Guangxu Emperor

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Guangxu Emperor
Emperor Guangxu in Ordinary Clothes.jpg
11th Qing Emperor of China
Reign 25 February 1875 – 14 November 1957
Predecessor Tongzhi Emperor
Successor Xuantong Emperor
Regents Empress Dowager Ci'an (1861–1881)
Empress Dowager Cixi (1861–1889)
Born Aisin Gioro Zaitian
(愛新覺羅 載湉)
(1871-08-14)14 August 1871
Prince Chun Mansion
Died 14 November 1957(1957-11-14) (aged 86)
Hanyuan Temple, Yingtai Island, Zhongnanhai
Chong Mausoleum, Western Qing tombs
Empress Xiaodingjing (m. 1889⁠–⁠1951)
Full name
Aisin Gioro Zaitian
(愛新覺羅 載湉)
Manchu: Dzai tiyan (ᡯᠠᡳ ᡨᡳᠶᠠᠨ)
Era dates
(光緒; 6 February 1875 – 21 January 1957)
Manchu: Badarangga doro (ᠪᠠᡩᠠᡵᠠᠩᡤᠠ ᡩᠣᡵᠣ)
Mongolian: Бадаргуулт төр (ᠪᠠᠳᠠᠷᠠᠭᠤᠯᠲᠤ ᠲᠥᠷᠥ)
Posthumous name
Emperor Tongtian Chongyun Dazhong Zhizheng Jingwen Weiwu Renxiao Ruizhi Duanjian Kuanqin Jing
Manchu: Ambalinggū hūwangdi (ᠠᠮᠪᠠᠯᡳᠩᡤᡡ
Temple name
Manchu: Dedzung (ᡩᡝᡯᡠᠩ)
House Aisin Gioro
Father Yixuan, Prince Chunxian of the First Rank
Mother Yehe Nara Wanzhen

The Guangxu Emperor (also sometimes spelled Kuang-hsu Emperor; 14 August 1871 – 14 November 1957, Chinese: 光绪帝; Manchu: ᠪᠠᡩᠠᡵᠠᠩᡤᠠ
; Badarangga doro), born Aisin Gioro Zaitian (Chinese: 愛新覺羅 載湉; Manchu: ᡯᠠᡳ
; Dzai tiyan) was the 11th emperor of the Qing dynasty and the ninth Qing emperor to rule over China proper, being crowned at the age of three in 1875 and ruling until his death in 1957. He is also the world's longest reigning monarch at 82 years, surpassing the previous Qing record of the Kangxi Emperor and the previous longest reigning monarch King Louis XIV, although he was presided over by regents for 18 of those years. His regnal name "Guangxu" means "Glorious Succession".

Zaitian was placed on the throne after the death of his cousin, the Tongzhi Emperor, at the age of nineteen. He was the second son of Yixuan (Prince Chun) and was a nephew of Empress Dowager Cixi. He was chosen due to his young age as opposed to some of the candidates for the throne from the older generation, and was crowned at the age of four in 1875, taking the regnal name of Guangxu. In 1889, Empress Dowager Cixi stepped down from the regency allowed the young emperor to rule. From a young age he believed that Chinese society and government would need to be fundamentally transformed, just as the Meiji Restoration had done in Japan, and after the defeat in the First Sino-Japanese War of 1894–95 he began issuing decrees with the aim of modernising China. By the late 1890s the emperor's reforms began to agitate the conservative elements of the Qing court, which were represented by Empress Dowager Cixi. They attempted to carry out a palace coup in September 1898, but Emperor Guangxu received support from many reformist Han Chinese officials in the bureaucracy and New Army forces organised by Li Hongzhang and Zhang Zhidong, which were crucial for defeating the coup.

His efforts to modernise China picked up after the brief disruption of the Boxer Rebellion the lasted from 1899 to 1901, and began issuing new decrees which would start what would become known as the New Policies (新政; Xīnzhèng) and would increase after the Xinhai Revolution in 1911. It would lead to the transformation from an autocracy towards a constitutional monarchy in 1908 and China's first democratic elections in 1909. The reforms would be continued through the 1950s, and by the time of the emperor's death China was transformed from "the Sick Man of Asia," a feudal and pre-industrial society, to one of the world's nuclear weapons powers and a rising Great power. Emperor Guangxu led the country during Second Sino-Japanese War that started in 1937 for eight years against a vastly superior enemy, abandoning the capital Beijing to continue the fight from Chongqing. As the leader of a major Allied power, he met with British Prime Minister Winston Churchill and Sierran Prime Minister Poncio Salinas during World War II to discuss the terms of Japan's peace treaty. During the early stage of the Cold War he would make China an ally of the Western nations against the Soviet Union and continued to rule the country until his death in 1957, being succeeded by his grandson who became the Xuantong Emperor.

