In 1898 (the 24th year of Emperor Guangxu’s (光緒) reign, also known as the Wuxu (戊戌) year in the Chinese lunar calendar), Kang Youwei (康有為), Liang Qichao (梁啟超), and other reformers advocated the Wuxu Reform (戊戌維新). This is also known as the Kang-Liang Reform (康梁維新) after its leading reformers; or the Hundred Days’ Reform (百日維新) for its short-lived span of 103 days.
China’s overwhelming defeat in the First Sino-Japanese War substantiated its failure in modernisation. This intensified the imperialist scramble for naval leaseholds and spheres of influence in China. As the nation edged closer to disintegration, Chinese people with integrity and vision began stepping forward, desperately seeking a new way to save the foundering nation. The two leading reformers, Kang Youwei, and his student Liang Qichao, embarked on publishing books, developing new philosophies, establishing learned societies, and running newspapers to spread reformist ideas.
Emperor Guangxu learnt from his tutor Weng Tonghe (翁同龢) about Kang’s call for reform. The emperor then asked Kang to state his political views. Deeply moved after reading Kang’s Memorial on Coping with the Overall Situation in Reply to an Imperial Proclamation (《應詔統籌全局摺》), Emperor Guangxu issued the Imperial Edict on National Affairs (《明定國是詔》) on 11 June 1898 to declare the launch of reform. The reform programmes were on multiple levels: allowing more voices on political and governance matters; adopting modern military training; promoting new industries and enterprises; abolishing the eight-legged essay (八股文) in the imperial examinations, establishing the Imperial University of Peking (京師大學堂) and the like.
Although Emperor Guangxu launched the reform, he was nevertheless emperor in name only. Empress Dowager Cixi (慈禧太后) and the Empress’s Faction (后黨) continued to grip the reins of power. Their opposition to the reform culminated in a coup staged by Cixi on 21 September. The coup resulted in the emperor’s imprisonment on Yingtai (瀛台), an artificial island in Zhongnanhai (中南海); and the arrest and execution of Tan Sitong (譚嗣同) and five other leading reformers known as the “Six Gentlemen” (「六君子」). Kang and Liang managed to flee abroad. The disastrous end of the Hundred Days’ Reform illustrated how hopeless and foundering the Qing government was.
The reform ended in tragedy, it nevertheless managed to introduce new ideas that would facilitate the Late Qing Reform. Its grim fate also fired up a budding revolution. Seen in this light, its influence on China’s early modern history is a positive one.