AS a man, there are few characters in Chinese history that are more interesting than Kuang Hsu. He had all the caprices of genius with their corresponding weakness and strength. He could wield a pen with the vigour of a Caesar, threaten his greatest viceroys, dismiss his leading conservative officials, introduce the most sweeping and far-reaching reforms that have ever been thought of by the Chinese people, and then run from a woman as though the very devil was after him.
He has been variously rated as a genius, an imbecile and a fool. Let us grant that he was not brilliant. Let us rate him as an imbecile, and then let us try to account for his having brought into the palace every ingenious toy and every wonderful and useful invention and discovery of the past twenty or thirty years with the exception of the X-rays and liquid air. Let us try to explain why it was that an imbecile would purchase every book that had been printed in the Chinese language, concerning foreign subjects of learning, up to the time when he was dethroned. Let us tell why it was that an imbecile would study all those foreign books without help, without an assistant, without a teacher, for three years, from the time he bought them in 1895 till 1898, before he began issuing the most remarkable series of edicts that have ever come from the pen of an Oriental monarch in the same length of time. And let us explain how it was that an imbecile could embody in his edicts of two or three months all the important principles that were necessary to launch the great reforms of the past ten years.
I doubt if any Chinese monarch has ever had a more far-reaching influence over the minds of the young men of the empire than Kuang Hsu had from 1895 till 1898. The preparation for this influence had been going on for twenty or thirty years previously in the educational institutions established by the missions and the government. From these schools there had gone out a great number of young men who had taken positions in all departments of business, and many of the state, and revealed to the officials as well as to many of the people the power of foreign education. An imperial college had been established by the customs service for the special education of young men for diplomatic and other positions, from which there had gone out young men who were the representatives of the government as consuls or ministers in the various countries of Europe and America.
The fever for reading the same books that Kuang Hsu had read was so great as to tax to the utmost the presses of the port cities to supply the demand, and the leaders of some of the publication societies feared that a condition had arisen for which they were unprepared. Books written by such men as Drs. Allen, Mateer, Martin, Williams and Legge were brought out in pirated photographic reproductions by the bookshops of Shanghai and sold for one-tenth the cost of the original work. Authors, to protect themselves, compelled the pirates to deliver over the stereotype plates they had made on penalty of being brought before the officials in litigation if they refused. But during the three years the Emperor had been studying these foreign books, hundreds of thousands of young scholars all over the empire had been doing the same, preparing themselves for whatever emergency the studies of the young Emperor might bring about.
One day during the early spring a young Chinese reformer came to me to get a list of the best newspapers and periodicals published in both England and America. I inquired the reason for this strange move, and he said:
"The young Chinese reformers in Peking have organized a Reform Club. Some of them read and speak English, others French, others German and still others Russian, and we are providing ourselves with all the leading periodicals of these various countries that we may read and study them. We have rented a building, prepared rooms, and propose to have a club where we can assemble whenever we have leisure, for conversation, discussion, reading, lectures or whatever will best contribute to the ends we have in view."
"And what are those ends?" I inquired.
"The bringing about of a new regime in China," he answered. "Our recent defeat by the Japanese has shown us that unless some radical changes are made we must take a second place among the peoples of the Orient."
"This is a new move in Peking, is it not?"
"New in Peking," he answered, "but not new in the empire. Reform clubs are being organized in all the great cities and capitals. In Hsian, books have been purchased by all classes from the governor of the province down to the humblest scholar, and the aristocracy have organized classes, and are inviting the foreigners to lecture to them. Every one, except a few of the oldest conservative scholars, are discarding their Confucian theories and reconstructing their ideas in view of present day problems. There is an intellectual fermentation now going on from which a new China is certain to be evolved, and we propose to be ready for it when it comes."
The leader of this reform party was Kang Yu-wei, a young Cantonese, who had made a thorough study of the reforms of Peter the Great in Russia, and the more recent reforms in Japan, the history of which he had prepared in two volumes which he sent to the Emperor. He had made a reputation for himself in his native place as a "Modern Sage and Reformer," was hailed as a "young Confucius," was appointed a third-class secretary in the Board of Works, and as the Emperor and he had been studying on the same lines, Kang, through the influence of the brother of the chief concubine, was introduced to His Majesty. He had a three hours' conference with the Foreign Office, in which he urged that China should imitate Japan, and that the old conservative ministers and viceroys should be replaced by young men imbued with Western ideas, who might confer with the Emperor daily in regard to all kinds of reform measures.
