No individual played a greater role in the Hundred Days Reform Movement than Kang Youwei. Because of the rigid rules of addressing and communicating with the emperor, it took many months for him to get his proposals on educational and administrative reform to the Guangxu emperor. It is not an exaggeration to say that only with Kang's ideas did the Guangxu emperor embark on the 1898 reforms during the heady summer of 1898. The following interview with Kang Youwei was given after the end of the Hundred Days Reform, but it offers a succinct and first-hand account of how Kang presented his ideas to the emperor. The following account is taken from an interview with the Hong Kong paper China Mail after Kang had been forced to flee China.


  • 1. Which of Kang Youwei's proposals were most significant in swaying the Guangxu emperor to embark on his campaign of reform?
  • 2. The Guangxu emperor is often described as a weak leader. How does this interview reinforce or alter such a perception?

The gist of my memorial was as follows: I told the Emperor that all the customs and ways and manners of this ancestors must be removed. Nothing could be usefully followed so far as Chinese history was concerned. I advised the Emperor to follow in the footsteps of Japan or in the footsteps of Peter the Great. ... I was told the emperor was highly pleased and said he had never seen a better memorial nor such a good system as I proposed. ... To this memorial, the Emperor replied with an Edict. On the 16th of June, I was granted an audience with the Emperor. It lasted for two hours. I was received at 5 a.m. in the Renshou Throne Hall [Renshou Dian]. . . . The Emperor was thin, but apparently in good health. He has a straight nose, round forehead, pleasant eyes, is clean shaven and has a pale complexion. He is of medium height. His hands are long and thin.... He wore the usual official dress, but instead of the large square of embroidery on the breast worn by the high officials the embroidery in his case was round, encircling a dragon, and there were two smaller embroideries on his shoulders. He wore the usual official cap. He was led in by eunuchs and took his seat on a dais on a large yellow cushion, with his feet folded beneath him. He sent his attendants away and we were left alone, but all the time we were conversing his eyes were watching the windows as if to see that no one was eavesdropping. There was a long table in front of him with two large candlesticks. I knelt at one of the corners of the table and not on the cushions in front of the table which are reserved for the high officials. I remained kneeling during the whole of the audience. We conversed in the Mandarin dialect.

The Emperor said to me: “Your books are very useful and very instructive."

"I practically repeated what I said in my memorial about the weakness of China being owing to the lack of progress"

The Emperor said to me: "Yes, all these Conservative Ministers have ruined me.... I am very sorry; I have practically no power to remove any high Ministers. The Empress Dowager wants to reserve this power in her own hands."

I said: "If your Majesty has no power to remove Ministers, what you can do is to employ young and intelligent officials about you. That would be a step better than nothing."

The Emperor said: "I know it perfectly well that all the Ministers have paid no proper attention to Western ideas and do not care to study the progress of the world."

YANG RUI (1857-1898)—

One of the key reformers in the Guangxu emperor's inner circle during the Hundred Days Reform. He was one of six reformers arrested and executed by Dowager Empress Cixi upon her return to power.

I said to the Emperor: "Perhaps it is their wish to get a knowledge of Western ideas but they have too much to do under the present system, and they are much too old. Their energy is gone. Even if they are willing they cannot do it. The chief education of China in the study of the classics is useless, and the first thing the Emperor must do is to abolish these examinations and establish a system of education on the lines of Western countries. Can you do away with this kind of examination?"

The Emperor said: "I have realized that whatever is learned in Western countries is useful, but whatever is learned in China is practically useless, and I will carry out your recommendations."

I advised the Emperor to send his own relations to travel in foreign countries in order to learn from them, and that he might be surrounded by men who had experience of the world. In conclusion, I said: "There are many other things I should like to say, but I can memorialize you from time to time. I advised him to strongly to cement his relations with foreign countries."

The Emperor replied that the foreign countries nowadays were not like the insignificant States of former times. They appeared to be highly civilized countries, and it was a pity his own Ministers did not realize that as he did. A good deal of the trouble seemed to arise from their failure to recognize this fact. In December last, I had advised his Majesty to form an alliance with Great Britain.

Before parting I said to him: "You have given decorations to Li Hon- gzhang and Chang Yin-huan. That is a Western act. Why do not you put in your Edict that you intend to introduce Western customs?"

The Emperor only smiled.

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