Guangxu Emperor

The Guangxu Emperor (14 August 1871 – 14 November 1908), born Zaitian of the Manchu Aisin Gioro clan, was the eleventh emperor of the qing dynasty, and the ninth Qing emperor to rule over China. His reign lasted from 1875 to 1908, but in practice he ruled, under Empress Dowager Cixi's influence, only from 1889 to 1898. He initiated the Hundred Days' Reform, but was abruptly stopped when Cixi launched a coup in 1898, after which he was put under house arrest until his death. His regnal name means "glorious succession".

Accession to the throne

Zaitian was the second son of Yixuan, Prince Chun, and his primary spouse Yehenara Wanzhen, a younger sister of Empress Dowager Cixi. On 12 January 1875, Zaitian's cousin, the Tongzhi Emperor, died without a son. Empress Dowager Ci'an suggested enthroning one of Yixin, Prince Gong's sons as the next emperor, but she was overruled by Cixi. Instead, breaking the imperial convention that a new emperor must always be of a generation after that of the previous emperor, Cixi nominated her nephew and the imperial family agreed with her choice.

Zaitian was named heir and successor to his uncle, the Xianfeng Emperor, rather than his cousin and predecessor, the Tongzhi Emperor, so as to maintain the father-son succession law. He ascended to the throne at the age of four and used "Guangxu" as his regnal name (or Chinese era name), therefore he is known as the Guangxu Emperor. He was adopted by Empress Dowager Cixi as a son. For her part, she remained as regent under the title "Holy Mother Empress Dowager". In his childhood, the Guangxu Emperor was taught by Weng Tonghe, with whom he shared a fond relationship.

Years in power

Even after Guangxu began formal rule, Empress Dowager Cixi continued to influence his decisions and actions, despite residing for a period of time at the Summer Palace, which she had ordered Guangxu's father to construct, with the official intention not to intervene in politics.

After taking power, Guangxu was obviously more reform minded than the conservative leaning Cixi. He believed that by learning from constitutional monarchies like Japan, China would become more politically and economically powerful. In June 1898, Guangxu began the Hundred Days' Reform, aimed at a series of sweeping political, legal, and social changes. For a brief time, after the supposed retirement of Empress Dowager Cixi, Guangxu issued edicts for a massive number of far-reaching modernising reforms with the help of more progressive ministers such as Kang Youwei and Liang Qichao.

Changes ranged from infrastructure to industry and the civil examination system. Guangxu issued decrees allowing the establishment of a modern university in Beijing , the construction of the Lu-Han railway, and a system of budgets similar to that of the west. The initial goal was to make China a modern, constitutional empire, but still within the traditional framework, as with Japan's Meiji Restoration.

The reforms, however, were not only too sudden for a China still under significant neo-Confucian influence and other elements of traditional culture, but also came into conflict with Cixi, who held real power. Many officials, deemed useless and dismissed by Guangxu, were begging Cixi for help. Although Cixi did nothing to stop the Hundred Days' Reform from taking place, she knew the only way to secure her power base was to stage a military coup. Guangxu was made aware of such a plan, and asked Kang Youwei and his reformist allies to plan his rescue. They decided to use the help of Yuan Shikai, who had a modernised army, albeit only 6,000-strong. Cixi relied on Ronglu's army in Tianjin .

Ronglu also had an ally, general Dong Fuxiang, who commanded 10,000 muslim Kansu Braves of the imperial army, including generals such as Ma Fuxiang and Ma Fulu. They were stationed in the Beijing metropolitan area and constantly attacked foreigners and westerners, they were on the side of the conservatives under Cixi during the coup. They were also armed with western rifles and modern artillery, which showed that the conservative faction of Empress Cixi were willing to use western technology.

Taiwanese professor Lei Chia-sheng (雷家聖) revealed new research about the coup plot. The Guangxu Emperor may have actually been suckered into a trap by the reformists led by Kang Youwei. A British missionary and a former Japanese prime minister Itō Hirobumi tricked Kang, into agreeing to cede Chinese sovereignty to Itō. British ambassador Sir C. MacDonald said that the reformists had actually damaged the modernisation of China. Empress Dowager Cixi learned of the plot, and decided to put and end to it and save China from coming under foreign control.

However Yuan Shikai was having doubts about the plan. The day before the staged coup was supposed to take place, Yuan revealed all the plans to Ronglu, exposing the Guangxu Emperor's plans. This raised Cixi's trust in Yuan, who thereby became a lifetime enemy of Guangxu. In September 1898, Ronglu's troops took all positions surrounding the Forbidden City, and surrounded the emperor when he was about to perform rituals. Guangxu was then taken to Ocean Terrace, a small palace on an island in the middle of a lake linked to the rest of the Forbidden City with only a controlled causeway. Cixi followed with an edict dictating Guangxu's total disgrace and "not being fit to be Emperor". Guangxu's reign had effectively come to an end.

