Kuang Hsu -- As a Prisoner

Kuang Hsu deserves a place in history as the prize iconoclast. He sent a cold shiver down the spine of the literati by declaring that a man's fitness for office should not depend upon his ability to write a poem, or upon the elegance of his penmanship. This was too much. The literati argued that at the rate at which the Emperor was going, it might be expected that he would do away with chop-sticks and dispense with the queue.
-- Rounsevelle Wildman in "China's Open Door."

The year that Kuang Hsu ascended the throne a great calamity occurred in Peking. The Temple of Heaven -- the greatest of the imperial temples, the one at which the Emperor announces his accession, confesses his sins, prays and gives thanks for an abundant harvest, was struck by lightning and burned to the ground. When the Emperor worships here it is as the representative of the people, the high priest of the nation, and his prayers are offered for his country and not for himself. There are no idols in this temple, and his prayers go up to Shang-ti the Supreme Being "by whom kings reign and princes decree justice." When therefore instead of giving rain Heaven sent down a fiery bolt to destroy the temple at which the Son of Heaven prays, the people were struck with dismay.

The pale faces of the women, the apprehensive noddings of the men, and the hushed voices of our old Confucian teachers as they spoke of the matter, indicated the concern with which they viewed it. Here was a boy who had been placed upon the throne by a woman; he was the same generation as the Emperor who had preceded him, and hence could not worship him as his ancestor. It augured ill both for the Emperor and the empire, and so the boy Emperor began his reign in the midst of evil forebodings.

During the nine years that Kuang Hsu had nominal control of affairs a series of dire calamities befell the empire. Famines as the result of drought, floods from the overflow of "China's Sorrow," war with Japan, filching of territory by the European countries, while editorials appeared daily in the English papers of the port cities to the effect that China was to be divided up among the powers. Then too Kuang Hsu was childless and there was no hope of his giving an heir to the throne.

Times and seasons have their meanings for the Chinese. Anything inauspicious happening on New Year's day is indicative of calamity. Mr. Chen, a friend of mine, had become a Christian contrary to his mother's wishes. When his first child was born it was a girl, born on New Year's day. His mother shook her head, looked distressed, and said that nothing but calamity would come to his home. His second child was a boy, but the old woman shook her head again and sighed saying that it would take more than one boy to avert the calamity of ones first baby being a girl born on New Year's day, and it was not until he had five boys in succession that she was finally convinced.

There was an eclipse of the sun on New Year's day of 1898 which foreboded calamity to the Emperor. During the summer of this year he began his great reform, and in September the Empress Dowager took control of the affairs of state and Kuang Hsu was put in prison, never again to occupy the throne. His prison was his winter palace, where, for many months, he was confined in a gilded cage of a house, on a small island, with the Empress Dowager's eunuchs to guard him. These were changed daily lest they might sympathize with their unhappy monarch and devise some means for his liberation. Each day when the guard was changed, the drawbridge connecting the island with the mainland was removed, leaving the Emperor to wander about in the court of his palace-prison, or sit on the southern terrace where it overlooked the lotus lake, waiting, hoping and perhaps expecting that his last appeal to Kang Yu-wei in which he said: "My heart is filled with a great sorrow which pen and ink cannot describe; you must go abroad at once and without a moment's delay devise some means to save me," might bring forth some fruit.

Whether this confinement interfered with the health of the Emperor or not it is impossible to say, but from the first he was made to pose as an invalid. As his failing health was constantly referred to in the Peking Gazette, the foreigners began to fear that it was the intention to dispose of the Emperor, and such pressure was brought to bear on the government as led them to allow the physician attached to the French legation to enter the palace and make an examination of His Majesty. He found nothing that fresh air and exercise would not remedy and assured the government that there was no cause for alarm, and from that time we heard nothing more of his precarious condition.

One day not long after the coup d'etat a eunuch came rushing into our compound, his face scratched and bleeding, and knocking his head on the ground before me, begged me to save his life.

"What is the matter?" I inquired.

"Oh! let me join the church!" he pleaded.

"What do you want to join the church for?" I asked.

"To save my life," he answered.

"But what is this all about?" I urged, raising him to his feet.

"You know the eunuch who came to you to buy books," he said.

I assured him that I knew him.

"Well," he continued, "I am a friend of his. The Empress Dowager has banished him, burned all the books he bought for the Emperor, and I am in danger of losing my head. Let me join the church, and thus save my life."

All I could do was to inform him that this was not the business of the church, and after further conversation he left and I never saw him again.

