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Tales of Macao

The Late Qing Reform: an Overview


The Late Qing Reform refers to the reform movement promulgated by the Qing government in its final years to save itself. While escaping westward from the Eight-Nation Alliance, Empress Dowager Cixi (慈禧太后) recognised that the Qing regime would collapse unless a reform movement was undertaken. On 29 January 1901, she issued a decree in Emperor Guangxu’s (光緒) name ordering reform. An institution known as the Superintendency of Political Affairs (督辦政務處) was promptly established to plan and implement reform measures including:

(1) Political and legal reforms: abolishing sinecures and unnecessary offices, as well as stopping the sale of official posts; enacting the Law for Assembly and Association (《集會結社律》) and abolishing severe forms of punishment such as lingchi (凌遲,  execution by slicing) and lianzuo (連坐法, punishing the criminal and his or her whole family along); initiating reforms to establish a constitutional monarchy, and sending officials abroad to study constitutional governance in other countries; promulgating the Decree for Imitation of Constitutionalism (《仿行立憲上諭》) and the Outline of the Imperial Constitution (《欽定憲法大綱》); forming provincial Consultative Bureaux (諮議局) by election and establishing the Advisory Council (資政院); and lastly, abolishing the Grand Council (軍機處), appointing a prime minister to form a new Cabinet.  

(2) Military reforms: abolishing the imperial examination system for martial arts and establishing military academies in its place; phasing out old-style armies and establishing the Commission for Army Reorganisation (練兵處) to form and train new armies; transforming the Board of War (兵部) into the Ministry of the Army (陸軍部) and adding the Ministry of the Navy (海軍部); training officers with modern drills, and standardising army and naval equipment.

(3) Economic reforms: unifying the fiscal revenue and expenditure of central and local offices and consolidating the financial system; reforming the taxation and currency systems; developing railways, and promoting industrial and commercial development.

(4) Cultural reforms: abolishing the imperial examination system and setting up modern schools; establishing the Ministry of Education (學部) to oversee the national schooling system; and sending students abroad to study, particularly Japan with regards to the Meiji Restoration.

The Late Qing Reform came to an end when the Qing dynasty was overthrown by the 1911 Xinhai Revolution (辛亥革命). It nevertheless managed to reinstate and enhance measures of the Hundred Days’ Reform (戊戌維新). Politically, it instituted a constitutional monarchy. Economically, it promoted the development of national industries. Militarily, it helped modernise China’s armies. In the cultural and educational aspects, it abolished the imperial examination system and introduced a new schooling system. As China’s third attempt at reform in the early modern era (after the Self-strengthening Movement (洋務運動) and the Hundred Days’ Reform), it had a positive effect on late Qing society and its cultural development.


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