corruption and violation of the trust between ruler and the ruled. Once a rebellion or a war placed a new family on the throne, legitimacy could be established by the observation of the rites. Once on the throne, new rulers engaged in many public projects, reformed government, and established that they did indeed have the Mandate of Heaven.

On the other hand, when Yuan Shikai 袁世凯 (Yuán Shìkǎi, 1859-1916) took power after the revolution of 1911, he had the dais moved back, so that it was no longer under the Xuanyuan Mirror. He also had the traditional throne placed in storage and replaced it with an ordinary stuffed couch. Yuan Shikai was chosen as the President of the new Republic of China, but had his eyes on the throne. He had not been part of the democracy movement of Sun Yatsen. His background was as a military commander in the Qing government.

How did he become the first president of the Republic? Talent. He had the talent to not be where he was not supposed to be. He missed the defeat of the Chinese forces by Japan by days. He stayed out of the way when Cixi staged a coup d’état and imprisoned her son, the emperor. He was absent from Beijing during much of the turmoil of the revolution. On the positive side, he had control over the best troops on China. He implemented modern training methods in his army and had well-discipline troops. He knew how to negotiate from strength and stay out of the way when he had no advantage.

During the revolution of 1911, both sides wanted his support and both sides offered juicy inducements. He had the only troops that had a chance to suppress the rebellion. He had previously successfully suppressed the Boxers in his Province. His army was much larger and better trained by the time of the revolution. He made a deal; I'll support the revolution if I can be "President" Yuan Shikai. The rebels agreed and Sun Yatsen stepped aside for the good of the revolution. In return, Yuan Shikai arranged the abdication of Pu Yi, the last emperor of the Qing Dynasty.

It was a mistake. He had finally placed himself in a position where he didn't have support. He was not part of the revolution and lacked support from the people. He had betrayed the imperial government and had no support there. He attempted to bargain his way to a coalition of support from governors and military commanders, but only succeeded in making them stronger; laying the foundation for the feuds that described the warlord era. His solution was to try to establish a new dynasty, but there he underestimated the people. No one supported the idea. He had come into office, not as the leader of the people, but as an usurper. The people knew the difference. He did not have the Mandate of Heaven. Perhaps he knew it, too. He did move the throne out from under the Xuanyuan Mirror.

China Index >> History of Beijing in Pictures >> Forbidden City >> Hall of Supreme Harmony

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Last update: January 2010
© Marilyn Shea, 2009