Hundred Days of Reform

Guangxu Emperor receives a foreign envoy before the Hundred Days' Reform
Guangxu Emperor receives a foreign envoy before the Hundred Days' Reform

The inadequacies of the Self-Strengthening Movement adopted by the Qing (Ch’ing) government of China convinced many educated Chinese that only thorough institutional reforms could save the nation from the expansionist ambitions of the Western powers and Japan.

In 1895 defeat by Japan and the humiliating Treaty of Shimonoseki provided the catalyst that stirred into action a group of candidates who had gathered in the capital, Beijing, for the triennial metropolitan examinations.

One of the candidates, named Kang Youwei (K’ang Yu-wei), penned a long memorial to the throne protesting against the treaty and urging immediate reforms; it was cosigned by 603 of the candidates and gained widespread attention.

Eliciting no response, Kang and his student Liang Qichao (Liang Ch’i-ch’iao) began to organize study societies in Beijing and other major cities, sponsoring lectures and founding newspapers and magazines with the goal of promoting modernization and political change. By 1898 their study societies had galvanized a sizable number of reform-minded intellectuals into a political force.

Meanwhile, the young emperor Guangxu (Kuanghsu), who had nominally assumed the reins of government, began to show sympathy for the new reform ideas and read many of Kang’s memorials and other works. He was particularly impressed by Kang’s accounts of reforms under Peter the Great of Russia and in Meiji Japan.

As a result, he appointed him and his supporters to important government positions. Between June 11 and September 16, 1898, over 40 reform decrees were issued by the emperor that encompassed such areas as education, government administration, military reorganization, economic development, and the budget.

Although there had not been time to implement most of the reforms, they nevertheless alarmed the Confucian conservatives and officials loyal to the ostensibly retired but still powerful dowager empress Cixi (Tz’u-hsi).

On September 21 Cixi and her supporters mounted a successful coup d’état that stripped Guangxu of all his powers and put him under arrest. Six reform leaders were executed while Kang, Liang, and a number of others escaped and went into exile. The 103 days of euphoric reforms came to an end. All the reforms were rescinded.

In the final analysis the idealistic reformers had no political experience or support from the real power holders in the government. They overestimated the ability of Guangxu to override the authority of Cixi while underestimating the opposition of the die-hard conservatives.

Their ambitious program, lacking a well-thought-out strategy, was too radical for the time. Although some feeble attempts at reforms were made during the next decade China continued its downhill slide toward diplomatic disaster and domestic instability.

As a result of the failure of the Hundred-Day Reform, disillusionment with evolutionary transition to a constitutional monarchy led to widespread support of Sun Yat-sen’s call for the overthrow of the Qing, or Manchu, dynasty. The final outcome was the successful revolution of 1911 and the establishment of the first republic in Chinese history.