Kuang-hsü (1871-1908) was an emperor of China whose reign was marked by progressive national humiliations. In 1898 he attempted to stay the dynastic decline by sponsoring a series of reforms but failed because of the interference of the empress dowager Tz'u-hsi.
The name Kuang-hsü was the reign title of Tsai-t'ien. He was the ninth emperor of the Ch'ing dynasty, the grandson of Emperor Tao-Kuang (reigned 1821-1851) and the son of Prince I-huan.
The overriding influence in Kuang-hsü's tragic life was the empress dowager Tz'u-hsi. During the reign of her own son, the emperor T'ung-chih, she had effectively controlled the reins of government. When T'ung-chih died on Jan. 12, 1875, she was determined to perpetuate her power. Her solution to this problem was to select Kuang-huü, her nephew and a cousin of T'ung-chih, as the new emperor. It was, however, a gross violation of the dynastic laws, which stipulated that a new emperor must be chosen from the succeeding generation. Her will prevailed, however, and Kuang-hsü became emperor at the age of 3.
Kuang-hsü had no influence upon governmental policy during his early years. However, in 1889 Tz'u-hsi formally relinquished the regency, and Kuang-hsü at the age of 18 assumed nominal charge of the government.
Kuang-hsü's education had been supervised by the high-ranking official and imperial tutor, Weng T'ung-ho, who was largely responsible for molding the character and interests of the young emperor. About 1889 Weng had become interested in the growing current of reformist thinking, and he began reading with Kuang-hsü some of the new literature propounding the necessity for political and economic changes in China, including the writings of K'ang Yuwei, whose books and ideas strengthened the reforming zeal of the Emperor.
On June 12, 1898, Kuang-hsü decreed that institutional reform and national strengthening were to be a new national policy. Four days later Kuang-hsü summoned K'ang Yu-wei to the palace for their first meeting. Thereafter, with K'ang Yu-wei, Liang Ch'i-ch'ao, and others as his chief advisers, Kuang-hsü issued a steady stream of reform edicts that were intended to create, virtually overnight, a modern and strong China. During that summer Kuang-hsü ordered the establishment of a school system; changes in the civil service examination system; legal reforms; modernization of the army, navy, police, and postal network; promotion of mining and commerce; and a shake-up of the entire governmental administration.
By September conservatives had become frightened by the radicalism of this reform program, and many felt their own vested interests threatened. The empress dowager utilized this wave of antireform sentiment to eliminate Kuanghsü. On Sept. 21, 1898, she launched a coup d'etat against him. The armed forces loyal to her imprisoned Kuang-hsü and executed six of the leading reform advisers (K'ang Yuwei and Liang Ch'i-ch'ao escaped). Tz'u-hsi resumed the office of regent and immediately revoked all reform decrees.
Kuang-hsü thereafter lived in humiliating confinement. In his seclusion, he continued his studies of government and of the English language, presumably preparing for the day when Tz'u-hsi would die and he could regain the throne. Tz'u-hsi died on Nov. 15, 1908. Kuang-hsü, however, had died the preceding day. There is no proof, but it is unlikely that he died of natural causes.
Further Reading on Kuang-hsü
Kuang-hsü is discussed in Arthur W. Hummel, ed., Eminent Chinese of the Ch'ing Period, 1644-1912, vol. 2 (1944); John K. Fairbank, Edwin O. Reischauer, and Albert M. Craig, A History of East Asian Civilization, vol. 2: East Asia: The Modern Transformation (1965); and Charlotte Haldane, The Last Great Empress of China (1965).