Guangxu Emperor Zai Tian — An Ambitious but Failed Reformer And His Tragic Ending

Zai Tian (1871 — 1908), respected as Guangxu Emperor or Emperor Dezong of Qing, was the penultimate emperor in both the Qing Dynasty and the history of China.

His entire life was mostly controlled by his aunt, the Empress Dowager Cixi


Guangxu Emperor only obtained power for a few years, during when he participated in a failed war and implemented a short term, but advanced reform. 


He was not afraid of losing his power or the throne, however, Guangxu Emperor and his followers were not capable of applying the unprecedented transformation.

Portrait of Guangxu Emperor, By Court Artist of the Qing Dynasty — Palace Museum

Young Guangxu Emperor Restrained by Empress Dowager

Zai Tian’s birth father was a noble prince, the son of the Daoguang Emperor; his birth mother was the sister of Empress Dowager Cixi. 

When Zai Tian was four years old, the current emperor, also Empress Dowager Cixi’s only son, passed away and left no heir.

Cixi still wanted to keep reigning the empire, hence, she needed a young puppet emperor that was easy to manipulate. 

Therefore, she decided to take her sister’s boy, the four-year-old Zai Tian as her adoptive son, and supported him as the new emperor. 

Painting of Empress Dowager Cixi, By Hubert Vos in 1905 — Summer Palace

Afterward, Zai Tian left his birth parents and started to live in the Forbidden City

Cixi didn’t only take Zai Tian as her means to obtain power, she also loved him as her nephew and adoptive son and raised him as her heir.

She assigned Zai Tian the most knowledgeable teachers, though, she decided what to teach him.

When Zai Tian, now the Guangxu Emperor turned 18, he married his queen, a girl that was assigned by Cixi. 

Afterward, Cixi gave him back the authority, and let him make political decisions on his own.

Part of Painting "Guangxu Emperor's Wedding Ceremony" (Guangxu Da Hun Dian Li Quan Tu Ce), By Court Artist of the Qing Dynasty — Palace Museum

Perished Army and Lost Dignity of Guangxu Emperor

A few years later, the First Sino-Japanese War (1894 — 1895) outburst; Guangxu Emperor decisively supported to fight.

However, the Qing Empire’s navy, which was Li Hongzhang’s private troop, the Beiyang Fleet, was perished after a series of intense battles.

The Guangxu Emperor wanted to move the capital city to a safer place and continue to fight against Japan, but Cixi insisted to sue for peace, and then signed the unfair Treaty of Shimonoseki that included cede of vast territories and a great deal of war indemnity. 

This huge failure meant the Self-Strengthening Movement (1861 — 1895) had failed thoroughly, and Qing became a semi-colonial and semi-feudal empire.

The Guangxu Emperor faced toward the sea where Qing’s main force was perished, and wailed sadly, feeling extremely miserable that he couldn’t defend his country as the monarch. 

Ironclad Warship Dingyuan Constructed During the Self-Strengthening Movement, Which was Beombarded and Sunk In the War.

Guangxu Emperor and His Thorough Reform Movement

The day after the Qing Empire signed the harmful treaty with Japan, around 1300 scholars suggested that the lagged Qing required fundamental, more radical reforms.

The Guangxu Emperor strongly supported these ideas and tried harder to seek changes.

Three years later, supported by some officials, Guangxu Emperor implemented the Reform Movement of 1898.

This reform included the changing of Qing’s Manchu clothes and hairstyle, establishment of constitutions, parliament, modern armies and new schools, encouragement of private business and industry, free communication, cutting off of Manchu privileges, etc.

These policies required the transferring of political and military power away from Cixi and Manchu nobles, as well as a fundamental reform of the Qing Empire’s nomadic aristocrat system.

Lotus Shaped Famille Rose Cup with A Straw, Produced During Guangxu Emperor's Reign, to Memorise Annual Military Training in Autumn — Hubei Museum (Photo by Dongmaiying)

Failed, Imprisoned Guangxu Emperor

No matter whether these reform officials and Guangxu Emperor were capable, or too naive to implement those policies as many historians argued, they had tried their best to make a huge change.