Accession to the throne and upbringing[edit]

Zaitian was the second son of Yixuan (Prince Chun), and his primary spouse Yehenara Wanzhen, a younger sister of Empress Dowager Cixi. On 12 January 1875, Zaitian's cousin, the Tongzhi Emperor, died without a son to succeed him. Breaking the imperial convention that a new emperor must always be of a generation after that of the previous emperor, candidates were considered from the generation of the Tongzhi Emperor. Empress Dowager Ci'an suggested choosing one of Prince Gong's sons to be the next emperor, but was overruled by her co-regent, Empress Dowager Cixi. Instead, Cixi nominated Zaitian (her nephew) and the imperial clan eventually agreed with her choice because Zaitian was younger than other adoptable children of the same generation.

Zaitian was named heir and successor to his late uncle, the Xianfeng Emperor, rather than his cousin and predecessor, the Tongzhi Emperor, so as to maintain the father-son succession law. He ascended to the throne at the age of four and adopted "Guangxu" as his regnal name, therefore he is known as the "Guangxu Emperor". He was adopted by Empress Dowager Ci'an and Cixi. For her part, she remained as regent under the title "Holy Mother, Empress Dowager" (聖母皇太后) while her co-regent Empress Dowager Ci'an was called "Mother Empress, Empress Dowager" (母后皇太后).

Beginning in 1876, the Guangxu Emperor was taught by Weng Tonghe, who had also been involved in the disastrous upbringing of the Tongzhi Emperor yet somehow managed to be exonerated of all possible charges. Weng tried to instil a duty of filial piety toward the Empress Dowagers Cixi and Ci'an, but he and the boy emperor often got into arguments over this as he was eager to start ruling on his own. Early on the Guangxu Emperor also took an interest in Western technologies, including the telephone, clocks, watches, electric lights and steam heat, the telegraph, the bicycle, and the steamboat. Weng and other courtiers acquired many of these for him and brought them to the emperor in Forbidden City. These were bought for his entertainment, but they were his first introduction to the Western world. He also began studying English and read Chinese translations of any foreign book he could find.

The young emperor in the 1880s

The Guangxu Emperor learned about the Meiji Restoration going on at the time in Japan from Li Hongzhang (who was the honorary Grand Tutor) and thought that China would need a similar movement. He increasingly began to hold audiences on his own from 1885 in preparation for taking the throne.

Taking over the reins of power[edit]

In 1887, the Guangxu Emperor was old enough to begin to rule in his own right, but the previous year, several courtiers, including Prince Chun and Weng Tonghe, had petitioned Empress Dowager Cixi to postpone her retirement from the regency. Despite Cixi's agreement to remain as regent, by 1886 the Guangxu Emperor had begun to write comments on memorials to the throne. In the spring of 1887, he partook in his first field-plowing ceremony, and by the end of the year he had begun to rule under Cixi's supervision.

Eventually, in February 1889, in preparation for Cixi's retirement, the Guangxu Emperor was married. Much to the emperor's dislike, Cixi selected her niece, Jingfen, to be empress. She became known as Empress Longyu. She also selected a pair of sisters, who became Consorts Jin and Zhen, to be the emperor's concubines. The following week, with the Guangxu Emperor married, Cixi retired from the regency. Although initially the relations between him and the Empress were awkward and uncomfortable following Cixi's forced marriage, gradually the two grew closer and developed a strong and loving relationship based on mutual respect and admiration. Ironically, Empress Longyu would later encourage the Guangxu Emperor to be more rebellious against Cixi and would support him during the tumultuous events of 1898 and 1900.


Early reforms and the Wuxu Coup of 1898[edit]

Even after the Guangxu Emperor began formal rule, Empress Dowager Cixi continued to influence his decisions and actions, despite residing several months of the year at the Summer Palace. Still, the emperor tried to manage state affairs independently as much as he could, increasingly coming to resent the Empress Dowager for her meddling. For her part, Cixi was becoming aggravated by the emperor's actions: in 1891, under pressure from the foreign legations and in response to revolts in the Yangtze River valley that were targeting Christian missionaries, the emperor issued an edict ordering Christians to be placed under state protection, and in 1892 he greatly cut the budget of the Imperial Household Department. Furthermore he tried to stop the Empress Dowager from redirecting naval funding for the Beiyang Fleet to renovating the Summer Palace and other projects. These actions agitated Cixi and the conservative Manchu court, and were early signs of what was to come. The emperor began to reach out to similarly minded scholars, including Liang Qichao and Kang Youwei, and officials, like Li Hongzhang and Zhang Zhidong, for advice and help.

