The Guangxu Emperor (14 August 1871 – 14 November 1908), personal name Zaitian (Manchu:ᡯᠠᡳ ᡨᡳᠶᠠᠨ 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 the empress dowager launched a coup in 1898, after which he was put under house arrest until his death. His regnal name, "Guangxu", means "glorious succession".

Accession to the throne and upbringing

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 to succeed him. Breaking the imperial convention that a new emperor must always be of a generation after that of the previous emperor, candidates were considered from the generation of the Tongzhi Emperor. Empress Dowager Ci'an suggested choosing one of Prince Gong's sons to be the next emperor, but was overruled by her co-regent, Empress Dowager Cixi. Instead, Cixi nominated Zaitian (her nephew) and the imperial clan eventually agreed with her choice because Zaitian was younger than other adoptable children of the same generation.

Zaitian was named heir and successor to his late 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 adopted "Guangxu" as his regnal name, therefore he is known as the "Guangxu Emperor". He was adopted by Empress Dowager Ci'an and Cixi. For her part, she remained as regent under the title "Holy Mother, Empress Dowager" (聖母皇太后) while her co-regent Empress Dowager Ci'an was called "Mother Empress, Empress Dowager" (母后皇太后).

Beginning in 1876, the Guangxu Emperor was taught by Weng Tonghe, who had also been involved in the disastrous upbringing of the Tongzhi Emperor, yet, somehow managed to be exonerated of all possible charges.[1] Weng instilled in the Guangxu Emperor a notion of having to emphasise his filial piety towards the Empress Dowagers Cixi and Ci'an.[2]

In 1881, when the Guangxu Emperor was nine, Empress Dowager Ci'an died unexpectedly, leaving Empress Dowager Cixi as sole regent for the boy. In Weng's diaries during those days, Guangxu was reportedly seen with swollen eyes, had poor concentration and was seeking consolation from Weng. Weng too expressed his concerns that Cixi was the one who had been suffering from chronic ill health, not Ci'an. 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]

Taking over the reins of power

In 1887, the Guangxu Emperor would have been old enough to begin to rule in his own right. However, the previous year, several courtiers, including Prince Chun and Weng Tonghe, had petitioned Empress Dowager Cixi 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 memorials to the throne.[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 Empress Dowager Cixi's retirement, the Guangxu Emperor was married. Much to the emperor's dislike, Cixi had selected her own niece, Jingfen, to be the empress, who would be known as Empress Longyu. She also selected a pair of sisters, who became Consorts Jin and Zhen, to be the emperor's concubines. The following week, with the Guangxu Emperor married, Cixi retired from the regency.

Years in power

Even after the Guangxu Emperor 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, the emperor 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, the Guangxu Emperor 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 the Tongzhi Emperor 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, the emperor issued an edict ordering Christians to be placed under state protection.[6]

The Guangxu Emperor, while 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] However, it was only a partial victory, as he had to approve higher expenditures than he would have liked, in order to meet the needs of Empress Dowager Cixi.

1894 saw the outbreak of the First Sino-Japanese War. During the war, even though the Guangxu Emperor was nominally the sovereign ruler of the Qing Empire, the officials often ignored his presence and instead sent their memorials to Empress Dowager Cixi for her reading and approval.[8] Eventually, two sets of Grand Council memoranda were created, one for the emperor and the other for the empress dowager – a practice which would continue until it was rendered unnecessary by the events in the fall of 1898. Following the Qing Empire's defeat and forced agreement to the terms of the Treaty of Shimonoseki, the Guangxu Emperor reportedly expressed his wish to abdicate.[9] The emperor and the Qing government faced further humiliation in late 1897 when the German Empire used the murders of two priests in Shandong Province as an excuse to occupy Jiaozhou Bay, prompting a "scramble for concessions" by other foreign powers.

Following the war and the scramble for concessions, the Guangxu Emperor came to believe that by learning from constitutional monarchies like Japan, the Qing Empire would become more politically and economically powerful. In June 1898, the emperor 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, the Guangxu Emperor issued edicts for a massive number of far-reaching modernising reforms with the help of more progressive officials such as Kang Youwei and Liang Qichao.

