Guangxu Emperor

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This is a Manchu name; the family name is Aisin-Gioro.
Guangxu Emperor
Emperor Guangxu.jpg
Flag of the Qing dynasty (1889-1912).svg 11th Qing Emperor of China
Reign 25 February 1875 – 14 November 1908
Predecessor Tongzhi Emperor
Successor Xuantong Emperor
Regent Empress Dowager Ci'an
Empress Dowager Cixi
Spouse Empress Xiaodingjing
Consort Jin
Consort Zhen
Full name
Chinese: Aixin Jueluo Zaitian (愛新覺羅·載湉)
Manchu: Aisin-Gioro hala i Dzai Tiyan
Mongolian: Altan-Gioro Sai Tiyan
Era name and dates
Chinese: Guangxu (光緒)
Manchu: Badarangga Doro
Mongolian: Badaragultu Törü: 6 February 1875 – 21 January 1909
Posthumous name
Emperor Tongtian Chongyun Dazhong Zhizheng Jingwen Weiwu Renxiao Ruizhi Duanjian Kuanqin Jing
Temple name
Emperor Dezong of Qing
House House of Aisin-Gioro
Father Yixuan, Prince Chun
Mother Yehenara Wanzhen
Born (1871-08-14)14 August 1871
Prince Chun Mansion, Beijing, China
Died 14 November 1908(1908-11-14) (aged 37)
Zhongnanhai, Beijing, China
Burial Chongling Mausoleum, Western Qing Tombs, China
Guangxu Emperor
Traditional Chinese 光緒帝
Simplified Chinese 光绪帝

The Guangxu Emperor (Kuang-hsu Emperor; 14 August 1871 – 14 November 1908), born Aisin-Gioro Zaitian (Aisin-Gioro Tsai-tien; Manchu: Aisin-Gioro Dzai-Tiyan), was the eleventh emperor of the Qing Dynasty, and the ninth Qing emperor to rule over China. His reign lasted from 1875 to 1908, but in practice he ruled, under Empress Dowager Cixi's influence, only 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 regnal name means "glorious succession".

Accession to the throne and upbringing[edit]

Zaitian was the second son of Yixuan, Prince Chun, and his primary spouse Yehenara Wanzhen, a younger sister of Empress Dowager Cixi. On 12 January 1875, Zaitian's cousin, the Tongzhi Emperor, died without a son. Empress Dowager Ci'an suggested enthroning one of Yixin, Prince Gong's sons as the next emperor, but she was overruled by Cixi. Instead, breaking the imperial convention that a new emperor must always be of a generation after that of the previous emperor, Cixi nominated her nephew and the imperial family agreed with her choice.

Zaitian was named heir and successor to his uncle, the Xianfeng Emperor, rather than his cousin and predecessor, the Tongzhi Emperor, so as to maintain the father-son succession law. He ascended to the throne at the age of four and used "Guangxu" as his regnal name (or Chinese era name), therefore he is known as the Guangxu Emperor. He was adopted by Empress Dowager Cixi as a son. For her part, she remained as regent under the title "Holy Mother Empress Dowager".

Beginning in 1876, the Guangxu Emperor was taught by Weng Tonghe, who had also been involved in the disastrous upbringing of Tongzhi, yet, somehow managed to be exonerated of all charges.[1] Weng would instill in the emperor a notion of having to emphasize his filial piety towards the dowager empresses.[2]

In 1881, when the Guangxu Emperor was nine, Dowager Empress Ci'an died unexpectedly, leaving Cixi as sole regent for the boy. However, Cixi had been suffering from long-standing ill-health. During this time, the imperial eunuchs often abused their influence over the boy-emperor.[3] The Guangxu Emperor reportedly also had begun to hold some audiences on his own as an act of necessity.[4]

Guangxu comes of age[edit]

In 1887, the Guangxu Emperor would have been old enough to begin to reign in his own right. However, the previous year, several courtiers, including Prince Chun and Weng Tonghe, had petitioned the empress dowager to postpone her retirement from the regency. Despite Cixi's agreement to remain as regent, by 1886 the Guangxu Emperor had begun to write comments on the palace memorials.[4] In the spring of 1887, he partook in his first field plowing ceremony, and by the end of the year, had begun to rule under the supervision of Cixi.

Eventually, in February 1889, in preparation for Cixi's retirement, the Guangxu Emperor was married. As his empress, and much to his disliking, Cixi had selected her own niece, Guangxu's cousin, Jingfen, to become empress, who would be known as Empress Longyu. She also selected, as his two concubines, sisters, who became Consorts Jin and Zhen. The following week, with Guangxu married off, Cixi retired from the regency.

Years in power[edit]

Even after Guangxu began formal rule, Empress Dowager Cixi continued to influence his decisions and actions, despite residing several months of the year at the Summer Palace. Weng Tonghe reportedly observed that while the emperor attended to day to day state affairs, in more difficult cases, Guangxu and the Grand Council sought the advice of the empress dowager.[5] In fact, the emperor would quite often journey out to the Summer Palace to pay his respects to his aunt and to discuss state affairs with her.

