The health of the Emperor, never very good, now began to fail, and by 1908 he was seriously ill; in this same year, too, there were signs that the Empress Dowager was breaking up. Her last political act of any importance, except the nomination of the heir to the throne, was to issue a decree confirming the previous promise of constitutional government, which was to come into full force within nine years. Not many weeks later the Emperor died (November 14), the Empress Dowager having already, while he lay dying, appointed one of his nephews, a child barely three years old, to succeed him, in the vain hope that she would thus enjoy a further spell of power until the child should be of age. But on the following day the Empress Dowager also died; a singular coincidence which has been attributed to the determination of the eunuchs and others that the Emperor should not outlive his aunt, for some time past seen to be "drawing near the wood," lest his reforming spirit should again jeopardize their nefarious interests.

The Regency devolved upon the Emperor's father, but was not of very long duration. There was a show of introducing constitutional reform under the guise of provincial and national assemblies intended to control the government of the empire; but after all, the final power to accept or reject their measures was vested in the Emperor, which really left things very much as they had been. The new charter was not found to be of much value, and there is little doubt that the Manchus regarded it in the light of what is known in China as a "dummy document," a measure to be extolled in theory, but not intended to appear in practice. Suddenly, in September 1911, the great revolution broke out, and the end came more rapidly than was expected.

It must not be imagined that this revolution was an inspiration of the moment; on the contrary, it had been secretly brewing for quite a long time beforehand. During that period a few persons familiar with China may have felt that something was coming, but nobody knew exactly what. Those who accept without reservation the common statement that there is no concealment possible in a country where everybody is supposed to have his price, and that due notice of anything important is sure to leak out, must have been rather astonished when, without any warning, they found China in the throes of a well-planned revolution, which was over, with its object gained, almost as soon as the real gravity of the situation was realized. It is true that under the Manchus access to official papers of the most private description was always to be obtained at a moderate outlay; it was thus, for instance, that we were able to appreciate the inmost feelings of that grim old Manchu, Wo-jen, who, in 1861, presented a secret memorial to the throne, and stated therein that his loathing of all foreigners was so great that he longed to eat their flesh and sleep on their skins.

The guiding spirit of the movement, Sun Yat-sen, is a native of Kuangtung, where he was born, not very far from Canton, in 1866. After some early education in Honolulu, he became a student at the College of Medicine, Kongkong, where he took his diploma in 1892. But his chief aim in life soon became a political one, and he determined to get rid of the Manchus. He organized a Young China party in Canton, and in 1895 made an attempt to seize the city. The plot failed, and fifteen out of the sixteen conspirators were arrested and executed; Sun Yat-sen alone escaped. A year later, he was in London, preparing himself for further efforts by the study of Western forms of government, a very large reward being offered by the Chinese Government for his body, dead or alive. During his stay there he was decoyed into the Chinese Legation, and imprisoned in an upper room, from which he would have been hurried away to China, probably as a lunatic, to share the fate of his fifteen fellow-conspirators, but for the assistance of a woman who had been told off to wait upon him. To her he confided a note addressed to Dr Cantlie, a personal friend of long standing, under whom he had studied medicine in Hongkong; and she handed this to her husband, employed as waiter in the Legation, by whom it was safely delivered. He thus managed to communicate with the outer world; Lord Salisbury intervened, and he was released after a fortnight's detention.

Well might Sun Yat-sen now say--

"They little thought that day of pain
That one day I should come again."

More a revolutionary than ever, he soon set to work to collect funds which flowed in freely from Chinese sources in all quarters of the world. At last, in September 1911, the train was fired, beginning with the province of Ss{u}ch`uan, and within an incredibly short space of time, half China was ablaze. By the middle of October the Manchus were beginning to feel that a great crisis was at hand, and the Regent was driven to recall Yuan Shih-k`ai, whom he had summarily dismissed from office two years before, on the conventional plea that Yuan was suffering from a bad leg, but really out of revenge for his treachery to the late Emperor, which had brought about the latter's arrest and practical deposition by the old Empress Dowager in 1898.