Changes ranged from infrastructure to industry and the civil examination system. The Guangxu Emperor 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 Empress Dowager Cixi, who held real power. Many officials, deemed useless and dismissed by the Guangxu Emperor, were begging the empress dowager 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. The Guangxu Emperor became aware of such a plan, so he 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. Empress Dowager Cixi relied on Ronglu's army in Tianjin.

Ronglu also had an ally, general Dong Fuxiang, who commanded 10,000 Muslim Kansu Braves, including generals such as Ma Fuxiang and Ma Fulu. They were stationed in the Beijing metropolitan area. Armed with more advanced firearms and artillery, they sided with the conservative faction under Empress Dowager Cixi during the coup.[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 Empress Dowager Cixi, as well as the status of the lifetime enemy of the Guangxu Emperor, and later, the emperor's younger half-brother, Zaifeng. Following the exposure of the plot, the emperor and empress dowager met, and the emperor retreated to Yingtai Pavilion, a palace on a lake that is now part of the Zhongnanhai Compound.

Lei Chia-sheng (雷家聖), a Taiwanese history professor, proposes an alternative view that the Guangxu Emperor might have been led into a trap by the reformists led by Kang Youwei, who in his turn was in Lei's opinion tricked by British missionary Timothy Richard and former Japanese prime minister Itō Hirobumi into agreeing to appoint Itō as one of many foreign advisors.[12] British ambassador Claude MacDonald said that the reformists had actually "much injured" the modernisation of China.[13] According to Lei, Empress Dowager Cixi learned of the plot, and decided to put an end to it and save China from coming under foreign control.[14]

Under house arrest after 1898

Portrait of the Guangxu Emperor in his study

The Guangxu Emperor'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.

The emperor was kept informed of the state affairs, reading them with Empress Dowager Cixi prior to audiences,[15] 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 duties, such as offering sacrifices during ceremonies, but would never rule alone again.

In 1898, shortly after the collapse of the Hundred Days' Reform, the Guangxu Emperor's health began to decline, prompting Empress Dowager Cixi to name Pujun, a son of the emperor's cousin, the reactionary Prince Duan, as heir presumptive. However, Pujun and his father were removed from their positions after the Boxer Rebellion. He was examined by a physician at the French Legation and diagnosed with chronic nephritis; he was also discovered to be impotent at the time.

During the Boxer Rebellion, Emperor Guangxu fiercely opposed the idea of using usurpers as a means to counter foreign invasion. His letter to then United States president Theodore Roosevelt is still preserved in U.S. government archives. On 14 August 1900, the Guangxu Emperor, along with Empress Dowager Cixi, Empress Longyu and some other court officials, fled from Beijing as the forces of the Eight-Nation Alliance marched on the capital to relieve the legations which had been besieged during the Boxer Rebellion.

Returning to the capital in January 1902, after the withdrawal of the foreign powers, the Guangxu Emperor 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 Cixi's western-educated lady-in-waiting, Yu Deling. His relationship with Empress Longyu, Cixi's niece (and the Emperor's own first cousin) also improved to some extent.


The Guangxu Emperor died on 14 November 1908, a day before the death of Empress Dowager Cixi. He died relatively young, at the age of 37. For a long time there were several theories about the emperor's death, none of which was completely accepted by historians. Most were inclined to believe that the Guangxu Emperor was poisoned by Empress Dowager Cixi (herself very ill) because she was afraid of the emperor 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 theory is that the Guangxu Emperor was poisoned by Yuan Shikai, who knew that if the emperor were to ever come to power again, Yuan would likely be executed for treason.[16] There were 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 show the emperor suffered from "spells of violent stomachache", and that his face turned blue, typical symptoms of arsenic poisoning.[16] To dispel persistent rumours that the emperor had been poisoned, the Qing imperial court produced documents and doctors' records suggesting that the Guangxu Emperor 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 Empress Dowager Cixi might have known of her imminent death and might worry that the Guangxu Emperor would continue his reforms after her death.[17]

The Guangxu Emperor was succeeded by Empress Dowager Cixi's choice as heir, his nephew Puyi, who took the regnal name "Xuantong". The Guangxu Emperor's consort, who became 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 Republic of China funded the construction of the Guangxu Emperor'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, 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 in 1949, historian Fan Wenlan (范文瀾) called the Guangxu Emperor "a Manchu noble who could accept Western ideas". Some historians[who?] believe that the Guangxu Emperor was the first Chinese leader to implement policies of modernisation and capitalism. Imperial power in the Qing dynasty saw its nadir under Guangxu, and he was the only Qing emperor to have been put under house arrest during his own reign.

