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The Hundred Days' Reform (simplified Chinese: 戊戌变法traditional Chinese: 戊戌變法pinyin: wùxū biànfǎ, or simplified Chinese: 百日维新traditional Chinese: 百日維新pinyin: bǎirì wéixīn) was a failed 104-day national cultural, political and educational reform movement from 11 June to 21 September 1898 in late Qing Dynasty China. It was undertaken by the young Guangxu Emperor and his reform-minded supporters led by Kang Youwei. The movement proved to be short-lived, ending in a coup d'état (戊戌政變 "The Coup of 1898") by powerful conservative opponents led by Empress Dowager Cixi.



The Qing emperor of China, Guangxu (1875–1908), ordered a series of reforms aimed at making sweeping social and institutional changes. This was in response to weaknesses exposed by China's defeat by Japan in the First Sino-Japanese War in 1894-5, not long after the Opium Wars; this blow came as a major shock to the Chinese, because Japan had been a tributary state, was much smaller than China, and was regarded as inferior. Moreover, the defeat of China by Japan led to a scramble of 'privileges' in China by other foreign powers, notably the German Empire and Russia, further awakening the stubborn conservatives.

With the help of certain senior officials of the Qing court, who were supporters of reform, Kang Youwei was permitted to speak with the Emperor, and his suggestions were enacted. Some of Kang's students were also given minor but strategic posts in the capital to assist with the reforms. Some essential preconditions of reform were:

  • Modernizing the traditional exam system
  • Elimination of sinecures (positions that provide little or no work but give a salary)
  • Creation of a modern education system (studying math and science instead of focusing mainly on Confucian texts, etc.)
  • Change the government from absolute monarchy to constitutional monarchy with democracy.
  • Apply principles of capitalism to strengthen the economy.
  • Completely change the military buildup to strengthen the military.
  • Rapidly industrialize all of China through manufacturing, commerce, and capitalism.

The reformers declared that China needed more than "self-strengthening" and that innovation must be accompanied by institutional and ideological change..


Opposition to the reform was intense among the conservative ruling elite, who, condemning the announced reform as too radical, proposed instead a more moderate and gradualist course of change. Supported by ultraconservatives and having the tacit support of the political opportunist Yuan Shikai, Empress Dowager Cixi engineered a coup d'état on September 21, 1898, forcing the young, reform-minded Guangxu into seclusion. The emperor was put under house arrest within the Forbidden City until his death in 1908. Cixi then took over the government as regent. The Hundred Days' Reform ended with the rescinding of the new edicts and the execution of six of the reform's chief advocates, together known as the "Six Gentlemen" (戊戌六君子): Tan Sitong, Kang Guangren (Kang Youwei's brother), Lin Xu (林旭), Yang Shenxiu, Yang Rui (reformer) and Liu Guangdi. The two principal leaders, Kang Youwei and his student Liang Qichao, fled to Japan to found the Baohuang Hui (Protect the Emperor Society) and to work, unsuccessfully, for a constitutional monarchy in China. Another leader of the reform, Tan Sitong, refused to flee and was arrested and executed.


In the decade that followed, the court belatedly put into effect some reform measures. These included the abolition of the Imperial Examination in 1905, educational and military modernization patterned after the model of Japan, and an experiment in constitutional and parliamentary government. The suddenness and ambitiousness of the reform effort actually hindered its success. One effect, to be felt for decades to come, was the establishment of the New Army, which, in turn, gave rise to warlordism.

On the other hand, the failure of the reform movement gave great impetus to revolutionary forces within China. Changes within the establishment were seen to be largely hopeless, and the overthrow of the whole Qing government increasingly appeared to be the only viable way to save China. Such sentiments directly contributed to the success of the Chinese Revolution in 1911, barely a decade later.

Differing Interpretations

Views of the Hundred Days' Reform have grown increasingly more complex and nuanced. The traditional view portrayed the reformers as heroes and the conservative elites, particularly the Empress Dowager Cixi, as villains unwilling to reform because of their selfish interests.


Kang, the boastful dreamer

However, some historians in the late 20th century have taken views that are more favorable to the conservatives and less favorable to the reformers. In this view, Kang Youwei and his allies were hopeless dreamers unaware of the political realities in which they operated. This view argues that the conservative elites were not opposed to change and that practically all of the reforms that were proposed were eventually implemented.

For example, Sterling Seagrave, in his book "The Dragon Lady", argues that there were several reasons why the reforms failed. Chinese political power at the time was firmly in the hands of the ruling Manchu nobility. The highly xenophobic Ironhats faction dominated the Grand Council and were seeking ways to expel all Western influence from China. When implementing reform, the Guangxu Emperor by-passed the Grand Council and appointed four reformers to advise him. These reformers were chosen after a series of interviews, including the interview of Kang Youwei, who was rejected by the Emperor and had far less influence than Kang's later boasting would indicate. At the suggestion of the reform advisors, the Guangxu Emperor also held secret talks with former Japanese Prime Minister Ito Hirobumi with the aim of using his experience in the Meiji Restoration to lead China through similar reforms.