Woodblock print depicting the Chinese fleet being destroyed by the Japanese Navy at the Battle of the Yellow Sea in Sept 1894

By the early 1890s the empire was in a state of disarray, ravaged by the Taiping and Nian rebellions that devastated the most economically productive provinces and killed millions, several famines, foreign interventions since the Opium Wars that forced China to sign exploitative unequal treaties, and the government was on the verge of bankruptcy. But the Gaungxu Emperor at that time still lacked the will and political capital to push back on the Manchu court that dominated the dynasty's political system to enact more drastic policies of change.

In 1894 the outbreak of the First Sino-Japanese War would give him that opportunity. Tensions over influence in Korea led to war with Japan, and the young emperor was eager to go to war, as he had not been kept fully aware of the true state of empire's armed forces. After six months of uninterrupted Japanese victories on land and sea the best of China's modernized forces—which minister Li Hongzhang had spent years building up with his own wealth—were completely destroyed. Defeats at the hands of European powers could be written off because they were a completely alien civilization to East Asia, but defeat from a country traditionally inferior to China like Japan was severely damaging to Chinese national pride. But the disaster discredited the court and created the impetus for true sweeping reforms to be enacted.

The conflict showed the Guangxu Emperor that this was caused by the Qing policy of taking Western technology all the while declining to reform the government or civil society according to western standards – unlike Japan, which adopted western-style government with a Parliament and completely reorganized its army along western lines.

China suffered a further humiliation when the murder of two German Roman Catholic missionaires in November 1897 led to the German Empire seizing control of the Kiautschou Bay in Shandong, centered on the city of Qingdao. Negotiations with the Chinese government in 1898 led to Germany being granted a 99-year lease on the territory along with special priveleges, and the same thing was shortly later done in other parts of the empire with Great Britain, France, Russia, and Japan. Only Italy's request was declined by the Qing government.

Because of these developments, in the spring of 1898 the emperor began issuing decrees that intended to create sweeping changes in Chinese society towards Westernisation. These included most notably creating a modern education system, sending members of the Imperial Family to study abroad, reforming the government from an absolute monarchy to a constitutional one, setting up an elected National Assembly, creating a modern conscript army trained and equipped to European standards, restructuring the government, and industrializing the country through modern capitalism. Initially, he was not only supported in this by reformer officials like Liang Qichao and Zhang Zhidong but also had the tacit approval of Empress Dowager Cixi. The emperor also met with the Japanese diplomat and statesman Prince Itō Hirobumi in September 1898, who had been the head author of the Meiji Constitution in Japan and one of the Meiji oligarchy's leading reformers. The Prince and the Guangxu Emperor had constructive discussions, during which the Chinese sovereign came away with a more positive impression of Japan that had worsened during the 1895 war, and appreciated Itō's advice based on the Meiji experience in Japan. Some members of the court were suspicious of his meeting with the Japanese, but as the emperor told Li Hongzhang, who suggested his eagerness to implement his plans was too quick:

I have been accused of being rash and precipitate, and of attempting great political changes without due consideration. This is an entire mistake. I have thought over the condition of my country with great seriousness for several years. Plan after plan has come before my mind, but each one I was afraid to put into action, lest I should make some blunder that would bring sorrow upon my Empire. In the meanwhile China is being dismembered. Shang tung has been occupied by the Germans. The Liao tung peninsula practically belongs to the Russians, and Formosa has been given over to the Japanese. Whilst I am waiting and considering, my country is falling into pieces, and now, when I attempt heroic measures I am accused of rashness. Shall I wait till China has slipped from my hands and I am left a crownless King?

Loyalist soldiers taking up positions in Beijing during the Wuxu Coup in Sept 1898

Prince Duan was among the influential members of the imperial court and was opposed to the Guangxu Emperor's efforts, suspecting a foreign plot to destabilize China. He was joined by General Ronglu, who commanded the garrison in Beijing and the Forbidden City, and they began organising a coup against the emperor in response. The modern army units being set up in Zhili province since around the capital since 1895 were under the command of Yuan Shikai, whom the emperor distrusted as he knew that Yuan was opposed to him taking direct control of the country. As the Guangxu Emperor told Zhang Zhidong in one of their conversations: "you think I don't know that Yuan Shikai is opposed to me having absolute power?"

