Hundred Days of Reform

From New World Encyclopedia

The Hundred Days of Reform (戊戌变法; 戊戌變法|p=wùxū biànfǎ) or (百日維新|p=bǎirì wéixīn) was a failed 104-day political reform movement in China, undertaken by the young Emperor Guangxu and his reform-minded supporters, from June 11 to September 21, 1898. The defeat of China by Japan in the first Sino-Japanese War, and the threat of partition by foreign imperialists, made it clear to Chinese intellectuals that China must reform its political and economic systems in order to survive. Influenced by the political reformer Kang Youwei, Emperor Guangxu issued a momentous edict proclaiming a new national policy of "reform and self-strengthening," on June 12, 1898. For the next three months, advised by a group of reformers, the Emperor issued a series of decrees aimed at transforming China into a constitutional monarchy. These included the creation of popularly-elected assemblies, modernization of the education system, and the establishment of ministries to promote fishing, agriculture, and banking.

The movement proved to be short-lived. The reforms aroused the opposition of the conservative ruling elite, ending in a coup d'état (戊戌政變 "The Coup of 1899") led by the Dowager Empress Cixi, on September 21, 1898. The emperor was put under house arrest, six of the reformers were executed, and most of the reforms were rescinded. Many of them were reinstated during the following decade, but the failure of the reform movement had dramatic historical consequences. In its aftermath, the conservatives gave free reign to the anti-foreign Boxers, who attacked Christian missionaries and provoked a foreign invasion of north China. The failure of the reform movement gave great impetus to revolutionary forces within China and contributed to the success of the Chinese Revolution in 1911, barely a decade later.


In April, 1895, the first Sino-Japanese War (1894–1895) ended with the signing of the Treaty of Shimonoseki. The terms of this treaty were humiliating and damaging to China, who had previously regarded Japan as a small and inferior tributary state. It came as a shock to conservative Chinese bureaucrats, who had previously been confident in the superiority of their traditional ways. They were no longer able to ignore the threat to Chinese sovereignty posed by foreign powers. During 1897 and early 1898, foreign imperialists were claiming "spheres of influence" in China, and it seemed inevitable the country would soon be partitioned. A political reformer, Kang Yuwei, alarmed by the renewed threat to China, had formed several new societies, most prominent of which was the Pao-kuo hui (Society for the Preservation of the Nation). Impressed by the Japanese success at modernization, the reformers declared that China needed more than "self-strengthening" and that what was required was institutional and ideological change. K’ang submitted a succession of reform memorials to Emperor Kuang-hsü (Guangxu, 光緒帝). In January 1898, the Emperor, who had now also become convinced of the need for reform, commanded K'ang to elaborate on his proposals. Kang also wrote two short books for the Emperor, one on Peter the Great of Russia and one on the Japanese Meiji restoration, and these reportedly strengthened the Emperor's determination to modernize the nation. On June 12, 1898, Emperor Kuang-hsü issued a momentous edict proclaiming a new national policy of "reform and self-strengthening." Four days later, with the help of certain senior officials of the Qing court, who were supporters of reform, Kang Youwei was called for an audience with the Emperor. For the next three months, the Emperor, under Kang's influence, issued a series of decrees designed to reorganize the outdated dynastic system. Some of Kang's students were also given minor but strategic posts in the capital to assist with the reforms.