In March 1891, Guangxu received the foreign ministers to China at an audience in the "Pavilion of Purple Light," in what is now part of Zhongnanhai, repeating something that had also been done by his cousin, Tongzhi, in 1873. That summer, under pressure from the foreign legations and in response to revolts in the Yangtze River valley that were targeting Christian missionaries, Guangxu issued an edict giving Christians imperial protection.[6]

Guangxu, growing up, apparently had been instilled with the notion of the importance of frugality. In this vein, in 1892, he tried to implement a series of draconian measures in order to reduce expenditures by the Imperial Household Department, which proved to be one of his few administrative successes.[7] But, it was only a partial victory, as he nevertheless had to approve higher expenditures than he would have liked, in order to meet the needs of the empress dowager.

1894 saw the outbreak of the First Sino-Japanese War. During the war, despite being emperor, Guangxu was often by-passed by the courtiers who instead went to the empress dowager.[8] Eventually, two sets of Grand Council memoranda were created, one for the emperor and the other for Cixi, a practice which would continue until it was rendered unnecessary by the events in the fall of 1898. Following China's humiliating defeat and being forced to agree to the terms of the Treaty of Shimonoseki, Guangxu reportedly expressed his wish to abdicate.[9] Guangxu and the Qing government faced further humiliation in late 1897 when the Germans used the murders of two priests in Shandong Province as a pretext to occupy Jiaozhou Bay, prompting a "scramble for concessions" by the other foreign powers.

Following the war and the scramble for concessions, Guangxu came to believe 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, Guangxu issued edicts for a massive number of far-reaching modernising reforms with the help of more progressive ministers such as 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 Days' 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 modernised army, albeit only 6,000-strong. Cixi relied on Ronglu's army in Tianjin.

Ronglu also had an ally, general Dong Fuxiang, who commanded 10,000 Muslim Kansu Braves of the imperial army, including generals such as Ma Fuxiang and Ma Fulu. They were stationed in the Beijing metropolitan area and constantly attacked foreigners and westerners, they were on the side of the conservatives under Cixi during the coup. They were also armed with western rifles and modern artillery, which showed that the conservative faction of Empress Cixi were willing to use western technology.[10][11]

However, the day before the staged coup was supposed to take place, Yuan Shikai revealed all the plans to Ronglu, exposing the Guangxu Emperor's plans. This gained Yuan Shikai the trust of Cixi, as well as the status of the lifetime enemy of Guangxu, and later, Guangxu's younger half-brother, Prince Chun. Following the exposure of the plot, the emperor and dowager empress met, and the emperor retreated to Yingtai Pavilion, a palace on a lake that's now part of the Zhongnanhai Compound.

Lei Chia-sheng (雷家聖), a professor from Taiwan, proposed the alternative view that Guangxu might have been led into a trap by the reformists led by Kang Youwei, who in his turn was tricked by a certain British missionary and Japanese prime minister Itō Hirobumi into agreeing to cede Chinese sovereignty to Itō. British ambassador C. MacDonald said that the reformists had actually damaged the modernisation of China.[12] According to Lei Chia-sheng, Empress Dowager Cixi learned of the plot, and decided to put an end to it and save China from coming under foreign control.[13]

Emperor Guangxu after 1898[edit]

Portrait of the Guangxu Emperor in his study

Emperor Guangxu's duties after 1898 became rather limited, compared to his position prior. While some[who?] have argued that the emperor was effectively removed from power as emperor (despite keeping the title) and was placed under house arrest, he actually did retain some status.

He was kept informed of the state affairs, reading them with the Dowager Empress Cixi prior to audiences,[14] and was also present at audiences, sitting on a stool to Cixi’s left hand, while Cixi occupied the main throne. He discharged his ceremonial rules, such as offering up the imperial sacrifices. However, he would never reign alone again.

In 1898, shortly after the collapse of the “Hundred Days Reform,” Emperor Guangxu’s health began to decline, prompting the Dowager Empress to name Pujun, son of Guangxu’s cousin, the reactionary Prince Duan, as heir presumptive (however, both Pujun & his father were removed from their positions following the Boxer Rebellion). He eventually was examined by the doctor at the French Legation, and was diagnosed with chronic nephritis, and it was also found that he was impotent.

On August 14, 1900, Emperor Guangxu, along with his aunt, his empress and some other courtiers, fled Beijing as foreign troops marched on the city to relieve the legations which had been besieged during the Boxer Rebellion.

Returning to the capital in January 1902, after the withdrawal of the allied powers, 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 Empress Dowager Cixi. He also read widely and spent time learning English from Dowager Empress Cixi's western-educated lady-in-waiting, Princess Der Ling.