Day after day as the Emperor received the Peking Gazette on his lonely island he saw one after another of his coveted reforms vanish like mist before the pen of his august aunt. Nor was this all, for often the rescinding edicts appeared under his own name, and by the New Year, when he was brought forth to receive the foreign ministers accredited to his court, scarcely anything remained of all his reforms but the Peking University and the provincial and other schools. It is not to be wondered at therefore that he was reticent and despondent. What promises of good behaviour it was necessary for him to make before he was even allowed this much liberty, it is useless for us to conjecture.

Following this audience the Empress Dowager, who up to this time had been seen by no foreigner except Prince Henry of Prussia, decided to receive the wives of the foreign ministers. Her motives for this new move it is impossible to determine. It may have been to ascertain how the foreign governments would treat her who had been reported to have calmly ousted "their great and good friend the Emperor," to whom their ministers were accredited. Or it may have been that she hoped by this stroke of diplomacy to gain some measure of recognition as head of the government. She would at least see how she was regarded.

The audience was an unqualified success. The seven ladies received were charmed by the gracious manner of their imperial hostess, who assured them each as she touched her lips to the tea which she presented to them that "we are all one family," and up to that period of her life there was nothing to indicate that she did not feel that the sentiment she expressed was true. Up to the time of the coup d'etat, as Dr. Martin says, "she herself was noted for progressive ideas." "It will not be denied by any one," says Colonel Denby, "that the improvement and progress" described in his first volume, "are mainly due to the will and power of the Empress Regent. To her own people, up to this period in her career, she was kind and merciful, and to foreigners she was just." From the time of her return to the capital after their flight in 1900 till the time of her death she became one of the greatest reformers, if not the greatest, that has ever sat upon the dragon throne. One cannot but wish therefore in the interests of sentiment that it were possible to overlook many things she did from 1898 to 1900, which in the interests of truth it will be impossible to disregard. Nevertheless we should remember that she was driven to these things by the filching of her territory by the foreigners, and by the false pretentions of the superstitious Boxers and their leaders, and in the hope of preserving her country.

Her first act after imprisoning Kuang Hsu was to offer a large reward for his adviser Kang Yu-wei either alive or dead. Failing to get him, "she seized his younger brother Kang Kuang-jen, and with five other noble and patriotic young men of ability and high promise, he was beheaded September 28th, while protesting that though they might easily be slain, multitudes of others would arise to take their places." One of my young Chinese friends who watched this procession on its way to the execution grounds told me that, --

"The scene was impossible to describe. These five young reformers," after expressing the sentiments quoted above from Dr. Smith, "reviled the Empress Dowager and the conservatives in the most blood-curdling manner."

I have already spoken of Wang Chao the secretary of the Board of Rites who presented the memorial which caused the dismissal of the six officials of that body, and, indirectly, the fall of the Emperor. Some time before writing this petition he called at our home requesting Mrs. Headland to go and see his mother who was ill. When his mother recovered he sent her to Shanghai, and at the time of the coup d'etat he failed to get out of the city and went into hiding. Some days afterwards a closed cart drove up to our home and to our astonishment he stepped forth. We expressed our surprise that he was still in Peking, and asked:

"Has the Empress Dowager ceased prosecuting her search for you reformers?"

"Not yet," he answered.

"And what is she doing?" we inquired.

"Killing some, banishing others, driving many away from the capital, while still others are going into self-imposed exile."

"Does the Emperor know anything about this?" we inquired.

"No doubt," he replied. "Everybody knows it, why not he?"

"That will make his imprisonment all the harder to bear," we suggested.

"Quite right," he answered.

"There is general alarm in the city that the Emperor himself will be disposed of; what do you think about it?"

"Who can tell? He has not a friend in the palace except the first concubine, and, I am told, that she like himself is kept in close confinement. The Empress stands by her aunt, the Empress Dowager, while the eunuchs now are all her tools. The officials who go into the palace to audiences are all conservative and hence against him, though I suppose they never see him."

"Do you suppose he ever sees the edicts issued in his name?"

"Not at all. They are made by the conservatives and the Empress Dowager and issued without his knowledge."

"And what do you propose to do?" we inquired.

"I shall leave for Shanghai as soon as I can safely do so," he replied.

Before the year had passed the Empress Dowager had been induced or compelled to select a new Emperor. We cannot believe that she did it of her own free will, and for several reasons. First, the child selected was the son and the grandson of ultra conservative princes, and we cannot but believe that as she had placed herself in the hands of the conservative party, it was their selection rather than hers. Second, it must have been a humiliation to her ever since she discovered that her nephew, whom she had selected and placed upon the throne in order to keep the succession in her own family, being the same generation as her son who had died, could not worship him as his ancestor, and hence could not legally occupy the throne, though as a matter of fact such a condition is not unknown in Chinese history.