Edicts began pouring out of the imperial court, intended to transform China into a modern, constitutional monarchy. They covered a broad range of subjects, including elimination of corruption, revision of the academic and civil-service examination systems and the legal system, and the establishment of a postal service. The decrees included provisions for:

  • Modernization of the traditional exam system
  • The inclusion of Western studies, mathematics and science in all Chinese education
  • A public school system
  • The establishment of popularly elected local assemblies
  • The eventual creation of a national parliamentary government
  • Westernization of the bureaucracy
  • The establishment of official ministries to promote commerce, industry, and banking
  • Elimination of sinecures (positions that required little or no work but provided a salary)
  • Reform of the military


Opposition to the reforms was intense among the conservative ruling elite, especially the Manchus, who, condemning them as too radical, proposed instead a more moderate and gradual course of change. The edicts issued by the reform government were implemented in only one out of fifteen provinces; the rest of China resisted them. Supported by ultraconservatives, and with the tacit support of the political opportunist Yuan Shikai, Empress Dowager Cixi ( Tz'u-hsi, 慈禧太后, popularly known in China as the West Empress Dowager) engineered a coup d'état in the palace on September 21, 1898, forcing the young, reform-minded Guangxu into seclusion. The emperor was put under house arrest within the Forbidden City, until his death in 1908. Cixi 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 (reformer) and Liu Guangdi. The two principal leaders, Kang Youwei and his student Liang Qichao, fled abroad, where they founded the Baohuang Hui (Protect the Emperor Society) and worked, unsuccessfully, to promote a constitutional monarchy in China.


In the decade that followed, the court belatedly put into effect some of the reform measures. These included the abolition of the moribund Confucian-based examination, 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, felt for decades afterward, was the establishment of the New Army, which, in turn, gave rise to warlordism.

The conservatives gave clandestine backing to the anti-foreign and anti-Christian movement of secret societies known as Yihetuan (Society of Righteousness and Harmony), better known in the West as the Boxers (from an earlier name, Yihequan, Righteousness and Harmony Boxers). In 1900, Boxer bands spread over the north China countryside, burning missions and killing Chinese Christians. Finally, in June 1900, the Boxers besieged the foreign concessions in Beijing and Tianjin, provoking a joint military operation by the offended nations. The Qing declared war against the invaders, who easily crushed their opposition and occupied north China. Under the Protocol of 1901, the court was made to consent to the execution of ten high officials and the punishment of hundreds of others, expansion of the Legation Quarter, payment of war reparations, stationing of foreign troops in China, and the razing of some Chinese fortifications.

The failure of the reform movement gave great impetus to revolutionary forces within China. The prospect of making changes within the establishment was seen to be almost 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.

Differing interpretations

Historical perceptions of the Hundred Days' Reform have grown increasingly more complex. 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 twentieth century have taken views that are more favorable to the conservatives and less favorable to the reformers. They perceive Kang Youwei and his allies as 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.

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 “Ironhats” faction, dominated the Grand Council, was seeking ways to expel all Western influence from China. When implementing his reforms, 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 with Kang Youwei, who was rejected by the Emperor and had far less influence than Kang later implied. At the suggestion of the reform advisers, 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. The councilors, angry at the Emperor's actions and fearful of losing their political power, then turned to the Empress Dowager Cixi to remove the emperor from power and cancel many, though not all, of the reforms. The Council, now confident of their power, insisted on the execution of the reformers.

It has also been suggested, controversially, that Kang Youwei actually harmed the cause of reform by his perceived arrogance in the eyes of the conservatives. Rumors of 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, underestimated the reactionary nature of the conservatives.

ISBN links support NWE through referral fees

  • Hohman, Elinor Vastine. 1953. K'ang Yu-wei and the Hundred Days of Reform in 1898.
  • Karl, Rebecca E., and Peter Gue Zarrow. 2002. Rethinking the 1898 Reform Period: Political and Cultural Change in Late Qing China. Harvard East Asian monographs, 214. Cambridge: Harvard University Asia Center. ISBN 0674008545
  • Kwong, Luke Siu King. 1978. Ch'ing Court Politics and the Hundred Days Reform Personalities and Ideas in Historical Juxtaposition. Thesis (Ph. D.)—University of Toronto, 1978.
  • Zheng, Dahua. 2000. Kang Youwei. Zhongguo si xiang jia bao ku, 9. Xianggang: Zhong hua shu ju. ISBN 9622312411


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