It has also been suggested, controversially, that Kang Youwei actually did a great deal of harm to the cause by his perceived arrogance in the eyes of the conservatives. Rumours about potential repercussions, many of them false, made their way to the Grand Council, and were one of the factors in their decision to stage a coup against the Emperor. Kang, like many of the reformers, grossly under-estimated the reactionary nature of the vested interests involved.

The Emperor set about to enact his reforms largely bypassing the powerful Grand Council. The councilors, angry at the Emperor's actions and fearful of losing the political power they had, then turned to the Empress Dowager Cixi to remove the emperor from power. Many, though not all, of the reforms were cancelled. The Council, now confident in their power, pushed for the execution of the reformers, an action that was carried out ruthlessly.

Richard's federation theory

According to Professor Lei Chia-sheng (雷家聖),[1] Japanese former prime minister Itō Hirobumi (伊藤博文) arrived in China on September 11, 1898, approximately the same time that Kang Youwei invited British missionary Timothy Richard to Beijing. Richard suggested that China should hand over some political power to Itō in order to further push China's reform efforts.[2] On September 18, Richard successfully convinced Kang to adopt his plan in which China would join a federation (合邦) with China, Japan, the United States, and The United Kingdom. It was Richard’s (and perhaps also Itō's) ulterior motive to convince China to increasingly relinquish sovereign authority. Kang nonetheless asked fellow reformers Yang Shenxiu (楊深秀) and Song Bolu (宋伯魯) to report this plan to the Guangxu Emperor.[3] On September 20, Yang sent a memorandum conveying this effect.[4] In another memorandum to the Emperor written the next day, Song advocated the formation of a federation and the sharing of the diplomatic, fiscal, and military powers of the four countries under a hundred-man committee.[5] Prof. Lei argues that this plot was the reason why Cixi, who had just returned from the Summer Palace on September 19, decided to put an end to the reforms with the September 21 Coup.

On October 13, following the coup, British ambassador Sir Claude MacDonald reported to his government about the Chinese situation, saying that Chinese reforms had been devastated by Kang and his friends’ actions.[6] British diplomat Baurne, who thought Richard to be a plotter, separately claimed in his own report that Kang was a dreamer who had fallen for Richard’s convincing arguments.[7] The British and American governments had been largely unaware of the "federation" plot, which appears to have been Richard’s own personal idea. The Japanese government might have been aware of Richard's plan, since his accomplice was the former Japanese prime minister, but there is no evidence to this effect yet.

See also


  1. ^ Lei Chia-sheng, Liwan kuanglan: Wuxu zhengbian xintan 力挽狂瀾:戊戌政變新探 [Containing the furious waves: a new view of the 1898 coup], Taipei: Wanjuan Lou 萬卷樓, 2004.
  2. ^ Timothy Richard, Forty-five years in China, Ch. 12.
  3. ^ Kang Youwei 康有為, Kang Nanhai ziding nianpu 康南海自訂年譜 [Chronicle of Kang Youwei's Life, by Kang Youwei], Taipei: Wenhai chubanshe 文海出版社, p. 67.
  4. ^ Yang Shenxiu, "Shandong dao jiancha yushi Yang Shenxiu zhe" 山東道監察御史楊深秀摺 [Palace memorial by Yang Shenxiu, Investigating Censor of Shandong Circuit], in Wuxu bianfa dang'an shiliao 戊戌變法檔案史料 [Archival sources on the history of the 1898 reforms], Beijing: Zhonghua shuju, 1959, p. 15.「臣尤伏願我皇上早定大計,固結英、美、日本三國,勿嫌『合邦』之名之不美。」
  5. ^ Song Bolu, "Zhang Shandong dao jiancha yushi Song Bolu zhe" 掌山東道監察御史宋伯魯摺 [Palace memorial by Song Bolu, Investigating Censor in charge of the Shandong Circuit], in Wuxu bianfa dang'an shiliao, p. 170.「渠(李提摩太)之來也,擬聯合中國、日本、美國及英國為合邦,共選通達時務、曉暢各國掌故者百人,專理四國兵政稅則及一切外交等事。」
  6. ^ Correspondence Respecting the Affairs of China, Presented to Both Houses of Parliament by Command of Her Majesty (London, 1899.3), No. 401., p. 303.
  7. ^ British Foreign Office files (F.O.) 17/1718, September 26, 1898.


  • Based on an article at:
  • Lei Chia-sheng 雷家聖 (2004). Liwan kuanglan: Wuxu zhengbian xintan 力挽狂瀾:戊戌政變新探 [Containing the furious waves: a new view of the 1898 coup]. Taipei: Wanjuan lou 萬卷樓. ISBN 957-739-507-4.


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