This afternoon in 1898, six liberals got the chop for their hopeless attempt to give a tottering empire the reforms it desperately needed.
The Hundred Days’ Reform — actually 103 days, from June 11 to September 21 — marked the attempt by China’s Guangxu Emperor to implement a far-reaching modernization programme backed by forward-thinking officials with a mind to correct China’s supine position vis-a-vis the West, and even vis-a-vis its neighbors.
“Reform has never come about in any country without the flow of blood. No one in China in modern times has sacrificed himself for the cause of reform, and because of this China is still a poor and backward country. Therefore, I request that the sacrifices begin with myself.” –Tan Sitong
The Wuxu Constitutional Reform still stands as the great attempt made by Chinese progressives who tried to follow the example of the modern powers in order to save China from extinction. Represented by Kang Youwei and Liang Qichao, the bourgeois reformists were imbued with the spirit of national salvation; they carefully set about designing a blueprint for a constitutional monarchy based on the example of Western countries. They advocated the establishment of parliament and a national conference, and wanted to see honest and fair-minded people with the courage to criticize authority installed in a position of power. National policies should be discussed by the monarch and the people. They also wanted a constitution to stipulate the rights and obligations of the monarch, officials, and the people. The constitution was to be the highest code for all people in the country. They also wanted to establish a system featuring a tripartite balance of forces: parliament was to legislate, the magistracy to deal with issues of justice, the government with administration. All of these would be under the monarch.
The constitutional reform was to take place with radical intellectuals submitting their memoranda to Emperor Guang Xu, who alone had the power to promulgate them. The feudal diehards being in a position of strength and the national bourgeoisie being weak, however, the new politics survived no more than 100 days or so. When the forces of reaction inevitably clamped down on the movement, the six reformists who had inspired the movement for constitutional reform met their deaths like heroes.
Although sincere in its aspirations, the reform movement was bound to fail, as it depended on a reform “from top to bottom”, which ultimately had to be enacted by the emperor. The Hundred Days’ Constitutional Reform, however, remains a landmark event in the modern history of China, its failure notwithstanding. The Chinese bourgeoisie in fact succeeded in spreading democratic and constitutionalist ideas widely, and this had a significant effect on future generations. The political and legal theory of the Western bourgeoisie could now take root in the soil of China.*
The emperor’s Machiavellian conservative aunt, the Empress Dowager Cixi, who had been the power behind the Chinese throne since 1861, made the sure reform didn’t see two hundred days with a “coup” that didn’t formally overthrow the Emperor — just made him irrelevant.
Troublemakers further down the food chain didn’t get off so easily.
Kang Youwei, the reform movement’s chief exponent, escaped to Japan. Six others suffered the wrath of the Dowager Empress: Kang Guangren (Kang Youwei’s brother), Lin Xu, Yang Shenxiu, Yang Rui and Liu Guangdi … along with the young reformer Tan Sitong, who notably refused imprecations to flee arrest.
The sword’s blade across my neck,
I look toward heaven — laughing.
-Etched on a prison wall, allegedly by Tan Sitong
Photo of an unspecified 1867 Qing beheading in Canton.
* “The Chinese Legal Tradition and the European View of the Rule of Law” by Wu Shu-Chen in The Rule of Law History, Theory and Criticism, Part VI.