The Empress Dowager -- As a Reformer

Taught by the failure of a reaction on which she had staked her life and her throne, the Dowager has become a convert to the policy of progress. She has, in fact, outstripped her nephew. "Long may she live!" "Late may she rule us!" During her lifetime she may be counted on to carry forward the cause she has so ardently espoused. She grasps the reins with a firm hand; and her courage is such that she does not hesitate to drive the chariot of state over many a new and untried road. She knows she can rely on the support of her viceroys -- men of her own appointment. She knows too that the spirit of reform is abroad in the land, and that the heart of the people is with her.
-- W. A. P. Martin in "The Awakening of China."

In June, 1902, soon after the return of the court from Hsian to Peking, a company of ladies from the various legations in Peking who had received invitations to an audience and a banquet with the Empress Dowager were asked to meet at one of the legations for the purpose of consultation. The meeting was unusual. Many of those who were present had no higher motive than the ordinary tourist who goes sightseeing. With the exception of one or two who had been in once before, none of these ladies had ever been present at an audience. Several of them however had passed through the Boxer siege of 1900, had witnessed the guns from the wall of the Imperial City pouring shot and shell into the British legation, where they were confined during those eight memorable weeks of June, July and August, and had come out with their hearts filled with resentment. One of them had received a decoration from her government for her bravery in standing beside her husband on the fortifications when buildings were crumbling and walls falling, and her husband was buried by an exploding mine, and then vomited out unhurt by a second explosion. Among the number were several recent arrivals in Peking who had had none of these bitter experiences, but had heard much of the Empress Dowager, and above all things else they were anxious to see her whom they called the "She Dragon."

The presiding officer had been longest in Peking, and as doyen of these diplomatic ladies, she acted as chairman of the meeting. The first question to be decided was the mode of conveyance to the "Forbidden City." Without much discussion it was decided to use the sedan chair, as being the most dignified, and used only by Chinese ladies of rank. The chairman then called for an expression of opinion as to the method of procedure in presentation to the throne. One suggested that they have no ceremony about it, but all go up to the throne together, for in this way none would take precedence, but all would have an equal opportunity of satisfying their curiosity and scrutinizing this female dragon ad libitum. Another said: "It will be broiling hot on that June day, and it will be better to keep at a safe distance from her, with plenty of guards to protect us, or we may be broiled in more senses than one." The chairman looked worried at these suggestions, but still kept her dignity and her equilibrium. Then a mild voice suggested that it was customary in all audiences for those presented to courtesy to the one on the throne. "Courtesy!" broke in an indignant voice, "it would be more appropriate for her to prostrate herself at our feet and beg us to forgive her for trying to shoot us, than for us to courtesy to her." It was finally decided, however, that the same formalities be observed as were followed by the ministers when received at court. I give these incidents to show the temper that prevailed among the members of some of the legations at Peking at the time of this first audience.

"When a few days later we followed the long line of richly-robed princesses into the audience-hall, all this was changed. As we looked at the Empress Dowager seated upon her throne on a raised dais, with the Emperor to her left and members of the Grand Council kneeling beside her, and these dignified, stately princesses courtesying until their knees touched the floor, we forgot the resentful feeling expressed in the meeting a few days before, and, awed by her majestic bearing and surroundings, we involuntarily gave the three courtesies required from those entering the imperial presence. We could not but feel that this stately woman who sat upon the throne was every inch an empress. In her hands rested the weal or woe of one-third of the human race. Her brilliant black eyes seemed to read our thoughts. Indeed she prides herself upon the fact that at a glance she can read the character of every one that appears before her."

After the ladies had taken their position in order of their rank, the doyen presented their good wishes to Her Majesty, which was replied to by a few gracious words from the throne. Each lady's name was then announced and as she was formally presented she ascended the dais, and as she courtesied, the Empress Dowager extended her hand which she took, and then passed to the left to be introduced in a similar way to the Emperor.

It was thus she began her reforms in the customs of the court, which up to this time had kept her ever behind the screen, compelled to wield the sceptre from her place of concealment, equally shut out from the eyes of the world and blind to the needs of her people. Up to her time the people and the nation were the slaves of age-old customs, but before the power of her personality rites and ceremonies became the servants of the people. In the words of the poet she seemed to feel that

"Rules Are well; but never fear to break The scaffolding of other souls; It was not meant for thee to mount, Though it may serve thee."