Guangxu died on 14 November 1908, a day before Empress Dowager Cixi. He died relatively young, at the age of 37. For a long time there were several theories about Guangxu's death, none of which was completely accepted by historians. Most were inclined to maintain that Guangxu was poisoned by Cixi (herself very ill) 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 a day apart is significant. Another possibility is that Guangxu was poisoned by Yuan Shikai, who knew that if Guangxu were to ever come to power again, Yuan would likely be executed for treason.[15] There are no reliable sources to prove who murdered the Guangxu Emperor. In 1911, Cixi's former eunuch Li Lianying was murdered, possibly by Yuan, implying that they had conspired in the emperor's murder. This theory was offered by Puyi in his biography, who claimed he heard it from an old eunuch.

The medical records kept by the Guangxu Emperor's physician indicate the emperor suffered from "spells of violent stomachache", and that his face would turn blue, typical symptoms of arsenic poisoning.[15] To dispel persistent rumours that the emperor had been poisoned, the Qing court produced documents and doctors' records suggesting that Guangxu died from natural causes, but these did not successfully divert suspicion.

On 4 November 2008, forensic tests revealed that the level of arsenic in the Guangxu Emperor's remains was 2,000 times higher than that of ordinary people. Scientists concluded that the poison could only be administered in a high dose one time. China Daily quoted a historian, Dai Yi, who speculated that Cixi may have known of her imminent death and may have worried that Guangxu would continue his reforms after her death.[16]

The Guangxu Emperor was succeeded by Empress Dowager Cixi's choice as heir, his nephew Puyi, who took the regnal name "Xuantong". 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 Xinhai 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[edit]

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

Personal life[edit]

The wedding of the Guangxu Emperor and Empress Longyu

The Guangxu Emperor had one empress and two consorts in total. His principal spouse was Empress Xiaodingjing, while his two consorts were Consort Jin and Consort Zhen.

Guangxu was forced by Empress Dowager Cixi to marry her niece (his cousin) Jingfen, who was two years his senior. Jingfen's father Guixiang (Cixi's younger brother) and Cixi selected her as Guangxu's Empress Consort in order to strengthen the power of her own family. After the marriage, Jingfen was made empress and was granted the honorific title of "Longyu", meaning "auspicious and prosperous" (Chinese: 隆裕) after the death of her husband. However, Guangxu detested Empress Longyu, and spent most of his time with his favourite concubine Consort Zhen (Chinese: 珍妃), (better known in English as the "Pearl Consort"). Rumours say that in 1900, Consort Zhen was drowned by being thrown into a well on Cixi's order after Consort Zhen begged Empress Dowager Cixi 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 issue. After the Guangxu Emperor's death in 1908, Empress Dowager Longyu reigned in cooperation with Prince Chun.

Honours [17][edit]



  1. ^ Kwong, Luke S.K. A Mosaic of the Hundred Days: Personalities, Politics and Ideas of 1898 (Harvard University Press, 1984), pg. 45
  2. ^ Kwong, pgs. 52 & 53
  3. ^ Kwong, pgs. 47 & 48
  4. ^ a b Kwong, pg. 54
  5. ^ Kwong, pgs. 26 & 27
  6. ^ Seagrave, Sterling Dragon Lady: the Life and Legend of the Last Empress of China (Knopf, 1992), pg. 291
  7. ^ Kwong, pg. 56
  8. ^ Kwong, pg. 27
  9. ^ Seagrave, pg. 186
  10. ^ Ann Heylen (2004). Chronique du Toumet-Ortos: looking through the lens of Joseph Van Oost, missionary in Inner Mongolia (1915–1921). Leuven, Belgium: Leuven University Press. p. 203. ISBN 90-5867-418-5. Retrieved 2010-06-28. 
  11. ^ Patrick Taveirne (2004). Han-Mongol encounters and missionary endeavors: a history of Scheut in Ordos (Hetao) 1874–1911. Leuven, Belgium: Leuven University Press. p. 514. ISBN 90-5867-365-0. Retrieved 2010-06-28. 
  12. ^ "The British and American governments were unaware of the "federation" plot, which seems to have been Timothy Richard’s personal idea. Because Richard's partner Itō Hirobumi had been Prime Minister of Japan, the Japanese government might have known about Richard's plan, but there is no evidence to this effect." ( So there is no evidence re. official Japan's involvement. Prof. Lei Chia-sheng 2004 publication has the merit of being 100% patrotic, while critical eyes may find a touch of a conspiracy theory here including the "usual suspect" Japan.
  13. ^ Lei Chia-sheng雷家聖, 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.
  14. ^ Derling, Princess Two Years in the Forbidden City, (New York: Moffat Yard & Company, pgs. 69-70 (New York: Moffat Yard & Company, 1911), accessed June 25th, 2013
  15. ^ a b Mu, Eric. Reformist Emperor Guangxu was Poisoned, Study Confirms". Danwei. 3 November 2008. Retrieved 2 November 2011.
  16. ^ "Arsenic killed Chinese emperor, reports say". CNN. 4 November 2008. 
  17. ^ Royal Ark
Guangxu Emperor
House of Aisin Gioro
Born: 14 August 1871 Died: 14 November 1908
Regnal titles
Preceded by
The Tongzhi Emperor
Emperor of China
Succeeded by
The Xuantong Emperor