Fun Facts about Chinese Culture and History

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Guang Xu Emperor Zai Tian -- An Ambitious but Failed Reformer with Limited Political Experience

Zai Tian (1871 -- 1908), also respected as Guang Xu Emperor or Qing De Zong, was the penultimate emperor in both the Qing Dynasty and the history of China.


Young Guang Xu Emperor Restrained by His Powerful Aunt

After Empress Dowager Cixi’s son passed away with no heir, she supported Zai Tian as the new emperor. Because at that time, Zai Tian was only four years old and was easy to be manipulated, and Cixi was the sister of Zai’s birth mother.


Since then, Zai Tian left his birth parents and started to live in the Forbidden City. Cixi, as his adoptive mother, assigned the most knowledgeable teachers to provide him with the best education. 


When Zai Tian, now the Guang Xu Emperor, turned 18, Cixi gave him back the government and let him make political decisions on his own, but she still obtained the real power.


A Brave Emperor and His Lost Army and Dignity

A few years later, the First Sino-Japanese War happened; Guang Xu Emperor supported to fight decisively.


However, Qing Empire’s navy, which in fact was minister Li Hongzhang’s personal troop, was perished after a series of intense battles.


Guang Xu 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 sign unfair treaties.


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


Guang Xu Emperor faced toward the sea where Qing’s main force was perished and wailed sadly, feeling extremely miserable that he couldn’t save his country as an emperor. 


Guang Xu Emperor and His Thorough Reform Movement

The day after the Qing Empire singed the shameful treaty with Japan, around 1300 intellectuals suggested that the ruling class of Qing needed more reform.


Guang Xu Emperor strongly supported these ideas and tried harder to seek for changes.


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

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


Great Reformer Guang Xu Emperor - Failed and Imprisoned

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


And Guang Xu Emperor Zai Tian, as a feudal emperor occupying centralized power, he was prepared to give it up in exchange for a better country. 


He was the first emperor in the Qing Dynasty who put the country's dignity before his own power, who put civilians’ interests before the nomadic Manchu nobles’. 


This reform, however, made the Empress Dowager Cixi and Qing’s nomadic nobles felt angry and displeased. 


So Cixi initiated a coup, imprisoned Guang Xu Emperor, and executed some of those reformist officers.


This movement had lasted only for 103 days.


Besides strong opponent from conservative nobles, Guang Xu Emperor and those 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 limited time, most of which were not very realistic and doable under given circumstances. 


Cruel Murder of His Beloved Woman 

Then his aunt Cixi achieved all the power back, which made her relationship with Zai Tian went bad dramatically.


Though Guang Xu Emperor refused to declare war to the Eight Power Allied Force when the Boxer Movement happened, Cixi didn’t listen to him; his political ideas never mattered after he had been grounded.


Before the Eight Power Allied Force occupied Beijing, Guang Xu's favorite concubine was killed under Cixi’s command, by being cruelly thrown into a well in the Forbidden City and drowned.


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


Poisoned to Death After Years of Captive Life

During his ten years’ captive life, Cixi sometimes would let Guang Xu Emperor participate in political meetings; but he was a pure puppet and 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. 


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


Zai Tian was murdered one day before Cixi was gone. 


Courageous Guang Xu Emperor as Victim of History

Guang Xu Emperor Zai Tian was an unlucky and pathos emperor in the history of China, who left his birth parents as a 4-year-old kid, and always needed to stay careful and alert.


He was forced to marry a girl that Cixi assigned, and his true love was murdered cruelly by Cixi.


He was not afraid of wars nor losing power, even 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 were not capable of implementing the unprecedented transformation in the history of China.


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