This interview was reported to Kuang Hsu by Prince Kung and Jung Lu, who both being old, and one of them the greatest of the conservatives, could hardly be expected to approve of his theories. Kang, however, was asked to embody his suggestions in a memorial, was later given an audience with the Emperor, and finally called into the palace to assist him in the reforms he had already undertaken. And if Kang Yu-wei had been as great a statesman as he was reformer, Kuang Hsu might never have been deposed.
The crisis came during the summer of 1898. I had taken my family to the seashore to spend our summer vacation. A young Chinese scholar -- a Hanlin -- who had been studying in the university for some years, and with whom I was translating a work on psychology, had gone with me. He took the Peking Gazette, which he read daily, and commented upon with more or less interest, until June 23d, when an edict was issued abolishing the literary essay of the old regime as a part of the government examination, and substituting therefor various branches of the new learning. "We have been compelled to issue this decree," said the Emperor, "because our examinations have reached the lowest ebb, and we see no remedy for these matters except to change entirely the old methods for a new course of competition."
"What do you think of that?" I asked the Hanlin.
"The greatest step that has ever yet been taken," he replied.
This Hanlin was not a radical reformer, but one of a long line of officials who were deeply interested in the preservation of their country which had weathered the storms of so many centuries, -- storms which had wrecked Assyria, Babylonia, Media, Egypt, Greece and Rome, while China, though growing but little, had still lived. He was one of those progressive statesmen who have always been found among a strong minority in the Middle Kingdom.
The Peking Gazette continued to come daily bringing with it the following twenty-seven decrees in a little more than twice that many days. I will give an epitome of the decrees that the reader at a glance may see what the Emperor undertook to do. Summarized they are as follows:
1. The establishment of a university at Peking.
2. The sending of imperial clansmen to foreign countries to study the forms and conditions of European and American government.
3. The encouragement of the arts, sciences and modern agriculture.
4. The Emperor expressed himself as willing to hear the objections of the conservatives to progress and reform.
5. Abolished the literary essay as a prominent part of the governmental examinations.
6. Censured those who attempted to delay the establishment of the Peking Imperial University.
7. Urged that the Lu-Han railway should be prosecuted with more vigour and expedition.
8. Advised the adoption of Western arms and drill for all the Tartar troops.
9. Ordered the establishment of agricultural schools in all the provinces to teach the farmers improved methods of agriculture.
10. Ordered the introduction of patent and copyright laws.
11. The Board of War and Foreign Office were ordered to report on the reform of the military examinations.
12. Special rewards were offered to inventors and authors.
13. The officials were ordered to encourage trade and assist merchants.
14. School boards were ordered established in every city in the empire.
15. Bureaus of Mines and Railroads were established.
16. Journalists were encouraged to write on all political subjects.
17. Naval academies and training-ships were ordered.
18. The ministers and provincial authorities were called upon to assist -- nay, were begged to make some effort to understand what he was trying to do and help him in his efforts at reform.
19. Schools were ordered in connection with all the Chinese legations in foreign countries for the benefit of the children of Chinese in those places.
20. Commercial bureaus were ordered in Shanghai for the encouragement of trade.
21. Six useless Boards in Peking were abolished.
22. The right to memorialize the throne in sealed memorials was granted to all who desired to do so.
23. Two presidents and four vice-presidents of the Board of Rites were dismissed for disobeying the Emperor's orders that memorials should be allowed to come to him unopened.
24. The governorships of Hupeh, Kuangtung, and Yunnan were abolished as being a useless expense to the country.
25. Schools of instruction in the preparation of tea and silk were ordered established.
26. The slow courier posts were abolished in favour of the Imperial Customs Post.
27. A system of budgets as in Western countries was approved.
I have given these decrees in this epitomized form so that all those who are interested in the character of this reform movement in China may understand something of the influence the young Emperor's study had had upon him. Grant that they followed one another in too close proximity, yet still it must be admitted by every careful student of them, that there is not one that would not have been of the greatest possible benefit to the country if they had been put into operation. If the Emperor had been allowed to proceed, making them all as effective as he did the Imperial University, and if the ministers and provincial authorities had responded to his call, and had made "some effort to understand what he was trying to do," China might have by this time been close upon the heels of Japan in the adoption of Western ideas.
As the edicts continued to come out in such quick succession my Hanlin friend became alarmed. He came to me one day after the Emperor had censured the officials for trying to delay the establishment of the Imperial University and said:
"I must return to Peking."