But if her humiliation was great, that of our boy-prisoner was still greater, for he was compelled to witness an edict, proclaimed in his own name, which made him say that as there was no hope of his having a child of his own to succeed him, he had requested the Empress Dowager to select a suitable person who should be proclaimed as the successor of Tung Chih, his predecessor, thus turning himself out of the imperial line. That this could not have been her choice is evidenced, further, by the fact that just as soon as she had once more regained her power, she surrounded herself with progressive officials, turned out all the great conservatives except Jung Lu, and dispossessing the son of Prince Tuan, at the time of her death selected her sister's grandchild and proclaimed him successor to her son and heir to the Emperor Kuang Hsu, in the following edict:

"Inasmuch as the Emperor Tung Chih had no issue, on the fifth day of the twelfth moon of that reign (January 12, 1875) an edict was promulgated to the effect that if the late Emperor Kuang Hsu should have a son, the said Prince should carry on the succession as the heir of Tung Chih. But now the late Emperor has ascended upon the dragon to be a guest on high, leaving no son, and there is no course open but to appoint Pu I, the son of Tsai Feng, the Prince Regent, as the successor to Tung Chih, and also as heir to the Emperor Kuang Hsu," which is quite in keeping with the conduct and character of the Empress Dowager all her life except those two bad years.

During the days and weeks following the dispossession of Kuang Hsu of the throne, in 1899 many decrees appeared which signified that at no distant date he would be superseded by the son of Prince Tuan. The foreign ministers began again to look grave. They spoke openly of their fear that Kuang Hsu's days were numbered. They pressed their desire for the usual New Year's audience, and once more the imprisoned monarch was brought forth and made to sit upon the throne and receive them. But when the ladies asked for an audience they were refused, the Empress Dowager being too busy with affairs of state. She was at that time seriously considering whether or not the government should cast in its lot with the Boxers and drive all the foreigners with all their productions into the eastern sea.

One of the princesses told Mrs. Headland that before coming to a decision the Empress Dowager called the hereditary and imperial princes into the palace to consult with them as to what they would better do. She met them all face to face, the Emperor and Prince Tuan standing near the throne. She explained to them the ravages of the foreigners, how they were gradually taking one piece after another of Chinese territory.

"And now," she continued, "we have these patriotic braves who claim to be impervious to swords and bullets; what shall we do? Shall we cast in our lot with their millions and drive all these foreigners out of China or not?"

Prince Tuan, as father of the heir-apparent, uneducated, superstitious and ignorant of all foreign affairs, then spoke. He said:

"I have seen the Boxers drilling, I have heard their incantations, and I believe that they will be able to effect this much desired end. They will either kill the foreigners or drive them out of the country and no more will dare to come, and thus we will be rid of them."

The hereditary princes were then asked for an expression of opinion. The majority of them knew little of foreigners and foreign countries, and as Prince Tuan, the father of the future Emperor, had expressed himself so strongly, they hesitated to offer an adverse opinion. But when it came to Prince Su, a man of strong character, widely versed in foreign affairs, and of independent thought, he opposed the measure most vigorously.

"Who," he asked, "are these Boxers? Who are their leaders? How can they, a mere rabble, hope to vanquish the armies of foreign nations?'

Prince Tuan answered that "by their incantations they were able to produce heaven-sent soldiers."

Prince Su denounced such superstition as childish. But when after further argument between him and Prince Tuan the Empress Dowager assured him that she had had them in the palace and had witnessed their prowess, he said no more.

The imperial princes were then consulted, but seeing how Prince Su had fared they were either in favour of the measure or non-committal. Finally the Empress Dowager appealed to Prince Ching who, more diplomatic than the younger princes, answered:

"I consider it a most dangerous undertaking, and I would advise against it. But if Your Majesty decides to cast in your lot with the Boxers I will do all in my power to further your wishes."

It is not a matter of wonder therefore that the Empress Dowager should be led into such a foolish measure as the Boxer movement, when the Prince who had been president of the Foreign Office for twenty-five years could so weakly acquiesce in such an undertaking.

"The Emperor," said the Princess, "was not asked for an expression of his opinion on this occasion, but when he saw that the Boxer leaders had won the day he burst into tears and left the room."

Similar meetings were held in the palace on two other occasions, when the Emperor implored that they make no attempt to fight all the foreign nations, for said he, "the foreigners are stronger than we, both in money and in arms, while their soldiers are much better drilled and equipped in every way. If we undertake this and fail as we are sure to do, it will be impossible to make peace with the foreigners and our country will be divided up amongst them." His pleadings, however, were disregarded, and after the meeting was over, he had to return to his little island, where for eight weeks he was compelled to sit listening to the rattling guns, booming cannons and bursting firecrackers, for the Boxers seemed to hope to exterminate the foreigners by noise. He must have felt from the books he had studied that it could only result in disaster to his own people.

