By Pat Welsh, contributor
The empress dowager Cixi (慈禧太后) successfully engineered a coup d’état in September 1898. On Sept. 21 she attended court to redirect the government. With this, the reactionary period began. She dismissed all of the officials who had participated in the reform movement and executed six major players who thereafter became known as the “Six Martyrs.” Two others, Kang Youwei (康有為) and Liang Qichao (梁啟超) escaped abroad to stir up trouble for the dynasty later. The removed officials were replaced by her own personal favorites thereby consolidating her power in the center of government.
This was immediately followed by rescinding almost all of the innovations announced during the Hundred Day’s Reform (戊戌變法 or 百日維新). Among the most damaging was the prohibition of all scholars to memorialize to the throne about affairs of state. Also undone was the transformation of academies into modern schools. It was as if China were attempting to return to what it was in previous centuries. In early 1899, a newly appointed governor of Hubei Province did memorialize to the throne requesting the cancellation of Cixi’s reactionary orders, but the end result of this was his dismissal from office and his inability to obtain any new employment by the government. Thereafter, no one else dared attempt to save any of the reforms.
After the coup d’état in September 1898, the Guangxü emperor (光緒帝) found himself imprisoned in the palace in Yingtai where Cixi often resided. A rumor of a serious illness was widely circulated so that the emperor could be deposed at Cixi’s discretion. The one fly in her ointment was Guangxu emperor himself. Although Cixi controlled the Zhili government and the Beiyang Army, the greater political power was in the provinces, especially in the south. She therefore directed the Grand Council to send secret telegrams to the southern governors-general and the governors to ask their opinion of the emperor. The governor–general of the Liang-Jiang area, Liu Kunyi (劉坤一), replied that since the rightful position of the emperor and his ministers had already been established, the criticism of both foreigners and Chinese should be avoided. To Cixi, this was a warning that frustrated her plot. The position of the powerless emperor had to be maintained for the time being.
By the winter of 1899, the patience of Cixi was wearing out. Two escapees from China who had pushed for the reforms, Kang Youwei and Liang Qichao were stirring up trouble overseas by advocating the protection of the Guangxü emperor. With the assistance of Ronglu (荣禄), the Grand Secretary, Cixi selected a young boy from a close branch of the imperial family and made him the heir-apparent. The selection could not be from Guangxü emperor since he had no descendants, but rather from the preceding Tongzhi branch. There was concern that foreign ministers to China would interfere. There was also concern that the new heir-apparent would be opposed by Liu.
In order to test the foreigners, messengers were sent to the Legation Quarters to subtly hint to the foreign ministers that they should come to court for a celebration. Cixi and Ronglu had hoped that the readiness of the foreign ministers to celebrate the establishment of the heir-apparent would be an indication of their acceptance of the heir-apparent Pujün (溥儁), the son of Prince Duan (端郡王). and the dethronement of the Guangxü emperor. Unfortunately for Cixi, the foreign ministers never made an appearance.
At this point the conservatives in Cixi’s court began to utilize the Boxers of the Eight Diagrams sect to further their plans. Here is how it came about. In 1895 anti-Christian activities were undertaken by the Big Sword Society (大刀會) in Shandong Province. In November 1897, members of this society killed two German missionaries in a Catholic church in Zhangjiazhuang (張家莊). This affair became known as the Jüye Incident (曹州教案 or 巨野教案). One outcome was Germany’s seizure of Jiaozhou Bay and points in Shandong Province’s southern coastline. Another outcome of this incident was that Zhu Hengdeng, the leader of this society changed the name of the Boxers from Yìhéquán (義和拳)” “Righteous and Harmonious Fists” to “Yìhétuán” “Righteous and Harmonious Society” as it seemed to be a more elegant term. He also set up the slogan: “Support the Qing and annihilate the foreigners” (扶清滅洋) after the Jüye incident. A third result was the appointment of Yuan Shikai (袁世凱) as the new governor of Shandong Province and his expulsion northward of the Boxers to Zhili Province. The previous governor of Shandong Province, Yü Xian (毓賢) first returned to Beijing and then assigned the governorship of Shanxi Province where he proclaimed that he was a second leader of the Boxers.
The Boxers themselves were originally a secret society that had its origins during the Jiaqing (嘉慶) period of 1796-1820 in western Shandong Province. It is often stated that American missionaries were probably the first to refer to this group as “Boxers.” The average Boxer was supposedly trained in martial arts. Their primary practice was spirit possession, involving the whirling of swords, violent prostrations, and chanting incantations to Taoist and Buddhist spirits. The excitement and moral force of these possession rituals was especially attractive to village men, many of whom were unemployed and powerless teenagers. The Boxers believed that training, diet, martial arts and prayer would allow them to perform extraordinary feats, such as flight. In addition, they believed that millions of spirit soldiers would descend from the heavens and assist them in purifying China of foreign oppression. The Boxers, armed with rifles and swords, often claimed that they had supernatural invulnerability toward blows of cannon, rifle shots and knife attacks.
In the spring of 1900, the Boxers had resumed their rampant activities in Zhili where the governor-general had become sympathetic to their cause. While the Boxers were killing Christian converts and burning churches, the dowager empress began playing a dual role. On one hand, she publicly ordered Zhao Shuqiao (趙舒翹), the Minister of Punishments, to disband them while on the other hand she secretly ordered that he not disband them but rather that he investigate the conditions of this society. Although he recognized the society to be nothing more than untrustworthy rascals, he also recognized the true intention of the dowager empress and reported that they were “very dependable, righteous people.” In 1900, Prince Duan, Kang Yi (綱綱), a leader of the conservative faction in the government, and other officials eased the Boxers into Beijing. The stage was set for the next topic of my offering, the Boxer Rebellion, to occur.
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.