Nathan Reich
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The Hundred Days

On June 11, 1898, the Guanxu Emperor, nephew of Ci Xi, released an edict titled “decisions on national affairs” (Chesneaux 321). From then until September 16, 1898, Guanxu and progressive-minded intellectuals led by Kang Youwei attempted to carry out a program of mass administrative, educational, and economic reform.

Administratively, excess posts were aggressively weeded out. Subsidies paid to all Mancus were abolished. The Army of the Green Standard was disbanded. All officials and subjects were allowed direct access to the emperor through memorials. Plans were undertaken to beautify the capital. Plans were laid for protecting Christian missionaries. Educationally, old academies and disused temples were to be re-tasked as schools. Science and politics were to enter school curriculums and civil examinations. The examinations themselves were to be overhauled, doing away with the pedantic eight-legged essay. A university was founded at Peking University Peking University. Rewards were to be introduced to encourage new works and inventions. A new translation bureau was to be responsible for introducing foreign books. Permission was granted to found study societies and newspapers. Touring foreign countries was proposed. Economically, plans were made for preparing a budget and publishing regular government financial statements. Two general offices, resembling ministries, were formed, to supervise railways and mines, and to oversee agriculture, industry, and trade. Offices designed to regulate the economy opened in the provinces and towns were urged to form chambers of commerce. Industrial concerns, for instance railroads, were encouraged and private individuals were given permission to found arsenals.

Politically, the Hundred Days reform did not portend the overthrow of the state – it didn’t even provide for a parliament. Nonetheless, Ci Xi felt her power threatened and decided to act. She deposed and imprisoned Guanxu during a military review at Tientsin. The public excuse was that the emperor was withdrawing for reasons of health. The works of Kang Youwei, who fled for his life, were banned. The leading 6 reformers who stayed - Kang Kuang-jen, Yang Shen-hsiu, Tan Ssu-t’ung, Yang Jui, Lin Hsu, and Liu Kuang-Ti – were executed and became known as the “Six Martyrs” (Hsu 379). 22 reformers of lesser stature were imprisoned, dismissed, dispossessed, and/or banished. Almost every proposed reform measure was rolled back.

The Hundred Days reform failed for a variety of reasons. It was ignored, delayed, or boycotted by most of the prominent officials in the central and provincial administrations. It helped them not that the Ci Xi’s own sympathies lay on the traditionalist end of the political spectrum, with figures like Wen Tung-ho and Chang Chih-tung. In their zealousness to pursue sweeping change, the reformers alienated people: established officials losing, or afraid of losing, their jobs in the spring cleaning; rising stars who had devoted their youths to studying for the old civil examinations; Manchus in hardship due to losing their government stipend; and Grand Council members marginalized by Guanxu in favor of the reformers. The reformers’ greatest mistake may have been pinning their hopes on the emperor when it was Ci Xi who held true power in China. Had the reform succeeded, its pro-Western disposition would have necessitated a more consistent policy on dealing with the Boxer Rebellion, which still being but a small nuisance in Shandong province might have been stopped, sparing the Chinese government untold humiliation.

Chesneaux, Jean, Bastid, Marianne, and Bergere, Marie-Claire. China: From the Opium Wars to the 1911 Revolution. New York: Pantheon Books, 1976.
Hsu, Immanuel C.Y. The Rise of Modern China. New York: Oxford University Press, 1995.