The Hundred Days' Reform was a failed 104-day national, cultural, political, and educational reform movement from 11 June to 22 September 1898 in late Qing dynasty China. It was undertaken by the young Guangxu Emperor and his reform-minded supporters. Following the issuing of the reformative edicts, a coup d'état ("The Coup of 1898", Wuxu Coup) was perpetrated by powerful conservative opponents led by Empress Dowager Cixi.
Guangxu (born 1871, reigned 1875–1908) ordered a series of reforms aimed at making sweeping social and institutional changes. He did this in response to weaknesses exposed by China's defeat by Japan in the First Sino-Japanese War in 1894-1895, not long after the First (1839-1842) and Second (1856-1860) Opium Wars; this blow came as a major shock to the Chinese, because Japan had been regarded as a tributary state, was much smaller than China, and was regarded as inferior. China also fought France in the Sino-French War from 1884 to 1885. Moreover, the defeat of China by Japan led to a scramble for "privileges" in China by other foreign powers, notably by the German Empire and Russia, further awakening the conservatives.
Before the First Sino-Japanese War, China engaged in technological modernization only, buying modern weapons, ships, artillery, and building modern arsenals to produce these weapons, and only giving their soldiers modern weapons without institutional reform, all the while declining to reform the government or civil society according to western standards - unlike Japan, which adopted western-style government with a Parliament and completely reorganized its army along western lines.
With the help of certain senior officials of the Qing court who supported 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. The goals of these reforms included:
The reformers declared that China needed more than "self-strengthening" and that innovation must be accompanied by institutional and ideological change.
In addition to the edicts of reform, plans were made to forcefully remove Empress Dowager Cixi from power. Yuan Shikai was supposed to kill Ronglu and take control of the military garrison at Tientsin. He was then intended to return to Beijing with the contingent and imprison the Empress Dowager; however, Yuan had previously promised his support to Ronglu and instead of killing him, told him of the plot. This led to the coup that ended the Hundred Days' Reform.
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. With the aforementioned, tacit support of the political opportunist Yuan Shikai and the backing of conservatives, Empress Dowager Cixi engineered a coup d'état on September 22, 1898, forcing the young, reform-minded Guangxu into seclusion. The emperor was put under house arrest within the Summer Palace 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, Yang Shenxiu, Yang Rui 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.
During the Hundred Days' Reform in 1898 Generals Dong Fuxiang, Ma Anliang, and Ma Haiyan were called to Beijing and helped put an end to the reform movement along with Ma Fulu and Ma Fuxiang. Dong Fuxiang and the Muslim Gansu Army stationed in Beijing during the Hundred Days' Reform later participated in the Boxer Rebellion and became known as the Kansu Braves.
The court put into effect some reform measures a decade later. 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.
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.
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 Iron hats 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 underestimated the reactionary nature of the vested interests involved.
The Emperor set about to enact his reforms largely bypassing the powerful Grand Council. The councillors, 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.
According to Professor Lei Chia-sheng (雷家聖), 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 appoint Itō as one of many foreign advisors in order to further push China's reform efforts. On September 18, Richard successfully convinced Kang to adopt his plan in which China would join a federation (合邦) of ten nations.
Kang nonetheless asked fellow reformers Yang Shenxiu (楊深秀) and Song Bolu (宋伯魯) to report this plan to the Guangxu Emperor. On September 20, Yang sent a memorial to the emperor to that effect. In another memorial 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. Lei Chia-sheng argues that this idea 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 Claude MacDonald reported to his government about the Chinese situation, saying that Chinese reforms had been "much injured" by Kang and his friends' actions. 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.