China’s Hundred Days of Reform: The Beginning and the End

From the lecture series: The Fall and Rise of China

By Richard Baum, Ph.D., University of California, Los Angeles

Toward the end of the 19th century, Emperor Guangxu, based on the reform proposals by Kang Youwei—a well-known scholarly advocate of radical modernization—issued imperial edicts and began the Hundred Days of Reform. Were these reforms able to bring about the intended social change in China?

Statue of guardian lion and pagoda in Beijing.
Many social, political, and economic reforms were undertaken by Emperor Guangxu. (Image: VLADJ55/Shutterstock)

Emperor Guangxu and Kang Youwei

As the 19th century wound down toward its close, a 27-year-old emperor, Guangxu, sat on the Dragon Throne in Beijing. He had a rising interest in the subject of reform, and noting that, a well-known scholarly advocate of radical modernization, by the name of Kang Youwei, took it upon himself to persuade Guangxu to underwrite massive reforms. He barraged the emperor with a series of policy recommendations, in the form of written ‘memorials’.

He was eventually granted a private audience with Guangxu, and, after the meeting, Kang Youwei and his associates prepared a detailed list of reform proposals. As agreed, the emperor received them; and on June 11, 1898, the reforms commenced.

Learn more about the era of global exploration.

Initiation of Hundred Days of Reform

Over the next three-and-a-half months, more than 40 imperial edicts were issued in rapid succession. The new decrees encompassed a sweeping set of innovations in such areas as higher education, civil service examinations, medical training, and the management of foreign affairs.

Specific mandates included the establishment of China’s first imperial institution of higher learning (now called Peking University) and the abolition of the eight-legged essay in imperial civil service examinations.

Bureaucratic offices were simplified; non-competitively awarded positions, or sinecures, were abolished; legal codes were improved and rendered comprehensible for the first time ever; and the country’s first official daily newspaper was commissioned.

In economic affairs, the commercialization of agriculture and industry were promoted, technological innovation was rewarded, foreign trade was expanded, and a formal process of governmental budgeting was introduced.

In all areas of imperial policy, suggestions were henceforth to be solicited from private citizens with the stipulation that these suggestions should be forwarded to the appropriate administrative departments on the same day as they were received.

In breadth and depth, Guangxu’s Hundred Days of Reform were indeed breathtaking.

This is a transcript from the video series The Fall and Rise of China. Watch it now, on The Great Courses Plus.

Opposition to the Reforms

The proposed reforms did not go unopposed.

Mobilizing the forces of reaction within the imperial court, the ever-vigilant dowager, Empress Cixi, pulled out all the stops in her efforts to abort Guangxu’s program.

Now in her 60s, and in semi-retirement since 1889, Cixi continued to influence the imperial court from behind the scenes. Alarmed by the radicalism of Guangxu’s reforms, and by Kang Youwei’s growing influence over the emperor, she devised a scheme to seize power.

Cixi’s Palace Coup

Portrait of dowager empress Cixi.
Cixi pulled out all the stops to abort Guangxu’s reform efforts. (Image: Hubert Vos/Public domain)

On September 21, 1898—exactly 103 days after the first reform decrees were promulgated—a group of ultra-conservative court officials and eunuchs raided the emperor’s palace, seizing all documents pertaining to the reforms.

Cixi then announced that Guangxu had suddenly fallen ill, overcome by a mysterious malady that had incapacitated him. This, she said, made it imperative that she herself should assume control of the government.

Meanwhile, the emperor was placed under detention and was whisked away to a small island in the Imperial Gardens west of Beijing, where he was kept incommunicado.

Cixi’s palace coup was now complete, and the ‘Hundred Days of Reform’ came to a sudden, crashing end.

Learn more about agrarian crisis in nineteenth-century China.

Arrest of Progressive Reformers

In the aftermath of Cixi’s coup, progressive reformers were quickly targeted for arrest. A total of 22 scholars were detained, dismissed from their posts, banished and stripped of all property.

Kang Youwei himself—his writings now officially banned—managed to evade arrest, escaping safely to Japan along with his student, Liang Qichao.

However, Tan Sitong, another progressive reformer and ever the loyal follower of Confucian virtue, remained in Beijing, where he surrendered himself to Cixi, in the process becoming something of an instant martyr.

Manchu Reactionaries in Power Again

With the ascent, once more, of Manchu reactionaries to the center of imperial power, the regime took on an ever-stronger tone of atavism, arrogance, and anti-foreignism. Hostility toward all barbarians was officially encouraged, and Western missionaries were accused of committing all manner of abominations, including the boiling and eating of young children.

Xenophobia and nativist superstition now flourished under the reactionary reign of the dowager empress. When a series of natural calamities occurred in 1898 and 1899, Cixi conveniently blamed the foreigners, citing their well- known contempt for Confucianism and for the rituals of ancestor-worship.

Learn more about the encroachments by Japan.

Emergence of Secret Societies in China

By the turn of the new century, a variety of secret societies had become active in China. While each had its own distinctive rituals and belief systems, one thing served to unite them: hatred of the ever-powerful, ever-insidious barbarians.

One such secret society, known as Yihe Quan, or the society of ‘Righteous and Harmonious Fists’, called ‘Boxers’ for short, had been in existence for almost a century. The Boxers loathed all foreigners, whom they referred to colloquially as the ‘hairy ones’.

Boxers: The Society of ‘Righteous and Harmonious Fists’

Photo of Boxer rebels.
The Boxers loathed all foreigners, whom they referred to colloquially as the ‘hairy ones’. (Image: Unknown/Public domain)

Devoted to the martial arts, the Boxers believed that their magical charms and incantations would render them immune to foreign bullets. They shunned the use of rifles, preferring old-fashioned swords, lances, and fists.

In the late 1890s, they decreed that all ‘hairy ones’ must be exterminated, along with their traitorous Chinese collaborators and compradors.

Compradors were the Chinese employees of Western merchants who were used to facilitate relations with local labor organizers and guilds with local merchants and local officials.

Originally anti-Manchu in orientation (the Manchus were, after all, a foreign dynasty), the Boxers soon found themselves being courted by Cixi and her followers, who shared their antipathy to the ‘hairy ones’.

Seeking to co-opt the society of ‘Harmonious Fists’ and thus blunt the Boxers’ anti-Manchu anger, she secretly summoned their leaders to Beijing, where she urged them to instruct Manchu court officials in the fine art of boxing.

Common Questions about the Hundred Days of Reform

Q: What fields did the new decrees issued by Emperor Guangxu cover?

The new decrees issued by Emperor Guangxu included reforms in areas such as higher education, civil service examinations, medical training, and the management of foreign affairs.

Q: What happened on September 21, 1898?

On September 21, 1898, a group of ultra-conservative court officials and eunuchs raided the Emperor Guangxu’s palace, seizing all documents pertaining to the reforms. The emperor was placed under detention and was whisked away, and dowager empress Cixi’s palace coup was complete.

Q: Who were the ‘Boxers’?

By the turn of the new century, a variety of secret societies had become active in China. One such secret society was known as Yihe Quan, or the society of ‘Righteous and Harmonious Fists’. They were called ‘Boxers’ for short.

Keep Reading
Population Explosion: The Strain on the Imperial Economy
Factors behind China’s Historical Dominance
International Exploration in the Chinese Empire: Zheng He’s Voyages