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The Hundred Days Reform Modernization History

By the start of the 1900s, the star of China seemed to be fading, and the urgency of the Hundred Days Reform became increasingly evident. The Qing Dynasty stood as one of the wealthiest and most advanced civilizations. At its peak, the Qing contained 10% of the world’s landmass and almost a third of the world’s economy. A century later, the Qing was overtaken by the European powers and found itself humiliated in conflicts such as the Opium War and Taiping Rebellion. These conflicts not only resulted in China slowly being carved up and its reputation dragged through the mud. But the empire didn’t fall quietly as the young Guangxu Emperor attempted to reverse this decline with an ambitious reform programed called the Hundred Days Reform. Unfortunately, these reforms failed and the Qing fell shortly after.

The Last Reforms of the Qing

In the waning days of the 1800s, the Qing Dynasty seemed on the verge of collapse. After its humiliating defeat in the Sino-Japanese War, China found itself not only at the mercy of its European powers but even its neighbors. These defeats highlighted the need for China to modernize its society to catch up to the other great powers.

From this need emerged the Hundred Days Reform. This was an ambitious and radical movement in 1898 aimed at modernizing China and transforming it into a constitutional monarchy. Initiated by the young Emperor Guangxu and inspired by reform-minded intellectuals such as Kang Youwei and Liang Qichao, the reform program sought to address the pressing need for change in response to the increasing pressures from foreign powers and internal decay. The reformers believed that only through comprehensive political, educational, and economic reforms could China regain its sovereignty and vitality.

The reform program covered a wide range of areas. Politically, it aimed to overhaul the imperial administration by promoting efficiency, reducing corruption, and establishing a modern bureaucratic system. One of the significant proposals was the introduction of a constitutional monarchy, which would limit the powers of the emperor and establish a more representative form of government.

In the educational sphere, the Hundred Days Reform aimed to modernize the outdated Confucian-based education system. This would abolish the traditional civil service exam and establish new schools and universities that taught Western sciences and technology. This intended to cultivate a new generation of skilled and knowledgeable citizens who could contribute to modernization efforts. 

Economically, the reformers sought to boost industrialization and modernize agriculture. They advocated for the development of new industries, the improvement of infrastructure, and the introduction of modern agricultural techniques to increase productivity. The reforms also aimed to enhance trade and commerce by simplifying the tax system and encouraging foreign investment. 

Together, Kang and Liang’s efforts helped to galvanize support for the Hundred Days Reform. They emphasized the necessity of adopting Western technologies and methods to strengthen China and reclaim its status as a leading global power. Although the reform movement ultimately failed due to strong conservative opposition, the legacy of Kang Youwei and Liang Qichao’s advocacy for modernization continued to influence subsequent reform efforts in China, contributing to the eventual fall of the Qing Dynasty and the establishment of a new republican government in the early 20th century.

Hundred Days Reform Ending Movement

Despite its ambitious scope, the Hundred Days Reform was short-lived. It faced significant opposition from conservative factions within the Qing court, particularly from Guangxu’s mother, Empress Dowager Cixi, who saw the rapid changes as a threat to her power. In September 1898, a coup led by Cixi effectively ended the reform movement, placing Emperor Guangxu under house arrest and executing or exiling many of the reform’s key supporters. While the Hundred Days Reform ultimately failed to achieve its goals, it highlighted the urgent need for modernization and set the stage for future reform efforts in China.

Kang Youwei, one of the main reformers spoke to the emperor about these Hundred Days Reform, urging him to adopt them to preserve his empire. His words were immortalized in a speech.

“Our present trouble lies in our clinging to old institutions without knowing how to change… Nowadays the court has been undertaking some reforms, but the action of the emperor is obstructed by the ministers, and the recommendations of the able scholars are attacked by old-fashioned bureaucrats. If the charge is not “using barbarian ways to change China” then it is “upsetting the ancestral institutions.” Rumours and scandals are rampant, and people fight each other like fire and water. To reform in this way is as ineffective as attempting a forward march by walking backwards. It will inevitably result in failure. Your Majesty knows that under the present circumstances reforms are imperative and old institutions must be abolished.”

– Kang Youwei, Qing Dynaaty Reformer
hundred days reform

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