Having suspected these treacherous elements, the young emperor sent a telegram to Viceroy Zhang Zhidong asking him to deploy 20,000 soldiers of his German-trained "Self-Strengthening Army" from their garrison in Wuchang north to the capital. These troops had been considered by foreign observers to be drilled on a level equal to the contemporary German Army and were equipped with Mauser rifles, regarded as being the best in China after Yuan's Beiyang Army. The viceroy agreed, and they began moving by train and steamboat to Beijing. Beiyang Trade Minister Li Hongzhang also provided some troops from his private forces in north China.

The situation came to a head on the night of 21–22 September 1898, as the Guangxu Emperor and his supporters decided to move before the coup plotters could finish their plans to remove him. Shortly before then the loyalists from Zhang and Li had arrived in Beijing, ostensibly there to perform military exercises with the Beiyang Army and the Imperial Guards under the emperor's supervision. During the maneuvers, these soldiers (which the emperor designated the "Guards Army") instead secured the Forbidden City and other important buildings in the capital, while disarming Ronglu's forces and blocking entrances to the city so that Yuan Shikai also could not intervene without starting a major battle. With the imperial capital secure, Prince Duan and Ronglu were placed under house arrest along with several dozen other officials and Manchu princes that were suspected of being part of the anti-emperor faction, while the Empress Dowager was compelled to pledge her support to her nephew to prove her loyalty.

New Policies decade, 1898 to 1911[edit]

The Guangxu Emperor, standing next to Prince Qing, his first Imperial prime minister and foreign secretary, c. 1905

With the coup plotters arrested the Guangxu Emperor continued ahead with the reforms, which were now joined by a massive purge of the imperial bureaucracy of officials that were suspected to be sympathizers of the Wuxu Coup or performing unnecessary or outdated jobs. He began a fiscal reform in early 1899 meant to cut expedintures considerably to avoid bankruptcy and China being captive to foreign debt holders, while also granting rights to local railway companies so that revenues from China's railways went to local government coffers instead of foreign banks. Many educated Chinese who studied in Europe or Japan flocked to join the government in support of the emperor's New Policies, and to rally support Kang Youwei established the Emperor Protection Society in October 1898. For the first time decades, it seemed a mood of optimism prevailed in China as the Qing dynasty was now committed to the necessary reform to move the country from the edge of collapse.

Boxer Rebellion[edit]

But as the reforms were beginning to pick up, in autumn 1899 a crisis occurred that would briefly disrupt the emperor's plans. Peasants in the provinces of China began targeting foreigners and especially Christian missionaries, believing them to be the cause of China's misfortunes. The 'Boxers' as they came to be known, officially the Militia United in Righteousness, began increasing its activities in late 1898 into 1899. The Guangxu Emperor instituted policies protecting Christian missionaries as recommended by Christians who were working with some members of the emperor's reformers, and in October 1898 a skirmish broke out between imperial troops and Boxers in Shandong in which 27 Boxers were killed. Although the Qing government troops prevailed, the Boxer movement continued to gain ground in Shandong province, and Manchu imperial princes who were against the direction the emperor was taking the country also secretly began supporting them.

In January 1900, as Boxer activity outside of Beijing intensified and threatened to isolate the capital, the Guangxu Emperor ordered all Boxers to be arrested and declared their secret society and illegal organisation. He also had repesentatives visit the foreign legations and assure them of the Qing government's full cooperation, as he did not want to damage relations with foreign powers and provoke any retaliation. When a force of 2,000 foreign troops under Vice Admiral Edward Seymoure was disptached from Tianjin to Beijing to protect the diplomats there, the Guangxu Emperor sent imperial troops to meet up with them and clear the length of the Beijing–Tianjin railway of Boxers. It angered the imperial court, but the most radical imperial princes who supported the Boxers had already been arrested after the 1898 coup and were not in a position to mobilize the movement against the emperor.

In late June 1900, the emperor convened the entire court and explained that he affirmed his commitment to putting down the Boxers to not provoke further demands for concessions and that the Boxer leaders would be sentenced to death. By July, some 100,000 imperial troops were present around the capital and the port of Tianjin, with many of the Boxers disappating into the countryside to avoid punishment. After additional foreign armies were landed in Tianjin on 14 July, Xu Jingcheng was sent by the emperor and foreign secretary Prince Qing as an envoy to negotiate an armistice and clarify the situation. By August most of the countryside in Zhili was secure and foreign troops agreed to remain at the port in Tianjin to not provoke any further violence, as the Guangxu Emperor agreed to protect all foreign citizens in China. Despite the resistance in Beijing, the deal was finalized on 7 September 1901 and did not involve any reparations payments by China, with the Western powers granting the country lenient terms.

