100 Days Reform of 1898

Empress Dowager Cixi

By Pat Welsh, contributor

In 1898 the Chinese government experienced a short period of attempted reforms called the Hundred Day Reform Movement (百日維新 or 戊戌變法). This reform movement was instigated by Kang Youwei (康有為) who had the support of Xu Zhijing (徐致靖), Yang Shenxiu (楊深秀) and Yang Rui (楊銳). The reformers held that China needed more than “self-strengthening” and that innovation must be accompanied by institutional and ideological change.

Yang Rui had persuaded the supervising censor, Gao Xiezeng (高夑曾), to submit a memorial to the Qing throne recommending the four reformers very highly. The outcome was an imperial decree to the princes and high ministers to summon Kang to the Tsungli Yamen (總理衙門), China’s office of foreign affairs, to ask him about the reforms. The high ministers and the princes submitted Kang’s letter. Remembering how the last Ming emperor was forced into committing suicide and recognizing Kang’s audacity, the Guangxu emperor (光绪皇帝) instructed his grand councilors to forward to him any memorials that Kang might present in the future immediately. The Guangxu emperor also requested Kang’s books dealing with the Meiji Restoration in Japan and a biography of Peter the Great of Russia.

Successive memorials by Xu Zhijing and Yang Shenxiu led to an imperial decree on June 11, 1898. This decree initiated the 100 Days Reform Movement. On June 16, Xu was instructed to bring Kang in for an interview with the emperor. The immediate result of the interview was Kang’s promotion to the rank of probationary secretary in the Tsungli Yamen. The emperor had intended to appoint Kang to a higher position but at that time, even though the emperor ruled the nation, this appointment still required the approval of the Empress Dowager Cixi.

The chief reforms initially undertaken were: First, topics for the metropolitan and district examinations were changed from the “Four Books” to topics related to current problems. Secondly, the palace examination was revised and the standards of grading district and lower level examinations were to become the same as those of provincial and metropolitan examinations. Third, Liang Qichao (梁啟超), who had achieved the rank of juren (舉人), a qualified graduate who had passed the triennial provincial examination, was granted a sixth- rank position in charge of the Translation Bureau. This promotion was motivated by the recognition that the Chinese government needed to be better informed about Western affairs and technology. Fourth, a bureau of agriculture, industry and commerce was established within the government. Fifth, orders were proclaimed abolishing the sinecure appointments in the offices of imperial supervisions of instruction, office of transmission, court of imperial entertainments, of state ceremonial, of imperial equerries (horse stables) and the grand court of revision. These sinecures provided little or no work but nonetheless paid a salary. Also abolished were the governorships of Guangdong, Hubei and Yunnan, the director-generalship of the Yellow River, the grain transportation taotai (道台), which had not taken charge over transportation affairs and the salt taotai, which until then had no salt fields. Finally, the grand secretaries, the six ministries, the governor generals and all provincial governors were ordered to ponder carefully and report on the question of whether or not other civilian and military posts should be abolished.

Other reforms were undertaken later with mixed results. One was the building of a more modern educational curriculum that studied math and science instead of focusing mainly on Confucian texts. Another was the attempt to establish the European principles of capitalism to motivate modernization of industry and the military. Another idea was the attempt to change the government from an absolute monarchy to a constitutional monarchy with democracy.

The new administration seemed to get off to a good start. Six reforms were immediately undertaken. However, even though Kang Youwei had the emperor’s support, he never had the support of either the Empress Dowager Cixi or the councilors of the Grand Council (軍機處), which advised and directed matters of governing policy approved by the Empress Dowager or of Ronglu (榮祿), the governor-general of Zhili who wielded military power.

In August1898 the emperor, who was unable to replace any of the councilors of the Grand Council, appointed four probationary secretaries to the Grand Council in hopes that they would to do the work of the Grand Council. This body was an important policy-making body and at one time was a manager of military affairs. The number of councilors varied between three and 10 members. Their work was supported by secretaries that would prepare and transmit documents and memorials. The emperor had hoped that these new secretaries could eventually take over the real power of the Grand Council.

This, however, was not to be. The Empress Dowager had begun to disapprove of the emperor’s dismissals of uncooperative conservative members of the ministry of ceremonies. The four probationary secretaries added to the Grand Council had also aroused the jealousy of the councilors by their aggressive and energetic efforts at reform. Prince Duan (端郡王), a second-rank Manchu prince who supervised the Grand Council, also worked against the reforms. This activity also incurred the disapproval of the Empress Dowager. She then undertook a plot to depose the Guangxu emperor. Through a series of plots and false rumors, memorials were eventually sent to the throne requesting that the empress dowager resume conducting state affairs because the Guangxu emperor was allegedly too ill to undertake his responsibilities. On September 21, the Empress Dowager, with the support of the military under Ronglu and Yuan Shikai (袁世凱), engineered a coup d’etat that placed the emperor under house arrest where he remained until his death in 1908. Cixi then took over the government as regent. She then had eight scapegoats arrested of which six were executed, one was exiled to the frontiers and one was given life imprisonment. The executed scapegoats included the four probationary secretaries appointed by the emperor to the Grand Council. Kang Youwei avoided arrest by fleeing China on the day before the coup.

With the coup d’etat, the 100 days reform seemed to have come to an end. All of the innovations proclaimed during the Hundred Days’ Reform were rescinded within one month. In short, everything was reverted back to before. China then entered a two-year reactionary period that would end in 1900 with the failure of the Boxer Rebellion.

Part of the cause of this failure of Kang Youwei’s reform effort was his inability to obtain the support of the Empress Dowager who did not relish a constitutional monarchy. Kang also had alienated many conservative Confucian scholars in the government who tended to believe that these reforms would threaten the source of their livelihood. Then too, the suddenness and ambitiousness of the reform effort by the new probationary secretaries of the Grand Council actually hindered its success as it attracted opposition. Another part of the failure was due to Kang’s underestimation and misunderstanding of the political realities of his time. For example, Prince Gong (恭親王), who headed the Grand Council, fought the reforms because these reforms appeared to him to be the product of foreign government influences that had opposed his attempt to have his son installed as the emperor of China years before.

In my next offering I will talk about the two-year reactionary period of 1898 to 1900. It will include specific measures undertaken and the Boxer Rebellion.


About Pat Welsh

In 2009 while teaching English at Sichuan University, Welsh was asked to give a speech where he was introduced to the audience as a “pioneer of Chinese American relations” as a result of his cooperative work in international banking during the Deng Xiaoping era. For more than 65 years, Welsh has been learning Chinese and has used this knowledge both professionally and personally to enhance his understanding of Chinese and Asian affairs. He currently resides in Georgia and occasionally lectures on China to classes in World History and World Literature.


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