Wednesday, December 21, 2011
Monarch Profile: Emperor GuangXu of China
Emperor Guangxu, and his entourage of like-minded mandarins, issued a veritable flood of imperial edicts aimed at reforming virtually every segment of Chinese society. The idea was to remake the Qing Empire along lines inspired by western countries and particularly the Empire of Japan. Just like the Japanese they hoped to create a modern infrastructure, economy, military, educational system and even a constitutional government with representative assemblies but doing it all within the traditional imperial system and with the Emperor retaining final authority. However, while Japan had modernized at breathtaking speed, Emperor Guangxu was trying to go even faster and Chinese society reeled from the impact of all the proposed changes. It also upset the old order which went looking for help at the door of Empress-Dowager Cixi. These included many officials Emperor Guangxu dismissed for being incompetent at worst or opposed to his reforms or reform schedule at best. There were also those who stood to lose power or position as a result of the reforms. Some were also genuinely concerned that foreign powers stood to take advantage of China through the flood of reforms, gaining influence in details of the mountain of edicts Emperor Guangxu put his seal on.
Some of his supporters were executed by the Empress-Dowager, others punished in lesser ways and some, like Kang Youwei, fled the country and founded the “Protect the Emperor Society” to advocate for a constitutional monarchy for China. Those who viewed Emperor Guangxu as being duped by foreign powers felt their prejudice confirmed when he opposed the Empress-Dowager declaring war on the great powers of Europe and the United States in support of the Boxer Rebellion. He could not influence events at all of course and was eventually proven correct when the Boxers and regular Chinese forces were defeated by the Eight Nation Alliance (Great Britain, France, Italy, Germany, Austria-Hungary, Russia, the United States and Japan) which saw the foreign armies take Peking, even the Forbidden City and ransacking the place. Emperor Guangxu was persuaded by his favorite consort (the tragic “Pearl Concubine”) to treat with the foreigners himself but before he could do so the Empress-Dowager had the concubine thrown down a well by her eunuchs and when she fled the Forbidden City in disguise ahead of the foreign armies, she took the Emperor with her. She was greatly offended when the foreign officials stated that any agreement had to be made, at least nominally, with Emperor Guangxu rather than herself since he was, legally, still the chief-of-state.
The funeral for Emperor Guangxu was the last such ceremony China would ever see. The Republic of China, which came into being after 1911, funded the building of his mausoleum in the Western Qing Tombs as part of an agreement made with the late dynasty. Republican leader Dr. Sun Yat-sen even managed to praise Emperor Guangxu for his open-mindedness and commitment to reform and even post-civil war communist historians have been less inclined to be harsh toward him. His efforts at widespread reform may have been rushed and not handled in the proper way yet many still point to his reign as a great opportunity lost. One cannot help but speculate about what might have been if he had been allowed to see things through as he wished. Might Imperial China have become a modern, constitutional monarchy, enjoying the advances of modern innovation while remaining faithful to long-held traditions? We can, of course, never know but it does provide a precedent which can be pointed to as an alternative for monarchists in China to this day. If China were to ever become the modern monarchy he envisioned, Emperor Guangxu would finally be vindicated in his vision for the future.