"Why return so soon?" I inquired.
"There is going to be trouble if the Emperor continues his reform at this rate of speed," he answered.
It was when the Emperor had issued the sixth of his twenty-seven decrees that this young Chinese statesman made this observation. If his most intimate advisers had had the perspicuity to have foreseen the final outcome of such precipitance might they not have advised the Emperor to have proceeded more deliberately? When one remembers how China had been worsted by Japan, how all her prestige was swept away, how, from having been the parent of the Oriental family of nations, a desirable friend or a dangerous enemy, she was stripped of all her glory, and left a helpless giant with neither strength nor power, one can easily understand the eagerness of this boy of twenty-seven to restore her to the pedestal from which she had been ruthlessly torn.
Another reason for his haste may be found in the seizure of his territory by the European powers. A few months before he began his reforms two German priests were murdered by an irresponsible mob in the province of Shantung. With this as an excuse Germany landed a battalion of marines at Kiaochou, a port of that province, which she took with fifty miles of the surrounding territory. As though this were not enough, she demanded the right to build all the railroads and open all the mines in the entire province, and compelled the Chinese to pay an indemnity to the families of the murdered priests and rebuild the church and houses the mob had destroyed. China appealed to Russia who had promised to protect her against all invaders. Instead of coming to her aid, however, Russia demanded a similar cession of Port Arthur, Talienwan and the surrounding territory which she had refused to allow Japan to retain two years before. Not to be outdone by the others, France demanded and received a similar strip of territory at Kuang-chou-wan; and England found that Wei-hai-wei would be indispensable as a kennel from which she could guard the Russian bear on the opposite shore, but why she should have found it necessary also to demand from China four hundred miles of land and water around Hongkong was no doubt difficult for Kuang Hsu to understand.
When the Empress Dowager turned over the reins of government to her nephew she did it very much as a father would place the reins in the hands of a child whom he was teaching to drive an important vehicle on a dangerous road -- she sat behind him still holding the reins. Among the things reserved were that he should kotow to her once every five days whether she were in Peking or at the Summer Place, and she reserved such seals of office as made it necessary for all the highest officials to come and express their obligations to her at the same time they came to thank the Emperor. While Kuang Hsu may have been reconciled to the performance of these duties at eighteen, they became irksome at twenty-seven and he demanded and received full liberty in the affairs of state.
We have seen how he used his liberty, -- not wisely, perhaps, as a reformer, and yet the reformation of China can never be written without giving the credit of its inception to Kuang Hsu. He was very different from Hsien Feng, the husband of the Empress Dowager, before whose death we are told "the whole administrative power was vested in the hands of a council of eight, whilst he himself spent his time in ways that were by no means consistent with those that ought to have characterized the ruler of a great and powerful nation." Whatever else may be said of Kuang Hsu, he cannot be accused of indolence, extravagance, or indifference to the welfare of his country or his people.
Appreciating the difficulty of securing an expression of opinion from those opposed to his views, and thus getting both sides of the question, in his fourth edict he requested the conservatives to send in their objections to his schemes for progress and reform, and then as if to get the broadest possible expression of opinion he adopted a Shanghai journal called Chinese Progress as the official organ of the government. But lest this be insufficient, in his twenty-second edict he gave the right to all officials to address the throne in sealed memorials.
There was at this time a third-class secretary of the Board of Rites named Wang Chao who sent in a memorial in which he advocated:
1. The abolition of the queue.
2. The changing of the Chinese style of dress to that of the West.
3. The adoption of Christianity as a state religion.
4. A prospective national parliament.
5. A journey to Japan by the Emperor and Empress Dowager.
The Board of Rites opened and read this memorial, and, astounded at its boldness, they summoned the offender before them, and ordered him to withdraw his paper. This he refused to do and the two presidents and four vice-presidents of the Board accompanied it with a counter memorial denouncing him to the Emperor as a man who was making narrow-minded and wild suggestions to His Majesty.
Partly because they had opened and read the memorial and partly because of their effort to prevent freedom of speech, Kuang Hsu issued another edict explaining why he had invited sealed memorials, and censuring them for explaining to him what was narrow-minded and wild, as if he lacked the intelligence to grasp that feature of the paper. He then turned them all over to the Board of Civil Office ordering that body to decide upon a suitable punishment for their offense, and assuring them that if they made it too mild, his righteous wrath would fall upon them. The latter decided that they be degraded three steps and removed to posts befitting their lowered rank, but the Emperor revised the sentence and dismissed them all from office, and this was the beginning of his downfall.