In popular culture

In the short alternative history story Foreign Devils by Walter Jon Williams, China is invaded by the same fearsome Martians depicted in H. G. Wells' War of the Worlds. China suffers terrible death and destruction and the Emperor is forced to flee, but by the time the Martians have died off from earthly diseases, they have destroyed most of the Guangxu Emperor's human enemies. The Emperor then proceeds to eliminate his remaining foes, assume unquestioned power in China and enact his reforms, fully and unhinderd. He uses the disarray of European powers, which were also invaded by the Martians, to shake off colonial tutelage and make China a world power 50 years earlier than it did in our history. In this changed history, China remains a monarchy and there is no Chinese Republic. (The story appears in the collection War of the Worlds: Global Dispatches.)

Honours [18]

Styles of
Guangxu Emperor
Flag of the Qing Dynasty (1889-1912).svg
Reference style His Imperial Majesty
Spoken style Your Imperial Majesty
Alternative style Son of Heaven (天子)


The wedding of the Guangxu Emperor and Empress Longyu


The Guangxu Emperor had one empress and two consorts in total.
The emperor 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 to be the Guangxu Emperor'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, the Guangxu Emperor 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, the Guangxu Emperor died without issue. After the Guangxu Emperor's death in 1908, Empress Dowager Longyu reigned in cooperation with Zaifeng (Prince Chun).


Title Name Born Died Father Issue Notes
Empress Xiaoding Jing
Yehe–Nara Jingfen
28 Jan 1868 22 Feb 1913 Guixiang, third class Duke of Cheng'en
none Married Dezong and became Empress in 1889
Became Empress Dowager Longyu (隆裕皇太后) in 1908
Adoptive mother of Xuantong Emperor

Imperial Consorts

Title Name Born Died Father Issue Notes
Imperial Noble Consort Wenjing
Lady Tatara
6 Oct 1873 24 Sep 1924 Changxu, secretary of the Ministry of Rites
none Started out as Imperial Concubine Jin (瑾嫔) in 1889
Promoted to Consort Jin (瑾妃) in 1894
Demoted to Imperial Concubine Jin in 1894 and restored in 1895
Promoted to Noble Consort Jin (瑾贵妃) in 1908
Became Consort Dowager Duankang (端康皇太妃) in 1912
Imperial Noble Consort Keshun
Lady Tatara
27 Feb 1876 15 Aug 1900 none Started out as Imperial Concubine Zhen (珍嫔) in 1889
Promoted to Consort Zhen (珍妃) in 1894
Demoted to Imperial Concubine Jin in 1894 and restored but imprisoned in 1895
Posthumously honoured in 1921


Adopted Sons

# Title Name Born Died Father Mother Notes
1 Xuantong Emperor
7 Feb 1906 17 Oct 1967 Zaifeng, Prince Chun of the First Rank
Gūwalgiya Youlan, Primary Consort
Became Emperor (皇帝) in 1908


See also


  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. ^ Richard, Timothy, Forty-five Years in China: Reminiscences publ. Frederick A. Stokes (1916)
  13. ^ Correspondence Respecting the Affairs of China, Presented to Both Houses of Parliament by Command of Her Majesty (London, 1899.3), No. 401, p. 303.
  14. ^ 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.
  15. ^ 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 http://etext.lib.virginia.edu/toc/modeng/public/DerYear.html
  16. ^ a b Mu, Eric. Reformist Emperor Guangxu was Poisoned, Study Confirms". Danwei. 3 November 2008. Retrieved 2 November 2011.
  17. ^ "Arsenic killed Chinese emperor, reports say". CNN. 4 November 2008. 
  18. ^ 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