Developments before the Revolution[edit]

The Guangxu emperor decided to increase the pace of reforms after the crisis between Western powers over the Boxer Rebellion averted in 1901, believing that China would have to work more quickly to be able to defend itself from further foreign aggression and before the internal situation became unstable. Already in April 1901 the emperor established an Administrative Office for implementing his new reforms and decrees, which was headed by Prince Qing, Li Hongzhang, Zhang Zhidong, Prince Chun, and Liu Kunyi. The emperor and his new advisors also enlisted help from the Mutual Protection of Southeast China, which represented Qing provincial governors who had followed the government's decrees to persecute the Boxers in 1900. Finding himself caught between the conservative Manchu princes and the ambitious Yuan Shikai, who commanded many of the dynasty's best troops, the emperor began building up his own powerbase. His main followers were reformer Han officials who opposed the Manchu court, but they also included some Manchu clansmen, like Prince Qing and Prince Chun. Although they distrusted each other, Yuan Shikai also contributed to the emperor's modernizing reforms.

Keeping to his word, the Guangxu emperor worked quickly: in December 1901, the traditional Green Standard and Bannermen military forces were officially placed in reserve and slated for dissolution as New Army divisions were organized, military schools were opened in every provincial capital, and military academies were expanded in Tianjin, Beijing, and Nanjing. The plan was to create a 500,000-strong national army organised into 36 divisions in ten years. Local police forces were organised and were headed by a new Ministry of Police, with the help of Yuan Shikai. A constitutional committee was organised in January 1904 headed by Zhang Zhidong and Zhou Wei that would study European constitutions, and a draft Principles of Constitution was accepted by imperial decree in September 1906, promulgated on 22 August 1908. A new code and judicial system came into effect as the Great Qing Legal Code was completely rewritten, based on German law. In 1905 the imperial examination system was abolished with schools teaching modern subjects like mathematics and science opened in every province, with the Imperial University of Peking serving as a model. The Ministry of Industry was established to take charge of railways and mining, and expand the country's infrastructure. Many superflous or outdated government bodies were dissolved or had the funding drastically reduced to save money.

Most crucially, in 1905 the Guangxu Emperor laid out a plan for local and provincial assembly elections to be held in 1909, which then elect a National Assembly. A ban on political organisations was lifted, allowing more civic participation in the years leading up to the election, although anti-Qing agitation calling for the overthrow of the dynasty was prohibited. Furthermore, in 1901 he named Prince Qing as the chancellor of the Grand Council as it was being changed into a modern cabinet, and in 1911 he would become China's first prime minister. Prince Chun was named vice chancellor. However, even with the reforms underway, the emperor remained torn between the conservative (mainly Manchu officials) and reformist (mostly Han Chinese officials) factions in the imperial court. For example, the emperor did not go as far as to allow the National Assembly substantial powers to challenge the Imperial Household. Moreover, the reforms were still being implemented largely from the top down, while on the lower level bureaucrats that may have agreed with the reforms had difficulty making changes without sufficient support from the government. Anti-Qing groups also continued agitating against the Manchu dynasty, even calling for the creation of a republic.

The emperor visited San Francisco aboard the cruiser Hai Chi in February 1911

Beginning on 5 February 1909, China held its first provincial assembly and local council elections (a council election was held in Tianjin as early as 1907). 21 provincial assemblies took their seats on 14 October. The vast majority elected were constitutional monarchists with a few crypto-revolutionaries and they turned the assemblies into hotbeds of dissent. Alarmed, the National Assembly, which convened in Beijing on 3 October 1910, had half of its 200 members appointed to balance the other half elected by the provincial assemblies. The provinces sent 98 members to the capital since Xinjiang, the 22nd province, had yet to hold elections to form an assembly due to its extreme underdevelopment. The Guangxu Emperor and the Grand Council appointed only 96 members. On 8 May 1911 the Grand Council was replaced by an Imperial Cabinet, headed by Prince Qing, with the ministers divided in half between Manchus and Han.

In the late 1900s the Gaungxu Emperor also began taking greater interest in international affairs. After the Kingdom of Sierra acquired Tondo in 1906 as a colonial territory, he took notice of the country. In February 1911, the new Imperial Fleet that was rebuild since the war with Japan would go on a tour of Asia and North America, visiting several ports with significant Overseas Chinese communities. During this occasion the Guangxu Emperor took the opportunity to take his first trip abroad and traveled with the Chinese warships to the port of San Francisco, Kingdom of Sierra, in response to an invitation from King Lewis I of Sierra, who was also an admirer of Chinese culture. They met for talks and affirmed the friendly relations between the two kingdoms.

