Guangxu Emperor

Guangxu Emperor

Infobox Chinese Royalty
name = Guangxu Emperor
native name = 光緒帝
temple name = Qing Dézōng

reign = 25 February 1875 – 14 November 1908
predecessor = Tongzhi Emperor
successor = Xuantong Emperor
spouse =Empress Xiao Ding Jing
issue =
full name =Chinese: Aixin-Jueluo Zàitián 愛新覺羅載湉
Manchu: Aisin-Gioro Dzai Tiyan
posthumous name =Emperor Tóngtiān Chóngyùn Dàzhōng Zhìzhèng Jīngwén Wěiwǔ Rénxiào Ruìzhì Duānjiǎn Kuānqín Jǐng
temple name = Dézōng 德宗
titles = The Emperor
era name = Chinese Guāngxù 光緒 Manchu: Badarangga Doro
era dates = 6 February 1875–21 January 1909
royal house =House of Aisin-Gioro
father =Yixuan, Prince Chun
mother =
date of birth =Birth date|1871|8|14
place of birth =
date of death = Death date and age|1908|11|14|1871|8|14
place of death = Beijing, China
place of burial = Western Qing Tombs

The Guangxu Emperor (光緒帝) (14 August 1871–14 November 1908), born Zaitian (載湉), was the tenth emperor of the Manchu Qing dynasty, and the ninth Qing emperor to rule over China proper. His reign lasted from 1875 to 1908, but in practice he ruled, under Empress Dowager Cixi's influence, from 1889 to 1898. He initiated the Hundred Days' Reform, but was abruptly stopped when Cixi launched a coup in 1898, after which he was put under house arrest until his death. His reign name means "The Glorious Succession".

Accession to the throne

Prince Chun was married to Empress Dowager Cixi's younger sister, and Zaitian was their son, therefore Zaitian was Cixi's nephew. In January 1875, the Tongzhi Emperor died without a son. The Empress Dowager Ci'an suggested Prince Gong's son as the new Emperor, but he was overruled by Cixi. Instead, breaking the imperial convention that a new emperor must always be a generation after that of the passing emperor, Cixi suggested Prince Chun's son, Zaitian, and the imperial family agreed with this choice.

Guangqu ascended the throne at the age of four and was adopted by Cixi as her son. For her part, she remained as regent with the title of "the Holy Mother Empress Dowager". During his childhood, Guangxu was taught by Weng Tonghe, with whom he shared a fond relationship.

Years of power

Even after he began formal rule, Cixi continued to influence his decisions and actions, despite residing for a period of time at the Imperial Summer Palace (Yiheyuan) which she had ordered Guangxu's father, the Prince Chun, to construct, with the official intention not to intervene in politics.

After taking power, Guangxu was obviously more reform-minded than the conservative-leaning Cixi. He believed that by learning from constitutional monarchies like Japan, China would become more politically and economically powerful. In June 1898, Guangxu began the Hundred Days' Reform, aimed at a series of sweeping political, legal, and social changes. For a brief time, after the supposed retirement of Empress Dowager Cixi, Emperor Guangxu issued edicts for a massive number of far-reaching modernizing reforms with the help of more progressive Qing mandarins like Kang Youwei and Liang Qichao.

Changes ranged from infrastructure to industry and the civil examination system. Guangxu issued decrees allowing the establishment of a modern university in Beijing, the construction of the Lu-Han railway, and a system of budgets similar to that of the west. The initial goal was to make China a modern, constitutional empire, but still within the traditional framework, as with Japan's Meiji Restoration.

The reforms, however, were not only too sudden for a China still under significant neo-Confucian influence and other elements of traditional culture, but also came into conflict with Cixi, who held real power. Many officials, deemed useless and dismissed by Guangxu, were begging Cixi for help. Although Cixi did nothing to stop the Hundred Day's Reform from taking place, she knew the only way to secure her power base was to stage a military coup. Guangxu was made aware of such a plan, and asked Kang Youwei and his reformist allies to plan his rescue. They decided to use the help of Yuan Shikai, who had a modernized army, albeit only 6,000-strong. Cixi relied on Ronglu's army in Tianjin.

Yuan Shikai, however, was beginning to show his skill in politics. The day before the staged coup was supposed to take place, Yuan chose his best political route and revealed all the plans to Ronglu, exposing the Emperor's plans. This raised Cixi's trust in Yuan, who thereby became a lifetime enemy of Guangxu. In September 1898, Ronglu's troops took all positions surrounding the Forbidden City, and surrounded the Emperor when he was about to perform rituals. Guangxu was then taken to Ocean Terrace, a small palace on an island in the middle of a lake linked to the rest of the Forbidden City with only a controlled causeway. Cixi followed with an edict dictating Guangxu's total disgrace and "not being fit to be Emperor". Guangxu's reign had effectively come to an end.