The Empress Dowager had been spending the hot season at the Summer Palace, and during the two months and more that the Emperor had been struggling with his reform measures, she gave no indication, either by word or deed, that she was opposed to anything that he had done. And I think that all her acts, from that time till the close of the Boxer insurrection, can be explained without placing her in opposition to his theories of progress and reform.
So long as the Emperor devoted himself to the creation of new offices he found little active opposition on the part of the conservatives, while the reformers did everything in their power to encourage him. The extent of the movement it is not easy to estimate. It opened up the intensely anti-foreign province of Hupeh, and transformed it into a section where railroads were to be built connecting the north with the south. It opened up the great mining province of Shansi and the lumber regions of Manchuria. It started railroads which are now lines of trade for the whole empire.
When he issued the fifth edict substituting Western science for the literary essay in the great examinations, letters and telegrams began to pour in upon us at the Peking University from all parts of the empire, asking us to reserve room for the senders in the school. Their tuition was enclosed in their letters, and among those who came were the grandson of the Emperor's tutor, graduates of various degrees, men of rank, and the sons of wealthy gentlemen who had not yet obtained degrees. Numerous requests came to our graduates to teach English in official families, one being employed to teach the grandson of Li Hung-chang, and another the sons of a relative of the royal family.
But when his reforms led the Emperor to dispense with useless offices, as in his twenty-first, twenty-fourth and twenty-sixth edicts, for the purpose of retrenchment, and to dismiss recalcitrant officials for disobedience to his commands, a howl arose which was heard throughout the empire. The six members of the Board of Rites dismissed in edict twenty-three, with certain sympathizers to give them face, went to the Empress Dowager at the Summer Palace, represented to her that the boy whom she had placed upon the throne was steering the ship of state to certain destruction, and begged that she would come and once more take the helm. She listened to them with the attention and deference for which she has always been famed, and then dismissed them without any intimation as to what her course would be.
When the Emperor heard what they were doing, he sent a courier post-haste to call Yuan Shih-kai for an interview at the palace. When Yuan came, he ordered him to return to Tien-tsin, dispose of his superior officer, the Governor-General Jung Lu, and bring the army corps of 12,500 troops of which he was in charge to Peking, surround the Summer Palace, preventing any one from going in or coming out, thus making the Empress Dowager a prisoner, and allowing him to go on with his work of reform.
It is just here that we see the difference in the statesmanship of the Empress Dowager and the Emperor. When she appointed these two officials, one a liberal in charge of the army, she placed the other, a conservative, as his superior officer, so that one could not move without the knowledge and consent of the other, thus forestalling just such an order as this. To obey this order of the boy Emperor, Yuan must commit two great crimes, murder and treason, the one on a superior officer, and the other against her who had appointed him to office and who had been the ruler of the country for thirty-seven years, either of which would have been sufficient to have execrated him not only in the eyes of his own people but of history and of the world. Nay more, had he obeyed this order, the conservatives would have raised the cry of rebellion, and an army ten times greater than he could have mustered, would have crushed Yuan and his little company of 12,500 men, on the plea that he was about to take the throne.
Yuan then did the only wise thing he could have done. He went to Jung Lu, without whose consent he had no right to move, showed him the order, and asked for his commands. Jung Lu told him to leave the order with him, and as soon as Yuan had departed he took the train for Peking, called on Prince Ching, and they two went to the Summer Palace and showed the order to Her Majesty, suggesting to her that it might be well for her to come into the city and give him a few lessons in government.
As the Empress Dowager had been behaving herself so circumspectly during all the summer months, allowing the Emperor to test himself as a ruler, one can scarcely blame her for not wanting to be bottled up in the Summer Palace when she had done nothing to deserve it. When therefore this second delegation of officials, consisting of the two highest in rank in the empire, came to request her to once more take charge of the government, she called her sedan chair and started for the capital. She went without an army, but was accompanied by those of her palace eunuchs on whom she could implicitly depend, and enough of them to overcome those of the Emperor in case there should be trouble. That force was necessary is evident from the fact that she condemned to death a number of his servants after she had taken the throne.
When the Emperor heard that she was coming he sent a messenger with letters urging Kang Yu-wei to flee, and to devise some means for saving the situation, while he attempted to find refuge for himself in the foreign legations. This however he failed to do, but was taken by the Empress Dowager, and his career as a ruler ended, and his life as a prisoner began.