Without taking away from the Emperor the credit of introducing the railroad, the telegraph, the telephone, the new system of education, and many other reforms, we must still admit that it was the personality, power and statesmanship of the Empress Dowager that brought about the realization of his dreams. The movement towards female education as described in another chapter must ever be placed to the credit of this great woman. From the time she came from behind the screen, and allowed her portrait to be painted, the freedom of woman was assured.

One day when calling at the American legation I was shown two large photographs of Her Majesty. One some three feet square was to be sent to President Roosevelt, the other was a gift to Major Conger. Similar photographs had been sent to all the ministers and rulers represented at Peking, and I said to myself: "The Empress Dowager is shrewd. She knows that false pictures of her have gone forth. She knows that the painted portrait is not a good likeness, and so she proposes to have genuine pictures in the possession of all civilized governments." This shrewdness was not necessarily native on her part, but was engendered by the arguments that had been used by those who induced her to be the first Chinese monarch to have her portrait painted by a foreign artist.

A few years ago the Empress Dowager had a dream, which, like every act of hers, was greater than any of those of her brilliant nephew. This dream was to give a constitution to China. Of course, if this were done it would have to be by the Manchus, as the government was theirs, and any radical changes that were made would have to be made by the people in power. The Empress Dowager, however, wanted the honour of this move to reflect upon herself, and hoped to be able to bring it to a successful issue during her lifetime.

There was strenuous opposition, and this most vigorous in the party in which she had placed herself when she dethroned Kuang Hsu. The conservatives regarded this as the wildest venture that had yet been made, and were ready to use all their influence to prevent it; nevertheless the Empress Dowager called to her aid the greatest and most progressive of the Manchus, the Viceroy Tuan Fang, and appointed him head of a commission which she proposed to send on a tour of the world to examine carefully the various forms of government, with the purpose of advising her, on their return, as to the possibility of giving a constitution to China.

A special train was provided to take the commission from Peking to Tientsin. It was drawn up at the station just outside the gate in front of the Emperor's palace. The commission had entered the car, and the narrow hall or aisle along the side was crowded with those who had come to see them off, when, BANG, there was an explosion, the side of the car was blown out, several were injured, including slight wounds to some of the members of the commission, and the man carrying the bomb was blown into an unrecognizable mass. For a few days the city was in an uproar. Guards were placed at all the gates, especially those leading to the palace, and every possible effort was made to identify the nihilist. But as all efforts failed, and nothing further transpired to indicate that he had accomplices, the commission separated and departing individually without display, reunited at Tientsin and started on their tour of inspection.

This commission was splendidly entertained wherever it went, given every possible opportunity to examine the constitutions of the countries through which it passed, and on its return to Peking the report of the trip was published in one hundred and twenty volumes, the most important item of which was that a constitution, modelled after that of Japan, should be given to China at as early a date as possible.

The leader of this expedition, His Excellency the Viceroy Tuan Fang, is one of the greatest, if not the greatest living Manchu statesman. Like Yuan Shih-kai, during the Boxer uprising, he protected all the foreigners within his domains. That he appreciates the work done by Americans in the opening up of China is evidenced by a statement made in his address at the Waldorf Astoria, in February, 1906, in which he said:

"We take pleasure this evening in bearing testimony to the part taken by American missionaries in promoting the progress of the Chinese people. They have borne the light of Western civilization into every nook and corner of the empire. They have rendered inestimable service to China by the laborious task of translating into the Chinese language religious and scientific works of the West. They help us to bring happiness and comfort to the poor and the suffering, by the establishment of hospitals and schools. The awakening of China, which now seems to be at hand, may be traced in no small measure to the influence of the missionary. For this service you will find China not ungrateful."

