Charles DOBBS

Kang Youwei, a prominent scholar and reformer of the late Qing dynasty. called for dramatic changes in the structure of government, the examination system for entrance into government service, and the relationship of the government to the Chinese people.

The “Hundred Days Reform” was an effort, over the summer of 1898, by the young emperor Guang Xu and many young Confucian scholar officials to introduce much-needed reforms to Qing dynasty China following the country’s defeat by Japan in the First Sino-Japanese War. It was put down by the dowager empress Xici.

Defeat by Japan in the First Sino-Japanese War (1894–1895) greatly affected the Qing dynasty (1644–1912) government of China and many young Chinese Confucian scholars. Some of these scholar-officials, particularly Kang Youwei (1858–1927) and Liang Qichao (1873–1929), called for dramatic changes in the structure of government, the examination system for entrance into government service, and the relationship of the government to the Chinese people, although they clothed these changes in traditional Confucian principles.

The young emperor, Guang Xu (1871–1908), was caught up in the fervor for reform and committed himself to carrying out a comprehensive reform program for approximately one hundred days, hence the phrase “Hundred Days Reform.” From mid-June to mid-September 1898, the emperor issued some forty reform decrees.

The decrees called for educational reform by replacing the centuries-old “eight-legged” essays—a rigid, codified set of exams that for centuries had been the standard for entry into the civil service—with an exam that better reflected current affairs, establishing an Imperial university, and initiating classes in foreign affairs and languages, economics, medicine, and the sciences. The decrees also sought changes in government and streamlining administration. Finally, the decrees called for government support for building railways, developing the economy, and improving the capital city, as well as providing government protection of missionaries, simplifying legal codes, and preparing an annual budget. These measures were designed primarily to reform the government, but also had the aim of impressing foreign powers in order to slow down the pace of foreign encroachments on Chinese sovereignty.

Kang Youwei’s Advice to the Emperor

In an attempt to persuade the Guangxu emperor, the political reformer Kang Youwei submitted a memorial to the throne titled Comprehensive Consideration of the Whole Situation in January 1898, a few months before the Hundred Days Reform.

A survey of all states in the world will show that those states that undertook reforms became strong while those states that clung to the past perished. The consequences of clinging to the past and the effects of opening up new ways are thus obvious. If Your Majesty, with your discerning brilliance, observes the trends in other countries, you will see that if we can change, we can preserve ourselves; but if we cannot change, we shall perish. Indeed, if we can make a complete change, we shall become strong, but if we only make limited changes, we shall still perish. If Your Majesty and his ministers investigate the source of the disease, you will know that this is the right prescription.

Our present trouble lies in our clinging to old institutions without knowing how to change. In an age of competition between states, to put into effect methods appropriate to an era of universal unification and laissez-faire is like wearing heavy furs in summer or riding a high carriage across a river. This can only result in having a fever or getting oneself drowned… Although there is a desire to reform, yet if the national policy is not fixed and public opinion not united, it will be impossible for us to give up the old and adopt the new. The national policy is to the state just as the rudder is to the boat or the pointer is to the compass. It determines the direction of the states and shapes the public opinion of the country.

Source: de Bary, W. T., & Lufrano, R.. (2000). Sources of Chinese tradition, vol. 2. New York: Columbia University Press, 269.

Predictably, there was backlash. The empress dowager, Cixi (1835–1908), allied with conservative elements in the Imperial City and across the nation and prepared a counterstrike. Rumors of a coup had floated around Beijing for days, and as the emperor moved slowly, the empress dowager and her allies moved quickly. On 21 September 1898, she seized control of the emperor, announced that he was incapacitated, took over all reform documents, and seized control of the government. Many of the reformers were arrested and executed, but Kang and Liang managed to escape. The reforms were undone, and one outcome was the so-called Boxer Rebellion, which accelerated foreign encroachments on China.

Whether the Hundred Days Reforms were too comprehensive or too radical remains secondary to their short-term failure, but the seeds they planted were felt in the form of more gradual reforms as well as rebellions that would shape China’s history into the twentieth century.

Further Reading

Cohen, P. A. & Schrecker, J. E. (Eds.). (1976). Reform in nineteenth-century China. Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press.

Kwong, L. S. K. (1984). A mosaic of the hundred days. Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press.

Source: Dobbs, Charles (2009). Hundred Days Reform. In Linsun Cheng, et al. (Eds.), Berkshire Encyclopedia of China, pp. 1122–1123. Great Barrington, MA: Berkshire Publishing.

Hundred Days Reform (B?irì Wéix?n ????)|B?irì Wéix?n ???? (Hundred Days Reform)

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