House arrest

For his house arrest, even court eunuchs were chosen to strategically serve the purpose of confining him. There was also a crisis involving Guangxu's removal and abdication and the installment of a new emperor. Although Empress Dowager Cixi never forced Guangxu to abdicate, and his era had in name continued until 1908, Guangxu lost all honours, respect, power, and privileges given to the emperor other than its name. Most of his supporters were exiled, and some, including Tan Sitong, were executed in public by Empress Dowager Cixi. Kang Youwei continued to work for a more progressive Qing Empire while in exile, remaining loyal to the Guangxu Emperor and hoping to eventually restore him to power. Western governments, too, were in favour of the Guangxu Emperor as the pre-eminent authority figure in China, and refused to recognise Empress Dowager Cixi. A joint official document issued by western governments stated that only the name "Guangxu" was to be recognised as the legal authoritative figure, over all others. Empress Dowager Cixi was angered by the move.

There was dispute, for a period of time, over whether the Guangxu Emperor should continue to reign, even if only in name, as emperor, or simply be removed altogether. Most court officials seemed to agree with the latter choice, but some like Ronglu pleaded otherwise. Pujun, son of the conservative Prince Duan, was designated as his heir presumptive.

Following their victory in the Boxer Rebellion, the Eight-Nation Alliance occupied Beijing on August 14 and a Chinese declaration of war which the Guangxu Emperor opposed, but had no power to stop, the Guangxu Emperor fled with Empress Dowager Cixi to Xian, dressed in civilian outfits.

Returning to the Forbidden City after the withdrawal of the allied powers, Guangxu was known to have spent the next few years working in his isolated palace with watches and clocks, which had been a childhood fascination, some say in an effort to pass the time until the death of Empress Dowager Cixi. He still had supporters, both inside China or in exile, who wished to return him to power.


Guangxu died on 14 November 1908, a day before Empress Dowager Cixi. He died relatively young, at the age of 37. For a long time there were several theories about Guangxu's death, none of which were completely accepted by historians. Most were inclined to maintain that Guangxu was poisoned by Cixi (herself very ill) because she was afraid of Guangxu reversing her policies after her death, and wanted to prevent this from happening. The fact that the two died a day apart is significant. Another possibility is that Guangxu was poisoned by Yuan Shikai, who knew that if Guangxu were to ever come to power again, Yuan would likely be executed for treason. There are no reliable sources to prove who murdered the Guangxu Emperor. In 1911, Cixi's former eunuch Li Lianying was murdered, possibly by Yuan, implying that they had conspired in the emperor's murder. This theory was offered by Puyi in his biography, who claimed he heard it from an old eunuch.

The medical records kept by the Guangxu Emperor's physician indicate the emperor suffered from "spells of violent stomachache", and that his face would turn blue, typical symptoms of arsenic poisoning. To dispel persistent rumours that the emperor had been poisoned, the Qing court produced documents and doctors' records suggesting that Guangxu died from natural causes, but these did not successfully divert suspicion.

On 4 November 2008, forensic tests revealed that the level of arsenic in the Guangxu Emperor's remains was 2,000 times higher than that of ordinary people. Scientists concluded that the poison could only be administered in a high dose one time. China Daily quoted a historian, Dai Yi, who speculated that Cixi may have known of her imminent death and may have worried that Guangxu would continue his reforms after her death.

The Guangxu Emperor was succeeded by Empress Dowager Cixi's handpicked heir, his nephew Puyi, who took the regnal name "Xuantong". Guangxu's consort, who became the Empress Dowager Longyu, signed the abdication decree as regent in 1912, ending two thousand years of imperial rule in China. Empress Dowager Longyu died childless in 1913.

After the Xinhai Revolution of 1911, the new Republic of China funded the construction of Guangxu's mausoleum in the western qing Tombs. The tomb was robbed during the Chinese Civil War and the underground palace (burial chamber) is now open to the public.

Historical views

In 1912 Sun Yat-sen praised the Guangxu Emperor for his educational reform package that allowed China to learn more about Western culture. After the establishment of the People's Republic of China, historian Fan Wenlan (范文澜) called the emperor "a Manchu noble who could accept Western ideas". Some historians think that the emperor is the first Chinese leader to implement policies of modernisation and capitalism. The Guangxu Emperor also epitomised the lowest imperial power had come since the beginning of the qing dynasty, and is the only ruler of the qing dynasty to have been put under house arrest during his own reign.

Personal life

The Guangxu Emperor had one empress and two consorts in total. His principal spouse was Empress Xiaodingjing, while his two consorts were Consort Jin and Consort Zhen.

Guangxu was forced by Empress Dowager Cixi to marry her niece (his cousin) Jingfen, who was two years his senior. Jingfen's father Guixiang (Cixi's younger brother) and Cixi selected her as Guangxu's Empress Consort in order to strengthen the power of her own family. After the marriage, Jingfen was made empress and was granted the honorific title of "Longyu", meaning "Auspicious and Prosperous" (Chinese: 隆裕) after the death of her husband. However, Guangxu detested Empress Longyu, and spent most of his time with his favourite concubine Consort Zhen (Chinese: 珍妃), (better known in English as the "Pearl Consort"). Rumours say that in 1900, Consort Zhen was drowned by being thrown into a well on Cixi's order after Consort Zhen begged Empress Dowager Cixi to let the Guangxu Emperor stay in Beijing for negotiations with the foreign powers. That incident happened before Empress Dowager Cixi was preparing to leave the Forbidden City due to the occupation of Beijing by the Eight-Nation Alliance in 1900. Like his predecessor, the Tongzhi Emperor, Guangxu died without an issue. After the Guangxu Emperor's death in 1908, Empress Dowager Longyu reigned in cooperation with Prince Chun.

Last update 05-06-2012

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