The reform ideas proposed by Kang Youwei (康有為) and the other reformers gained the support of Emperor Guangxu’s (光緒) tutor Weng Tonghe (翁同龢). Weng then presented the Memorial on Coping with the Overall Situation in Reply to an Imperial Proclamation (《應詔統籌全局摺》) penned by Kang to the emperor for his perusal. On 11 June 1898, Emperor Guangxu issued the Imperial Edict on National Affairs (《明定國是詔》) and summoned Kang for an audience. In the 103 days followed, a series of new policies were implemented one after another. The initiative became known as the Hundred Days’ Reform, or the Wuxu Reform (戊戌維新) as the year it occurred was known as the Wuxu (戊戌) year in the Chinese lunar calendar.
In brief, the reform programmes were: politically, it called for the establishment of a constitutional monarchy modelled on Japan; offices with fragmented or overlapping functions would be consolidated, and sinecures would be eliminated; officials and commoners could submit suggestions directly to the emperor to allow more voices, and newspaper censorship would be lifted; militarily, it proposed disbanding the Green Standard (綠營) troops and other superfluous forces, and introducing modern training and drill methods for the infantry; economically, it proposed establishing a Central Bureau for Railways and Mines (路礦總局), a Central Bureau of Agriculture, Industry and Commerce (農工商總局) and provincial-level bureaux of commerce; also, the establishment of industries, chambers of commerce and farmers’ associations would be promoted; in terms of culture and education, the writing of eight-legged essays (八股文) for the imperial examination would be abolished. In its place, candidates would be evaluated based on their grasp of political affairs; local academies were to be closed and replaced with modern schools. For instance, the Imperial University of Peking (京師大學堂) and small and medium sized local schools were set up. In addition, translation bureaux would be established to translate foreign texts, and people would be given the freedom to establish their own newspapers and learned societies.
After China’s defeat in the First Sino-Japanese War, the country was on the edge of partition by the imperialist powers. Desperate to avert the looming crisis, Emperor Guangxu resolved to initiate rapid and sweeping reforms.
Weng Tonghe and four samples of his handwriting in semi-cursive script. A late Qing scholar renowned for his calligraphy and painting skills, Weng served as the imperial tutor to Emperor Tongzhi (同治) and Emperor Guangxu and was favoured by the latter. A supporter of Kang Youwei’s ideas on reform, Weng successively presented seven of Kang’s memorials - including the Memorial on Coping with the Overall Situation in Reply to an Imperial Proclamation - to Emperor Guangxu’s attention, strengthening his resolve to pursue reform. Shortly after the commencement of the Hundred Days’ Reform, Weng was dismissed from his post by the Empress’s Faction (后黨) headed by Empress Dowager Cixi (慈禧太后).
The Hundred Days’ Reform was modelled on Japan’s Meiji Restoration. Pictured is the original A Study of Meiji Restoration (《日本變政考》) Kang Youwei presented to Emperor Guangxu. It contains an account of Japan’s reform between 1868 and 1890, with emphasis on its constitutional reforms.
In his Memorial on Coping with the Overall Situation in Reply to an Imperial Proclamation presented to Emperor Guangxu in early 1898, Kang Youwei listed concrete reform initiatives and was emphatic in his view that “we must change in order to survive and are doomed unless we do so; the adoption of sweeping changes will make us stronger; limiting ourselves to minor changes will spell our doom.”
On 11 June 1898, Emperor Guangxu issued the Imperial Edict on National Affairs (left). The edict opened by stating the importance of strengthening the country via reform: “In recent years, most Chinese and foreign government officials with an eye on current affairs have advocated reform as a means to strengthen the country.” The edict was published in Jing Bao (《京報》), a newspaper of the period (right).
A modern-day photo of Renshoudian (仁壽殿) in the Summer Palace (Yiheyuan, 頤和園). As Kang Youwei was not of high office, he was restricted by the imperial court custom from approaching the emperor. It was not until 16 June 1898 that Emperor Guangxu was finally able to receive Kang personally at Renshoudian to discuss the reform. It was the first and only meeting between the two.
Following the issuance of the Imperial Edict on National Affairs, a series of new policies for facilitating political, economic, and other reforms were gradually rolled out. Education was identified as a key area for reform. The goal of the Hundred Days’ Reform was to convert all traditional academies, temple schools, charitable schools, and community schools into educational institutions teaching both Chinese and Western subjects. The reform also resulted in the birth of the Imperial University of Peking (featured in photo). Sun Jianai (孫家鼐), the first Grand Minister of Schools, was responsible for managing the university.
A modern-day photo of the former residence of Xu Tingfang (徐廷芳) located at No. 3 Guozijian Road (國子監街), Beijing (北京). Xu was an official who attained the rank of jinshi (進士, the highest and final degree in the imperial examination) during the reign of Emperor Qianlong (乾隆). It now houses the Songtangzhai Museum of Traditional Chinese Folk Carving in Beijing (北京松堂齋民間雕刻博物館). The Reformist Camp used to meet here during the Hundred Days’ Reform period, so the place was raided by Qing troops after the Wuxu Coup. Tan Sitong (譚嗣同), a leading reformer, penned the inscription“Climate of Reform” (氣象維新) on a plaque in the residence.
In July 1898, in a letter to his family, Tan Sitong’s optimism about the reform was evident in his words as he mentioned: “The government’s commitment to reform has made it possible for our nation to achieve great deeds.”
Strengthening and saving China through reform proved too much for the stubbornly conservative forces within the government to accept. In August 1898, Tang Caichang (唐才常), Tan Sitong’s good friend, old classmate, and ardent supporter of reform, wrote a letter to their former tutor Ouyang Zhonggu (歐陽中鵠). In the letter, he revealed that the reality was far from optimistic: “Kang Youwei and Liang Qichao are now being attacked nationwide. In truth, their situation is as dire as you have foreseen.” The conservative forces’ backlash would soon spelt the end of the reform.
Sources of most photos used in this feature piece: Fotoe (pictures 2, 7 and 8), Visual China Group (picture 6), misc. photo sources.