Wednesday, May 28, 2014

A Fight for Change: The Hundred Days Reform

Guangxu Emperor
China during the 19th century was a relic of its former glory. Once the envy of the world, the Chinese Empire, under the Machu Qing Dynasty, had fallen into corruption, decadence, and hardline conservatism. Twice, China was beaten by the combine forces of the British and the French and forced to sign many unequal treaties. These treaties forced China to give several concessions and humiliating surrender of sovereignty and territories. During the last parts of this century, reforms meant to reform and modernize the whole Empire. The reforms were opposed not by the so-called foreign devils, but by those who were from the inside of the imperial court. For a hundred days, the fight was on for the future of imperial China.

The hundred days fight for reform took placed from June 11, 1898. Emperor Guangxu, the young Qing Emperor of China saw the need to modernize and reform most of his backward and outdated empire. Much of the need was brought when three years ago when the large and largely populated China was humiliatingly defeated by the smaller archipelagic Empire of Japan. Although defeated by the Japanese, the Emperor saw them with envy for their efforts to resist western imperialism and rise to equal them as well. The Meiji Reformation allowed Japan to powerful and modern, and this what Emperor Guangxu wanted to emulate.

The Emperor sought the aid of some liberals within his empire. Kang Youwei was an intellectual who was a champion of reformers and loathed by conservative hardliners. At the early 1898, Kang inspired the emperor not just with the Meiji Restoration of Japan, but by other examples also. He told the Emperor the exploits of Peter the Great and his quest for westernization and modernization of his Dark Aged Empire. The example further inflamed the Emperor’s desire to remake his Empire. Kang helped to draft the decrees of that would shake the foundations of China. On June 11, 1898, Emperor Guangxu announced decrees that would make his dream into reality.

The reforms decreed by the Emperor were not just reforms but a start of a revolution. A revolution to radically change the old fashioned and backward China. For example, he wanted to change the ancient civil service exams, from a test based on knowledge of Confucian text to a test based on practical and useful subjects. In governance, he sought to enhance the bureaucracy of the empire by removing several useless offices both in government and the imperial household. For the economy, he wanted to modernize China by sowing the seeds of a Chinese industrial revolution. The emperor wanted vigorously to change China for the better.

The decrees received the support of liberal writers and officials.  Much of those who helped to implement the reforms were students of Kang Youwei. Students of Kang such as Liang Qichao advised the emperor about reforms that should be conducted. Other liberal reformers such as Yang Rui, Liu Guangdi, Lin Xu, and Tan Sitong were placed in various offices to make sure that the reforms were implemented.

The Emperor had the support of the liberals, but he was opposed by hardline conservative and traditionalist courtiers. The hardliners were tough to face the reformers because they had the support of the most influential person with the imperial court, the Empress Dowager Cixi. Cixi was the Emperor’s aunt. She was the regent of Guangxu during his minority. She was very thirsty of power as when she was regent, she literally ruled behind the throne and a screen of silk. In 1889, when the Emperor reached majority, Cixi went into semi-retirement, giving up the up the regency but the influence. When the news of the Emperor’s reform reached the retirement home of Cixi in the Summer Palace outside Beijing, she was in furious. She, above all else, saw herself as the defender of tradition and the culture of imperial China. She wasted no time to stop the reforms. She rallied the conservative courtiers and proposed a coup d’etat against the Emperor. 

The Emperor got a word about the impending coup. He then sought the aid of the commander of one of the modern units in the Imperial Army – Yuan Shikai. On September 21, 1898, the conservative opponents of the reforms led by Cixi made their move. Sadly, Yuan did not support the Emperor and the reformers. He allowed the forces of the conservatives to move in and deposed the Emperor. 

The coup marked the end of the reform movement. The Hundred Days Reform caused the downfall of the Emperor and his allies. The Emperor was incarcerated in the Summer Palace. He also once again became a puppet of his aunt. Cixi once again ruled behind the throne with a silk curtain in between. For the reform supporter, it was deadly. Supporters of the reform, Yang Rui, Liu Guangdi, Lin Xu, Tang Sitong, and brother of Kang, Kang Guangren, were all executed and became known as the Six Martyrs. Kang Youwei and his student Liang Qichao luckily escaped from the horrors of the executions and sought refuge in Japan. Yuan Shikai remained to serve in the Chinese Army. He played a vital role to final downfall of the Qing Dynasty in 1911.

The Hundred Days Reform was a chance for China to regain its vitality, power, and sovereignty on the midst of Imperialism. But hundreds of years old tradition had taken roots. This root grew to become deeply imbedded to many officials as well as within the imperial family of China. Thus when changed was needed, they remained stubbornly stick to this ancient ways even to the cause of security and progress. Their opposition to the needed reforms in 1898 led to the further humiliation of China in the hands of westerners and Japan, especially, two years later, in 1900, when the Qing Empire was once again humiliated in the Boxer War. If the reforms of 1898 continued and became successful, a different China could have emerged.
Hsu, Immanuel. The Rise of Modern China. New York: Oxford University Press, 2000. 

Meyer, M. China : A Concise History . Maryland: Rowman & Littlefield Publishers, 1994. 

Spence, J. The Search for Modern China. New York: Norton, 1990.

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