House arrest

For his house arrest, even court eunuchs were chosen to strategically serve the purpose of confining him. There was also a crisis involving Guangxu's removal and abdication and the installment of a new Emperor. Although Empress Dowager Cixi never forced Emperor Guangxu to abdicate, and his era had in name continued until 1908, Emperor Guangxu lost all honours, respect, power, and privileges given to the Emperor other than its name. Most of his supporters were exiled, and some, including Tan Sitong, were executed in public by Empress Dowager Cixi. Kang Youwei continued to work for a more progressive Qing Empire while in exile, remaining loyal to the Guangxu Emperor and hoping to eventually restore him to power. Western governments, too, were in favour of the Guangxu Emperor as the only power figure in China, failing to recognize Empress Dowager Cixi. A joint official document issued by western governments stated that only the name "Guangxu" was to be recognized as the legal authoritative figure, over all others. Empress Dowager Cixi was angered by the move.

There was dispute, for a period of time, over whether the Guangxu Emperor should continue to reign, even if only in name, as Emperor, or simply be removed altogether. Most court officials seemed to agree with the latter choice, but loyal Manchus such as Ronglu pleaded otherwise.

In 1900, the Eight-Nation Alliance of Western powers and Japan entered China and on August 14th occupied Beijing following a Chinese declaration of war which the Guangxu Emperor opposed, but had no power to stop. Emperor Guangxu fled with Empress Dowager Cixi to Xi'an, dressed in civilian outfits.

Returning to the Forbidden City after the withdrawal of the western powers, Emperor Guangxu was known to have spent the next few years working in his isolated palace with watches and clocks, which had been a childhood fascination, some say in an effort to pass the time until the death of the Empress Dowager Cixi. He still had supporters, whether inside China or in exile, who wished to return him to real power.


Guangxu died on 14 November 1908, a day before Empress Dowager Cixi. He died relatively young, at age 38. There are several theories about Guangxu's death, none of which are completely accepted by historians. Most suspect was the claim that Guangxu was poisoned by Cixi because she was afraid of Guangxu reversing her policies after her death, and wanted to prevent this from happening. The fact that the two died two days apart only furthers the circumstantial evidence behind this claim. Another possibility is that Guangxu was poisoned by Yuan Shikai, who knew that if Guangxu were to ever come into power again, he (Yuan Shikai) would likely executed for treason. As there are no reliable sources to prove either theory, the real cause of Guangxu's death remains a mystery until this day. Official court documents and doctors' records suggest that Guangxu did, in fact, die from natural causes. The Emperor had been ill for a long time prior, and the records suggest that the Emperor's condition began to worsen several days before his death, although the illness could be cause by poison, administered in small doses over a long period of time.

Guangxu was succeeded by Empress Dowager Cixi's handpicked heir, his nephew Puyi, who took on the era name "Xuantong" (Xuantong Emperor). Guangxu's consort, who became the Empress Dowager Longyu, signed the abdication decree as regent in 1912, ending two thousand years of imperial rule in China. Empress Dowager Longyu died, childless, in 1913.

After the revolution of 1911, the new Republic of China funded the construction of Guangxu's mausoleum in the Western Qing Tombs. The tomb was robbed during the Chinese civil war and the underground palace (burial chamber) is now open to the public.

Historical Views

In 1912, Dr. Sun Yat-sen praised Guangxu Emperor for his educational reform package that allowed Chinese people to learn more about the western culture. After the establishment of the People's Republic of China, Communist historian Fan Wenlan (范文澜) called the emperor "the Manchu Noble who can accept Western Thinking". Some historians think that the emperor is the first Chinese leader to implement policies of modernization and capitalism. Guangxu also epitomized the lowest imperial power had come since the beginning of the Qing Dynasty, and is the only Emperor of the Qing Dynasty to have been put under house arrest during his own reign.


The Guangxu Emperor had three wives in total. His principal wife was the Long Yu Empress, while his two consorts were the Imperial Consort Jin and the Imperial Consort Zhen.

Guangxu was forced by the Empress Dowager Cixi to marry her niece (his cousin) Yehenara Jingfen ( _zh. 叶赫纳拉·静芬), who was two years his senior. Yehenara Jingfen's father was a younger brother of Empress Dowager Cixi, and Dowager Cixi selected Yehenara Jingfen as Guangxu's Empress Consort because she wanted to strengthen the power of her own family. After the marriage, Yehenara Jingfen became the Empress Consort, and was granted the honorific title "Long Yu", meaning "Auspicious and Prosperous" ( _zh. 隆裕) after the death of her husband. However, Guangxu detested Empress Longyu, and spent most of his time with his favourite consort, Lady Tatala, the Imperial Consort Zhen ( _zh. 珍妃), (better known in English as the "Pearl Consort"). In 1900, Consort Zhen was drowned by being thrown into a well at the order of Cixi after Consort Zhen begged the Empress Dowager to let the Guangxu Emperor stay in Beijing for negotiations with the foreign powers. That incident happened before Empress Dowager Cixi was preparing to leave the Forbidden City due to the occupation of Beijing by the Eight-Nation Alliance in 1900. Like his predecessor, the Tongzhi Emperor, Guangxu died without an issue. After the Guangxu Emperor's death in 1908, the Longyu Empress Dowager reigned in cooperation with Zaifeng, the 2nd Prince Chun.

ee also

*Empress Dowager Cixi
*Boxer Rebellion
*Hundred Days Reform
*Kang Youwei
*Liang Qichao

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