Guangxu Emperor Zai Tian, as a feudal emperor occupying centralized power, he was prepared to give up his paramount of power, in exchange for a better country. 

Throughout the Qing Dynasty, he was the first and only monarch that put the country's dignity and prosperity before his power, and put civilians’ interests before the nomadic Manchu nobles’.

This reform, however, displeased almost the entire ruling class, included the Empress Dowager Cixi, Qing’s nomadic nobles, and a large number of conservative officials that were removed from power.

Calligraphy Work of Guangxu Emperor

Hence, Cixi initiated a coup, imprisoned Guangxu Emperor, and executed some of those reformist officials.

This movement had lasted only 103 days.

Besides strong opponents from conservative nobles, Guangxu Emperor and his reform officials were lack of political and administrative experiences as well.

They had published too many aggressive and rash policies to the old and decayed system within a limited time, most of which were not very realistic nor doable under given circumstances.  

Afterward, Cixi achieved all the power back, which made her relationship with the Guangxu Emperor went bad dramatically.


She also tried to nominate another heir to replace Guangxu but failed because of strong opponents among the ruling class and foreign forces in Qing.

Painting Work of Guangxu Emperor

Tragic Love Story of Guangxu Emperor

Guangxu Emperor didn’t like his queen, the girl that Cixi chose for him. This queen, respected as Empress Longyu, got the crown only because she was Cixi’s niece.

Guangxu Emperor also got two imperial concubines when he was 18; one of them named Zhen was the love of his life.  

She was a beautiful, active, open-minded girl, who understood and supported Guangxu’s ideology completely, and introduced some officials to assist his reform. 

However, her getting involved in politics strongly displeased Cixi; in some gossips, Zhen was punished (possibly beaten) and locked up by Cixi after the reform failed and Guangxu was imprisoned.

In the year 1900, despite Guangxu Emperor’s strong opposition, Cixi declared war to the Eight Power Allied Force, and Qing kept losing.

Before the Eight Power Allied Force occupied Beijing, Cixi decided to escape westward. But before she left Beijing, she commanded to kill Zhen, who was then cruelly thrown into a well in the royal palace and drowned.

This well now is a tourist site inside the Forbidden City. 

Zhenfei Jing in the Forbidden Palace, the Well that Guangxu Emperor's beloved Woman Zhen was Pushed in under Commanded of Empress Dowager Cixi

Guangxu Emperor’s Persistence and Tragedy

During Guangxu's ten years’ captive life, Cixi sometimes would let him participate in political meetings; but he was purely a puppet that had to say what Cixi asked him to say.

He spent most of his time reading books from all over the world, and never stopped learning laws and ideologies from advanced western countries. 

Guangxu Emperor hoped that after Cixi passed away, he would be able to implement his reforms again.

However, this was just his wishful thinking, since the Empress Dowager Cixi was a more mature, sly, and merciless politician. 

Painting Work of Guangxu Emperor

When Cixi was old and sick, Guangxu Emperor was poisoned to death under her command, because of his “rebel” policy, and the potentiality of jeopardizing Qing’s Manchu aristocrat dominance.

Guangxu Emperor passed away one day before Cixi was gone. 

Guangxu Emperor Zai Tian was an unlucky and pathos emperor in the history of China.

He was not afraid of wars, nor losing power or the throne; he tried to implement a real reform that may bring big changes to his country. 

Unlike his ancestors and his aunt, he stepped out of the cage and started to think from a bigger perspective; however, he and his followers’ incapability made the unprecedented reform encountered a thorough failure.

Guangxu Emperor never stopped trying and learning, but still ended up as a victim of the wheel of history.

Green and Famille Bowl Produced During Guangxu Emperor's Reign — Palace Museum (Photo by Dongmaiying)

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