When Sun Yat Sen returned from America (where he had been fundraising), the republicans finally pulled everything together. Sun Yat Sen was elected as the provisional (temporary) president before a compromise was agreed to between him and Yuan Shikai, arranging for him to become president in return for military recognition of the republic and help getting the Qing Dynasty to step down.
The Qing dynasty was left without a military and, when the Guangxu Emperor and Empress Dowager Cixi died, in the hands of the 2 year old Emperor Xuantong (Henry Puyi). It was also weak from years of losing wars and the recent reforms which, by trying to regain support, had reduced their power over the country. Yuan Shikai persuaded Puyi to abdicate when he was only 6 years old, and came to power on the 13th of February, 1912.
However, the China Shikai inherited was weak and over in the provinces, warlords started to fight for influence. Elections in early 1913 also saw the Kuomintang (nationalist party/government) and their leader, Sun Yat Sen, gain huge support. Shikai started targeting his opposition and, after the suspicious death of the party’s chairman (all links leading to Yuan Shikai), Sun Yat Sen fled to Japan, where he called for a second revolt – this time against Yuan Shikai. Yuan crushed the revolt along with any hopes for democracy. Two years later, in 1915, he declared himself president for life and announced the start of a new Hongxian dynasty with him as emperor.
However, the citizens of China, who had spent so long trying to get rid of the dynasty, and even Shikai’s former generals, were unhappy with the idea of another dynasty, and widespread opposition forced Shikai to step down after just 86 days of dynasty. Many demanded he resigned from his role as president after this, but his death three months later removed the need for it.
The Warlord Era (1916 – 1928)
The death of Yuan Shikai brought a whole new problem to China. In his wake, he left a huge power vacuum and, due to the lack of a united, national army (see The New Army), it was easy for local generals to seize control of provinces and use their power to challenge the authority of the republic. These generals were known as warlords, and the 12 years of fighting between them for influence of other provinces became known as the Warlord Era.
The era saw a lot of fighting over provincial influence, and many warlords were corrupt and reckless, seeking personal gain through opium trade, tax, printing money, stealing and violence.
That said, some warlords had a positive impact on China, like Yan Xishan – who tried to reform China for good, improving and modernising his area via changes such as education for girls and banning foot binding.
There was technically still a central government in Beiyang / Beijing – but in reality this was just a front for whichever Warlord had control so that they could benefit from foreign trade and tax (it was recognised as legitimate by foreign powers!).