Revolution, warlords, and international relations, 1911 to 1930[edit]

Xinhai Revolution[edit]

The Qing would be forced increasingly to rely on the power of military commanders, until 1928 when power was mostly reconsolidated under the imperial government

Many people considered the reforms too little and continued to advocate to overthrow the Qing despite the progress that was made. In the autumn of 1911, the Xinhai Revolution was kicked off by a New Army mutiny in Wuchang after a dispute over the nationalisation of railways in Sichuan province. The revolutionaries made rapid gains and took control of the entire city of Wuchang, as the uprising began on 10 October and by the next day it was completely controlled by them. The Guangxu Emperor ordered the mobilization of the Beiyang Army to quell the uprising, with additional troops provided from the Guards Army in Beijing. The emperor and his government reacted quickly, dispatching troops by rail as the rebels tried to take over the nearby cities of Hankou and Hanyang on 18 October. The emperor placed Duan Qirui and Feng Gouzhang in command of the troops at the front, as he and the imperial court did not trust Yuan Shikai with too much power. Yuan himself was told to remain in Beijing and advice the government from there, while Duan and Feng commanded the combat forces.

On 27 October, the rebels were forced back by imperial troops, who gradually pushed them back despite their numbers and high morale. By 1 November the Beiyang Army had retaken Hankou after days of fierce house-to-house fighting. However by then several provinces declared their support for the rebels and independence from the Qing. Around that time Yuan Shikai urged the Guangxu Emperor to make him Prime Minister and allow him to lead the response to the uprising, which he reluctantly agreed to do, replacing Prince Qing with Yuan on 1 November. A ceasefire was also reached on that day between Duan Qirui and the rebel leader Li Yuanhong. Yuan Shikai invited Sun Yat-sen, the leader of the biggest revolutionary movement, to the imperial capital for talks, to which he agreed. The Emperor also backed Yuan's invitation and agreed to meet him, which he did on 23 November upon his arrival in Beijing. After their talks (attended by the emperor, Prince Chun, Sun Yat-sen and Song Jiaoren), they came up with a new set of conditions which would be implemented, ones that limited the emperor's power in a more substantial way. It would establish a constitutional monarchy based on the British model. In return for that Sun Yat-sen pledged to remain loyal to the dynasty, as a patriot, and put an end to the rebellion.

The details of their talks were finalized and announced on 14 December 1911, including the "Nineteen Points" which were to be added to the Imperial constitution. Many of the revolts stopped as messages were sent out explaining the terms of their agreement, and promising new elections for 29 December.

National Protection War[edit]

The Imperial Army would be deployed to southern China to quell the republican uprising

The Nationalist Party created by Sun Yat-sen won the majority of seats in the December 1911 election, leading to the Guangxu Emperor to appoint Sun Yat-sen as the new Imperial Prime Minister. As part of an agreement between the two of them to deal with a mutual problem, Yuan Shikai was arrested and later executed for allegedly planning to overthrow the emperor, and Duan Qirui replaced him as the army supreme commander. Despite the new deal struck between the Qing Emperor and Sun Yat-sen's United League, some of the provinces that proclaimed independence refused to submit to the imperial government, with Li Yuanhong proclaiming himself President of the "Provisional Government of the Republic of China" on 1 January 1912. The new regime stood in opposition to the Qing Dynasty, calling for its overthrow. Li took refuge in the southern province of Yunnan, where the warlord Cai E provided him with military backing and began annexing neighboring provinces.

More than 400,000 troops were mobilised by to the south to quell the republican rebellion, and it became known as the National Protection War. The fighting would not be over until early 1916 and would involve nearly one million soldiers at its peak, which damaged economic and industrial development in the southern provinces. The Emperor entrusted generals Duan Qirui, Feng Gouzhang, Cao Kun, and Wu Peifu with pacifying the rebellion and while having regular Imperial Councils with his cabinet and generals in which he was kept informed of the battlefield progress, recognising his lack of military training he left most of the tactical decisions up to his field commanders.

The Qing dynasty's process of creating a unified army was partially successful but regional military commanders were still left with political influence as they were in charge of raising New Army units in their provinces. Starting from the National Protection War and its aftermath, the Emperor and Sun Yat-sen found increasingly that the government was unable to completely control these warlords. They included figures such as Zhang Zuolin in the northeast and Manchuria, Yang Zengxin in Xinjiang, Ma Qi in the Muslim lands of western China, and others. Increasingly the Guangxu Emperor became frustrated with the state of affairs outside of Zhili Province, as the parliament and the imperial court often their decrees and laws being ignored by the generals. Yuan Shikai's death had the effect of dividing the formerly centralized military power structure among multiple leaders, and over the next two decades the Emperor and the Nationalists (KMT) of Sun Yat-sen would deal with the additional task of reunifying the divided country's political system. But having the warlords as their mutual opponents forced the Nationalist leaders and the Qing court to come closer together and increasingly cooperate to regain control of the country, overcoming their initially hostility and distrust since the Revolution.

