The Guangxu Emperor (1871-1908) enthusiastically embraced ideas to change China’s system of government to help modernise the country. But the “Wuxu Reforms” lasted only 103 days.
by Wee Kek Koon
by Wee Kek Koon

A Chinese emperor today? Like Japan and the UK, China might still have had a monarch if it wasn’t for one backtracking empress

  • The Wuxu Reforms of 1898 aimed to change China from an absolute monarchy to one where the monarch was a largely ceremonial figure
  • Empress Dowager Cixi approved the plans at first but all that changed 103 days later when she launched a coup and put the emperor under house arrest

The United Kingdom finally has a new prime minister after weeks of tedious debates between contenders for the position and shifting alliances within the ruling Conservative Party. And about time, too.

In the two months following the resignation of the previous prime minister, Boris Johnson, in early July, the British government was coasting on autopilot, with no one fully in charge of the country.

The UK has a political system where the prime minister is the head of government, with the king (or queen) as the titular head of state.

In other words, the prime minister is the person who actually runs the country, while the monarch is a largely ceremonial figure who has no overt political role, but whose exalted rank and reserve powers, though rarely exercised, help to keep prime ministers and their governments in check.

The Chinese history book that got 70 people executed, some very slowly

This arrangement is shared by constitutional monarchies like Denmark, Japan and Norway, and similar to parliamentary republics such as Germany, India and Singapore, with directly or indirectly elected ceremonial presidents as their heads of state instead of hereditary monarchs.

A little over a century ago, China almost became a constitutional monarchy.

The Qing dynasty (1644-1912) in the late 19th century was battered by foreign invasions and domestic unrest. A group of intellectuals, led by Kang Youwei, was convinced that China had to undertake radical reforms to prevent national disintegration.

Kang Youwei led a group of intellectuals who came up with ideas to modernise China.

Among their ideas for the country’s modernisation was to change China’s system of government, from an absolute monarchy to one that was similar to successful modern monarchies such as the UK and in particular Japan, where governments were elected and kings and emperors reigned but did not rule.

Kang and the reformists managed to get on their side the 27-year-old Guangxu Emperor, who enthusiastically embraced their modern ideas.

After seeking and getting approval from his aunt, the formidable Empress Dowager Cixi, Guangxu launched the Wuxu Reforms on June 11, 1898 (the Wuxu year in the traditional Chinese calendar), with ambitious plans to propel China into the ranks of powerful modern nations.

The Empress Dowager Cixi (centre) at the Summer Palace in Beijing, China, circa 1904. Photo: Courtesy of Hong Kong University Press

Scores of historians have written copiously on how and why the reforms ultimately failed. One reason often cited was that the reforms were too radical, exacerbated by the excessive militancy of the reformists. This provoked a strong pushback by the conservative faction in government, who appealed to the powerful empress dowager.

Alarmed by rumours that the emperor and the reformists wanted to imprison and even assassinate her, and informed by her own reactionary streak, Cixi launched a coup at dawn on September 21, 1898.

She announced that she would take over the running of the country and placed her nephew Guangxu under house arrest. Warrants for the arrest of the reformists were issued. Kang Youwei fled to Hong Kong.

The Wuxu Reforms (also known as the Hundred Days’ Reform), came to an abrupt end after just 103 days.

The Hakka, refugees in China for 1,700 years, and their haven in Hong Kong

The failure of the Wuxu Reforms pushed the reformists in China towards even more radical action. Now they wanted nothing less than the overthrow of the Qing dynasty and China’s millennia-old monarchical system of government.

In 1901, Cixi herself attempted to initiate reforms, even more radical than those attempted in 1898, which covered almost all aspects of government and society, with a detailed timetable for China to become a constitutional monarchy. But it was too late.

The Qing dynasty was finally overthrown and replaced by the Republic of China on January 1, 1912.

In the eventful century that followed, many have asked the question: “What if the Wuxu Reforms had been successful? Would China still have an emperor today?”

While their contemplation can be interesting, such speculative “what if” questions are ultimately futile. That moment has passed; what could have been will never be.