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A Mosaic of the Hundred Days

January 30, 2010

Luke S. K. Kwong. A Mosaic of the Hundred Days: Personalities, Politics, and Ideas of 1898. Council on East Asian Studies, Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press, 1984.

Kwong’s excellent book on the hundred days of reform reads like a psychological detective story. Covering the period 1860 – 1898, he reassesses the by now doctrinaire accounts of interactions between Cixi, Guangxu, Kang Youwei, and other supposed reformers and reactionaries of the era. He is particularly disturbed by previous scholars uncritical acceptance of Kang Youwei and Liang Qichao’s self-serving account of events. To remedy the inherent problems posed by many of the main sources, Kwong employs three tactics: he utilizes a much wider source base; he starts his story earlier so that he can discover ingrained patterns of interaction to help him interpret his sources; and he utilizes a combination of psychological profiling and a logical step by step deductive process to more accurately ascertain how his characters would likely have responded. Through this process he discovers a strikingly different progression of events as well as a complete reevaluation of many of the main actors.

Historically, Cixi has always been viewed as a power hungry and vengeful woman who emasculated the emperor and overturned the efforts at reform substantially contributing to the dynasty’s downfall. However, when the dowager empresses became regents after Xianfeng’s death in the coup d’état of 1861, Kwang finds they ended up forming a tripartite system of power composed of the dowagers, the emperor, and the major princes and ministers. Since the dowagers had to rule from behind a curtain and had limited access to most of the court, their possible choices and ensuing decisions were always limited by what information ministers chose to give them. Their (and eventually Cixi’s) continued efficacy and power was a tribute to the strong connections they forged and the respect with which they were held. Given the reality of a series of child-emperors, Cixi and the ministers dispersed rule and responsibilities simultaneously allowed the dynasty to continue for half a century and undermined the emperor’s authority significantly. For this reason, Kwang believes Kang and Liang’s personal accusations against Cixi though often containing incorrect or misconstrued information are valuable because they can also be viewed as critiques of the entire late Qing governance structure.

In most other ways however, Kwang discovers Kang’s actual importance to the reform movement to be greatly overstated. Kang had neither the degrees, the connections, or the high level positions that would have allowed him a central role. Both Cixi and Guangxu widened the scope of who could memorialize dramatically. Kwang believes they did this not only to gain new ideas and to use a traditional mechanism for securing wider legitimacy, but also as a means of broadcasting responsibility. The end result was that Kang’s memorials were one among many that provided reform ideas to Guangxu; so many in fact that Guangxu was unable to put together a systematic reform agenda.

Once Guangxu tried to reform, he found many lower level officials extremely unresponsive. As Guangxi speeded up reform, he often bypassed high level officials and disturbing established patterns of administrative interaction. According to Kwang the evidence does not support the existence of either an emperor’s or an empress’s clique, which would have greatly aided the dissemination of the emperor’s reform ideas. Amongst the most avid reformers such a Kang, it became unclear whether one could both protect and reform the nation and simultaneously protect and defend the continued functioning of the dynasty. Guangxi, whose contact with Cixi was circumscribed by custom and personal history had not kept her informed, much less included her in the reform process. Thus when she heard the rumor that Ito Hirobumi, the former Prime Minister of Japan and architect of Japanese reform who was then visiting Beijing would be asked to run the court administration, she decided to act. Guangxu had gone too far. Clearly he needed to be restrained in order to ensure the dynasty’s survival. Thus ended the hundred days of reform.

Reviewers at the time (Mary B. Rankin, China Quarterly, No. 111, 1987, and Don C. Price, The Journal of Asian Studies, Vol. 45, No. 2, 1986) had nothing but praise for Kwang’s reassessment of the reform movement. They especially extolled his high standard of scholarship and his ability to crack open a seemingly closed story, allowing future scholars a jumping off point into this meaty, but previously under-explored era.

Miriam Gross

© Copyright 2006. All rights reserved.

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