When the allies reached Peking and the Boxers capitulated the Emperor was taken out of his prison and compelled to flee with the court.

"What do you think of your bullet-proof Boxers now?" one can imagine they hear him saying to his august aunt, as he sees her cutting off her long finger nails, dressing herself in blue cotton garments, and climbing into a common street cart as an ordinary servant. "Wouldn't it have been better to have taken my advice and that of Hsu Ching-cheng and Yuan Chang instead of having put them to death for endeavouring in their earnestness to save the country? What about your old conservative friends? Can they be depended upon as pillars of state?" Or some other "I-told-you-so" language of this kind.

From their exile in Hsian decrees continued to be issued in his name, and when affairs began to be adjusted, and the allies insisted on setting aside forever the pretentions of the anti-foreign Prince Tuan and his son, banishing the former to perpetual exile, our hopes ran high that the Emperor would be restored to his throne. But to our disappointment the framers of the Protocol contented themselves with the clause that: "Rational intercourse shall be permitted with the Emperor as in Western countries," and with the return of the court in 1902 he was still a prisoner.

Every one who has written about audiences with the Empress Dowager tells how "the Emperor was seated near, though a little below her," but they never tell why. The reason is not far to seek. The world must not know that he was a prisoner in the palace. They must see him near the throne, but they may not speak to him. The addresses of the ministers were passed to her by her kneeling statesmen, and it was they who replied. No notice was taken of the Emperor though he seemed to be in excellent health. The Empress Dowager however still relieved him of the burdens of the government, and continued to "teach him how to govern."

"I have seen the Emperor many times," Mrs. Headland tells me, "and have spent many hours in his presence, and every time we were in the palace the Emperor accompanied the Empress Dowager -- not by her side but a few steps behind her. When she sat, he always remained standing a few paces in the rear, and never presumed to sit unless asked by her to do so. He was a lonely person, with his delicate, well-bred features and his simple dark robes, and in the midst of these fawning eunuchs, brilliant court ladies, and bejewelled Empress Dowager he was an inconspicuous figure. No minister of state touched forehead to floor as he spoke in hushed and trembling voice to him, no obsequious eunuchs knelt when coming into his presence; but on the contrary I have again and again seen him crowded against the wall by these cringing servants of Her Majesty.

"One day while we were in the palace a pompous eunuch had stepped before the Emperor quite obliterating him. I saw Kuang Hsu put his hands on the large man's shoulders, and quietly turn him around, that he might see before whom he stood. There were no signs of anger on his face, but rather a gentle, pathetic smile as he looked up at the big servant. I expected to see him fall upon his knees before the Emperor, but instead, he only moved a few inches to the left, and remained still in front of His Majesty. Never when in the palace have I seen a knee bend to the Emperor, except that of the foreigner when greeting him or bidding him farewell. This was the more noticeable as statesmen and eunuchs alike fell upon their knees every time they spoke to the Empress Dowager.

"The first time I saw him his great, pathetic, wistful eyes followed me for days. I could not forget them, and I determined that if I ever had opportunity I would say a few words to him letting him know that the world was resting in hope of his carrying out the great reforms he had instituted. But he was so carefully guarded and kept under such strict surveillance that I never found an opportunity to speak to him. Nor did he ever speak to the visitors, court ladies, the Empress Dowager, or attendants during all the hours we remained.

"One of the ministers told me that one day after an audience, when the Empress Dowager and the Emperor had stepped down from the dais, Her Majesty was engaged in conversation with one of his colleagues, and as the Emperor stood near by, he made some remark to him. Immediately the Empress Dowager turned from the one to whom she had been talking and made answer for the Emperor.

"On one occasion when there were but four of us in the palace, and we were all comfortably seated, the Emperor standing a few paces behind the Empress Dowager, she began discussing the Boxer movement, lamenting the loss of her long finger nails, and various good-luck gourds of which she was fond. The Emperor, probably becoming weary of a conversation in which he had no part, quietly withdrew by a side entrance to the theatre which was playing at the time. For some moments the Empress Dowager did not notice his absence, but the instant she discovered he was gone, a look of anxiety overspread her features, and she turned to the head eunuch, Li Lien-ying, and in an authoritative tone asked: 'Where is the Emperor?' There was a scurry among the eunuchs, and they were sent hither and thither to inquire. After a few moments they returned, saying that he was in the theatre. The look of anxiety passed from her face as a cloud passes from before the sun -- and several of the eunuchs remained at the theatre.

"I am told that at times the Empress Dowager invites the Emperor to dine with her, and on such occasions he is forced to kneel at the table at which she is seated, eating only what she gives him. It is an honour which he does not covet, but which he dare not decline for fear of giving offense."

back to the table of contents