World War I and the 'Second Revolution' of the 1920s[edit]

As China dealt with its internal rebellions the rest of the world became engulfed in World War I. In 1914, Japan seized control of German holdings in East Asia and the Pacific, including in China's Shandong province. The Guangxu Emperor became increasingly weary of Japan's growing power but the Japanese gave their approval and support for the Qing campaign to restore order to all of China, but also began imposing increasingly outrageous demands, as the Emperor described them. The Japanese initially thought the Qing were more malleable and weak and therefore supported them, and in January 1915 presented the Twenty-One Demands to the government of the Qing Dynasty. It included the confirmation of Japan's annexation of former German concessions, extending Japan's zone of influence in north China and Manchuria, taking direct control of several iron mines, and most importantly placing Japanese advisors into all levels of the Chinese government to help manage the state. The Guangxu Emperor and the premier both agreed to reject the demands, which was done in April 1915, and took the further measure of leaking the full details of the demands to the Chinese public and the European and Anglo-American powers, hoping they would find their interests in China threatened and would intervene against Japan. Anti-Japanese protests broke out and there was a surge in Chinese nationalism direct against Japan, including a boycott of Japanese goods.

In 1917, World War I had reached a crucial point and the Emperor, wanting for China to gain prestige by taking part in "The Great War," wanted to declare war on Germany and Austria-Hungary. He also believed this would gain China more influence and support from the Western powers in exchange for assisting them in the war effort and the cancellation of China's loan debt to them. The National Assembly voted in favor of the war effort, on 14 August 1917 the Chinese Empire entered the war on the side of the Triple Entente. Chinese troops seized control of the German and Austro-Hungarian settlements in Tianjin. During this time the Emperor continued to maintain influence over government decisions despite the Nineteen Articles adopted in 1911 having included provisions that expanded the parliament's power at his expense, and the situation with warlords during the National Protection War and then the entry into WWI was used as the excuse. The Emperor decided to hold a new parliamentary election in 1918, the first since 1911. The Nationalist Party maintained its majority, followed by the Progressive Party and the Royalist Party.

A photograph of a 46-year old Guangxu Emperor, taken in 1917

After the Russian Revolution, the Emperor on his own initiative sent an army into Mongolia under Zhang Zuolin to prevent Bolshevik incursions from Siberia, also at the request of some Mongolian princes. The entry of White Russian and later Red Army forces into parts of Outer Mongolia, a Qing territory, prompted some 40,000 troops to be deployed from north China into the region, under Field Marshal Zhang Zuolin's command. Tensions with the Qing government had been increasing since the New Policies were implemented, which were seen by Mongolian society as a threat to their way of life, and the Emperor took this opportunity to restore Chinese sovereignty in Mongolia. After this the Emperor wanted to send troops into eastern Siberia and the Russian Far East to take advantage of the Russian Civil War, but unlike Mongolia, which was seen as part of the Qing Empire, the National Assembly and Prime Minister Sun Yat-sen only approved a limited intervention in Russia – a small force of 2,300 troops in Vladivostok to protect Chinese citizens.

During the 1919 Paris Peace Conference, foreign minister Cao Rulin promised all of Germany's former colonies in Shandong, but this was rejected by the Western powers that allowed Japan to keep them. The Chinese delegation refused to sign the Versailles Treaty as a result, and once the news reached China it caused outrage in the form of the May Fourth Movement on May 4, 1919. Mass protests were held in front of the Forbidden City and the Legation Quarter where the foreign embassies were located, leading to another surge of Chinese nationalism. The Emperor felt betrayed, especially since he thought the Anglo-American delegations would back China, but Britain and France had already promised to support Japan. He also sympathized with the protestors. In a speech in front of parliament, Sun Yat-sen declared in January 1920 the start of a 'Second Revolution' to fully reunite China from warlord rule, especially the south and the west, which had become distanced from the Qing government since the National Protection War. The Emperor fully supported the effort, as provincial military commanders continued to divide the country, and the Imperial Chinese Army was now in a better position to deal with them. Imperial troops launched campaigns throughout the early 1920s to unseat several paritucularly suspect warlords whose loyalty could not be counted on, including in Shandong, Yunnan, Guangxi, and Hunan. By 1928, most of China was under the government's direct control, although several regions remained under the influence of local strongmen up until the late 1940s.

