Few monarchists are probably less remembered or more unjustly vilified than the late statesman, artist and diplomat Zheng Xiaoxu. He was an upright and loyal servant of the last Emperor of China and a man who wanted a China that was strong, united, independent and modern while still holding to their ancient traditions and cultural heritage, at the heart of which was the Confucian imperial system. Zheng Xiaoxu was born on April 2, 1860 in Suzhou, Jiangsu province into a Han family which originated in Fujian province. Noticeably bright from his youth, he took the imperial examinations in 1882 and earned an intermediate degree and within a few years became a secretary to Li Hongzhang, a high Qing official and later a prominent commander in the First Sino-Japanese War and the Taiping Rebellion. His performed his duties satisfactorily and in 1891 was posted to the Chinese legation in Tokyo and later acted as a Chinese consul in Tsukiji, Osaka and Kobe.
While in Kobe, Zheng Xiaoxu played a crucial role in the organization of the Chinese guild and he made many important contacts in Japanese high society in both the political and cultural spheres. However, he was recalled in 1894 with the outbreak of the war with Japan and he worked in Nanjing with Zhang Zhidong, an advocate of reform and opponent of the Japanese annexation of Formosa. Zheng Xiaoxu accompanied his master to Peking and there obtained an appointment to the Foreign Office, a position for which he was well suited. However, his association with many of the prominent reformers gathered around Emperor Guangxu during the “100 Days Reform” in 1898 meant that, once the Empress-Dowager had suppressed the effort, Zheng Xiaoxu suddenly became rather unpopular in Peking and he left the city for the southern provinces where he served in various capacities.
When the Revolution of 1911 came and brought down the Qing Dynasty, replacing the traditional imperial system with a western-style republic, Zheng Xiaoxu was outraged and spurned all efforts to induce him to join the new government. He adamantly refused to serve the republic or to even acknowledge them as the new masters of China and he retired to Shanghai where he wrote poetry and practiced his calligraphy. In fact, it is for his art and poems that he is probably most remembered today, when he is fondly remembered at all. However, even in his retirement he did not cease to make his political views known and he wrote a number of brutally honest criticisms of the republican government. Viewing their entire establishment as illegitimate and un-Chinese he denounced the succession of governments as a collection of thieves, ineffective, self-centered and only looking to pocket as much as they could while they could before being pushed out by others. So, all in all, he had a very accurate view of the early days of the Republic of China.
|Zheng Xiaoxu and the Emperor|
This brought Zheng Xiaoxu to the attention of certain individuals inside the massive walls of the “Great Within”. Reginald F. Johnston, the British tutor and unofficial advisor to the last Emperor, recommended Zheng Xiaoxu to the young former Emperor for the post of lord chamberlain. He was duly appointed and tasked with leading a wave of reforms in the operating of the Forbidden City. However, he met opposition from the outset by everyone from corrupt officials worried that their usual way of doing business was being endangered, from Manchurians who were suspicious of a Han official being given such an important post and naturally extending to some republican officials who were always nervous about possible efforts to restore the imperial system by those in the Forbidden City. Zheng Xiaoxu persevered however and became known for his staunch loyalty to the Emperor as well as his willingness to change and adapt to modern circumstances. When the freedom and, at times, even the safety of the Emperor was threatened, Zheng Xiaoxu helped arrange his transfer to the Japanese legation in Tianjin.
It is not surprising, given the history Zheng Xiaoxu had with the Japanese and the contacts he had long had in Japan, that he would look to them for assistance at this critical time for the Qing Dynasty. However, he was not wedded to the Japanese alone and encouraged maintaining contacts with as many foreign powers as possible from White Russian exiles to British diplomats. He reasoned that if numerous powers became involved their own competition amongst themselves would prevent any one of them from dominating the Qing restoration movement. However, it was ultimately the Japanese who proved to be the only ones willing to take concrete measures to help the former Manchu Emperor and attention turned toward moving the young former monarch back to his ancestral homeland of Manchuria. Zheng Xiaoxu urged the Emperor to accept this course of action and came to be the dominant figure in the imperial court. When Japan said they would support the creation of an independent Manchuria under the leadership of the Emperor but not a full blown restoration of the “Great Qing Empire” Zheng Xiaoxu embraced the idea while his longtime rival, Lo Chen-yu, felt this was not sufficient and resigned.
So, first as a state and then as an imperial monarchy, Manchukuo was created and Zheng Xiaoxu became prime minister to the Emperor who adopted the reigning name of Kang-Te. All the years of effort seemed to have paid off with an actual restoration, even if only over Manchuria. Most still hoped that this would, in any event, be one step toward the eventual restoration of the Qing Empire of China and the prime minister was certainly among them. Zheng Xiaoxu had been a key player in the establishment of Manchukuo, starting with his contacts in the foreign service as well as friends in the Black Dragon Society (formerly the Black Ocean Society) who wanted Manchuria to act as a buffer zone between Japan and the Soviet Union. He wrote the lyrics to the national anthem, helped organize the administration, wrote about the Confucian monarchist political-moral philosophy of the monarchy and many of the efforts to encourage public support for the new state. However, it would be incorrect to portray him (as most do) as simply a puppet of the Kwantung Army. He shared the views of the more benevolent Japanese imperialists that Manchukuo required Japanese assistance and oversight in the early formative period but that this role should be lessened until it disappeared entirely, leaving Japan and Manchukuo as totally equal and independent allies.
Many often forget how long Manchukuo was an established country, from 1932 to 1945. As early as 1934, after Manchukuo officially became a monarchy, Zheng Xiaoxu viewed the role of the Japanese as being effectively over and resented their continued oversight of Manchu affairs. As was his nature, he was not hesitant to voice his opinions and openly clashed with the Kwantung Army high command on a number of occasions. As a result, many of the Japanese leaders came to view Zheng Xiaoxu as an enemy rather than an ally and suggested the Emperor replace him with someone else. After this attitude was clearly proven to him, Zheng Xiaoxu requested permission to retire in May of 1935 and this was granted. He was still kept under close watch until his mysterious death on March 28, 1938. The Emperor ordered that he be given a state funeral, a fittingly ceremonious end for a man who had been such a loyal servant of his monarch and perhaps merciful in that, disillusioned as he had already become, he did not live to see the final fall of the last Emperor of the “Middle Kingdom”.
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