Some may think that this was simply a sentiment expressed on this particular occasion because he happened to be surrounded by secretaries and others interested in this cause. That this is not the case is further indicated by the fact that since that time he has on two separate occasions attended the commencement exercises of the Nanking University, on one of which he addressed the students as follows:

"This is the second time I have attended the commencement exercises of your school. I appreciate the good order I find here. I rejoice at the evidences I see of your knowledge of the proprieties, the depth of your learning, and the character of the students of this institution. I am deeply grateful to the president and faculty for the goodness manifested to these my people. I have seen evidences of it in every detail. It is my hope that when these graduates go out into the world, they will remember the love of their teachers, and will practice that virtue in their dealing with others. The fundamental principle of all great teachers whether of the East or the West is love, and it remains for you, young gentlemen, to practice this virtue. Thus your knowledge will be practical and your talents useful."

I have given these quotations as evidences of the breadth of the man whom the Empress Dowager selected as the head of this commission. It is not generally known, however, that Duke Tse, another important member of this commission, is married to a sister of the young Empress Yehonala, and consequently a niece of the Empress Dowager. Such relations existed between Her Majesty and the viceroy, as ruler and subject, that it would be impossible for him to give her the intimate account of their trip that a relative could give. It would be equally impossible, with all her other duties, to wade through a report such as they published after their return of one hundred and twenty volumes. But it would be a delight to call in this nephew-in-law, and have him sit or kneel, and may we not believe she allowed him to sit? and give her a full and intimate account of the trip and the countries through which they passed. She was anxious that this constitution should be given to the people before she passed away. This, however, could not be. Whether it will be adopted within the time allotted is a question which the future alone can answer.

The next great reform undertaken by the Empress Dowager was her crusade against opium. The importance of this can only be estimated when we consider the prevalence of the use of the drug throughout the empire. The Chinese tell us that thirty to forty per cent. of the adult population are addicted to the use of the drug.

One day while walking along the street in Peking, I passed a gateway from which there came an odour that was not only offensive but sickening. I went on a little distance further and entered one of the best curio shops of the city, and going into the back room, I found the odour of the street emphasized tenfold, as one of the employees of the firm had just finished his smoke. I left this shop and went to another where the proprietor had entirely ruined his business by his use of the drug, and it was about this time that the Empress Dowager issued the following edict:

"Since the first prohibition of opium, almost the whole of China has been flooded with the poison. Smokers of opium have wasted their time, neglected their employment, ruined their constitutions, and impoverished their households. For several decades therefore China has presented a spectacle of increasing poverty and weakness. To merely mention the matter, arouses our indignation. The court has now determined to make China powerful, and to this end we urge our people to reformation in this respect.

"We, therefore, decree that within a limit of ten years this injurious filth shall be completely swept away. We further order the Council of State to consider means of prohibition both of growing the poppy and smoking the opium."

The Council of State at once drew up regulations designed to carry out this decree. They were among others:

That all opium-smokers be required to report and take out a license.

Officials using the drug were divided into two classes. Young men must be cured of the habit within six months, while for old men no limit was fixed. But both classes, while under treatment, must furnish satisfactory substitutes, at their own expense, to attend to the duties of their office.

All opium dens must be closed within six months, after which time no opium-pipes nor lamps may be either made or sold. Though shops for the sale of the drug may continue for ten years, the limit of the traffic.

The government promises to provide medicine for the cure of the habit, and encourages the formation of anti-opium societies, but will not allow these societies to discuss other political matters.

Next to China Great Britain is the party most affected by this movement towards reform. When this edict was issued Great Britain was shipping annually fifty thousand chests of opium to the Chinese market, but at once agreed that if China was sincere in her desire for reform, and cut off her own domestic productions at the rate of ten per cent. per annum, she would decrease her trade at a similar rate. It is unfortunate that the Empress Dowager should have died before this reform had been carried to a successful culmination, but whatever may be the result of the movement the fact and the credit of its initiation will ever belong to her.

Such are some of the special reform measures instituted by the Empress Dowager, but in addition to these she has seen to it that the Emperor's efforts to establish a Board of Railroads, a Board of Mines, educational institutions on the plans of those of the West, should all be carried out. She has not only done away with the old system of examinations, but has introduced a new scheme by which all those who have graduated from American or European colleges may obtain Chinese degrees and be entitled to hold office under the government, by passing satisfactory examinations, not a small part of which is the diploma or diplomas which they hold. Such an examination has already been held and a large number of Western graduates, most of them Christian, were given the Chu-jen or Han-lin degrees.