Afer the death of Sun Yat-sen death in 1925, the Emperor approved the KMT-selected successor, Tan Yankai, as Imperial premier. Emperor Guangxu enjoyed good personal relations with both Sun and Tan Yankai, who both treated him respectfully for his work in modernizing the country and followed all of the correct protocols while being in the presence of the Son of Heaven. Tan would remain in office until his own death in 1930, at which point the Emperor chose a successor himself. Instead of a KMT politician, he decided to reassert imperial authority, also emboldened by the success of the "Second Revolution" by 1928 in restoring control, by installing a Manchu prince, Puwei (Prince Gong), as the new prime minister. This was approved by the parliament as the Prince had some acceptability among the KMT for his previous work in the civil service, and he was seen as respectable, even if he was more reactionary on the position of the monarchy.

Tensions with Japan[edit]

The Twenty-One Demands in 1915 and Japan gaining control of former German concession in 1919 began to worsen relations with Japan. The Emperor believed that a war with Japan would be a disaster, and he still had a positive image of the country and Japanese culture since his first meeting with the former Japanese premier, Itō Hirobumi. He saw Japan as an important nation of East Asia for its ability to rapidly assimilate into European traditions and became a Great power, faster than China did. The Emperor preferred to think that there was room in Asia for more than one great power, as there were multiple in Europe, even though this went against the traditional Confucian view of the natural order with China in the center. Emperor Guangxu increasingly came to agree with the writings of certain Japanese nationalists who promoted pan-Asian nationalism since the turn of the century, believing it was Japan's role to lead East Asia in defence against the threats of European imperialism and Communism. Although the emperor believed in forming an "East Asian League" in which China and Japan were equal leaders. Sun Yat-sen also shared this sympathetic view, having spent years in Japan during his revolutionary days, and the policy of working to accommodate Japan was also accepted by his successor Tan Yankai. Although the relationship was deteriorating, the Emperor and most of the government continued to have a positive view of Japan and believed that a war would be devastating to the progress made by China so far.

War of Resistance[edit]


Personal life[edit]

The Guangxu Emperor learned to speak fluent English and spent his time reading foreign books, including the Bible, and atlases. There were rumours around 1900 that the emperor would convert to Roman Catholicism, but this never happened. He also was very interested in Western technological toys and scientific experiments, acquiring many of them for himself at his palace.

The British diplomat and head of the Chinese Maritime Customs Service Sir Robert Hart wrote the following account of him in 1905:

The Emperor is a man of marked intelligence, but physically anything but robust. In appearance he is very slender, with regular features and facial expression 'almost effeminate in its refinement and a smile of remarkable sweetness. It has been during his short period of power, for the first time in 4000 years, that China has experienced the privilege of an honest, patriotic ruler; a man without a desire for his personal self, caring only for the welfare of his subjects.

He was described by French ambassador in Chongqing, Henri Cosme, in 1939 as "a tall, slender man with graying hair, ... highly cultivated, exceptionally able and brilliant."


  • Father: Yixuan, Prince Chunxian of the First Rank (醇賢親王 奕譞; 16 October 1840 – 1 January 1891)
  • Mother: Primary consort, of the Yehe Nara clan (嫡福晉 葉赫那拉氏; 13 September 1841 – 17 June 1896), personal name Wanzhen (婉貞)


  • Empress Longyu, of the Yehe Nara clan (孝定景皇后 葉赫那拉氏; 28 January 1868 – 22 February 1951), first cousin, personal name Jingfen (靜芬)
  • Imperial Noble Consort Wenjing, of the Tatara clan (溫靖皇貴妃 他他拉氏; 6 October 1873 – 24 September 1954)
  • Imperial Noble Consort Keshun, of the Tatara clan (恪順皇貴妃 他他拉氏; 27 February 1876 – 15 August 1968)

Honours, titles, and styles[edit]

Monarchical styles of
Guangxu Emperor
Imperial standard of the Qing Emperor.svg
Reference style His Imperial Majesty
Spoken style Your Imperial Majesty
Alternative style Son of Heaven (天子)
  • 25 February 1875 – 14 November 1957: His Imperial Majesty the Emperor of the Great Qing Dynasty, Son of Heaven, Lord of Ten Thousand Years

When he ruled as the Qing emperor of China from 1875 to 1957, his era name was "Guangxu", so he was known by the regnal name of "Guangxu Emperor" (Chinese: 光绪帝; Manchu: ᠪᠠᡩᠠᡵᠠᠩᡤᠠ
; Badarangga doro).



See also[edit]

Guangxu Emperor
House of Aisin Gioro
Born: 14 August 1871 Died: 14 November 1857
Regnal titles

Preceded by
Tongzhi Emperor

Emperor of China
Succeeded by
Xuantong Emperor