To this summons Yuan slily replied that he could not possibly leave home just then, as his leg was not yet well enough for him to be able to travel, meaning, of course, to gain time, and be in a position to dictate his own terms. On the 30th October, when it was already too late, the baby Emperor, reigning under the year-title Hsuan T`ung (wide control), published the following edict:--

"I have reigned for three years, and have always acted conscientiously in the interests of the people, but I have not employed men properly, not having political skill. I have employed too many nobles in political positions, which contravenes constitutionalism. On railway matters someone whom I trusted fooled me, and thus public opinion was opposed. When I urged reform, the officials and gentry seized the opportunity to embezzle. When old laws are abolished, high officials serve their own ends. Much of the people's money has been taken, but nothing to benefit the people has been achieved. On several occasions edicts have promulgated laws, but none of them have been obeyed. People are grumbling, yet I do not know; disasters loom ahead, but I do not see.

"The Ss{u}ch`uan trouble first occurred; the Wu-ch`ang rebellion followed; now alarming reports come from Shansi and Hunan. In Canton and Kiangsi riots appear. The whole empire is seething. The minds of the people are perturbed. The spirits of our nine late emperors are unable properly to enjoy sacrifices, while it is feared the people will suffer grievously.

"All these are my own fault, and hereby I announce to the world that I swear to reform, and, with our soldiers and people, to carry out the constitution faithfully, modifying legislation, developing the interests of the people, and abolishing their hardships--all in accordance with the wishes and interests of the people. Old laws that are unsuitable will be abolished."

Nowhere else in the world is the belief that Fortune has a wheel which in the long run never fails to "turn and lower the proud," so prevalent or so deeply-rooted as in China. "To prosperity," says the adage, "must succeed decay,"--a favourite theme around which the novelist delights to weave his romance. This may perhaps account for the tame resistance of the Manchus to what they recognized as inevitable. They had enjoyed a good span of power, quite as lengthy as that of any dynasty of modern times, and now they felt that their hour had struck. To borrow another phrase, "they had come in with the roar of a tiger, to disappear like the tail of a snake."

On November 3, certain regulations were issued by the National Assembly as the necessary basis upon which a constitution could be raised. The absolute veto of the Emperor was now withdrawn, and it was expressly stated that Imperial decrees were not to over-ride the law, though even here we find the addition of "except in the event of immediate necessity." The first clause of this document was confined to the following prophetic statement: "The Ta Ch`ing dynasty shall reign for ever."

On November 8, Yuan Shih-k`ai was appointed Prime Minister, and on December 3, the new Empress Dowager issued an edict, in which she said:

"The Regent has verbally memorialized the Empress Dowager, saying that he has held the Regency for three years, and his administration has been unpopular, and that constitutional government has not been consummated. Thus complications arose, and people's hearts were broken, and the country thrown into a state of turmoil. Hence one man's mismanagement has caused the nation to suffer miserably. He regrets his repentance is already too late, and feels that if he continues in power his commands will soon be disregarded. He wept and prayed to resign the regency, expressing the earnest intention of abstaining in the future from politics. I, the Empress Dowager, living within the palace, am ignorant of the state of affairs but I know that rebellion exists and fighting is continuing, causing disasters everywhere, while the commerce of friendly nations suffers. I must enquire into the circumstances and find a remedy. The Regent is honest, though ambitious and unskilled in politics. Being misled, he has harmed the people, and therefore his resignation is accepted. The Regents seal is cancelled. Let the Regent receive fifty thousand taels annually from the Imperial household allowances, and hereafter the Premier and the Cabinet will control appointments and administration. Edicts are to be sealed with the Emperor's seal. I will lead the Emperor to conduct audiences. The guardianship of the holy person of the Emperor, who is of tender age, is a special responsibility. As the time is critical, the princes and nobles must observe the Ministers, who have undertaken a great responsibility, and be loyal and help the country and people, who now must realize that the Court does not object to the surrender of the power vested in the throne. Let the people preserve order and continue business, and thus prevent the country's disruption and restore prosperity."

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