The Historical Record for November 14, 2008: Arsenic and the Old Buddha

Today marks the 100th anniversary of the death of The Guangxu Emperor.  The second in a line of three child emperors, Aisin-Gioro Zaitian (b. 1875) ascended the throne following the death of his cousin, Aisin Gioro Zaichun (The Tongzhi Emperor, r. 1861-1875).  I say cousin because Zaitian was the son of Prince Chun and the Empress Dowager Cixi’s younger sister.  This would be Cixi’s first “Keith Hernandez Moment” but certainly not her last.  Not only did she choose her own nephew, but by doing so violated one of the most sacrosanct rules of imperial succession: each emperor must be able to pay obeisance to his ancestors before.  Cousins don’t count.

The young emperor grew up, carefully watched by his aunt and her cronies, until 1898 when Guangxu decided to assert himself a bit.  In league with a group of young scholars including Kang Youwei, Liang Qichao, and Tan Sitong, Guangxu issued a series of proclamations between June and August of that year while Cixi was on her summer sabbatical.  The “100 Days Reforms” included overhauling the examination system, founding new educational institutions (including what would become Peking University), and re-appropriating funds to build a modern navy and army.  Kang Youwei and Liang Qichao were given high positions at court and all was going great until Cixi came back from her holiday and basically threw a nutty.  Fearing that Cixi meant to depose Guangxu, the would-be reformers plotted a counter-coup involving Qing general and future El Presidente Yuan Shikai, who promptly threw in his lot with the conservatives at court and ratted out the reformers. Kang and Liang fled China with a price on their head while Tan Sitong took one for the team.  Guangxu ended up imprisoned on an island in Zhongnanhai for the remainder of his reign, except for a brief excursion fleeing the Eight-County Allied Armies sent in to suppress the Boxers after another one of Cixi’s little political brainstorms.

As most know, Guangxu died under suspicious circumstances one day before Cixi in 1908.  There has always been speculation about what really happened to Guangxu (and Tongzhi, for that matter).  The timing was just a little too neat, a little too convenient for too many people at court.  Cixi certainly feared what Guangxu might do if he ever had a chance to rule on his own.  Yuan Shikai no doubt worried (probably with good reason) about retaliation for his duplicity 10 years earlier.  Cixi’s long reign depended on a series of allies, henchmen, and toadies, all of whom were looking at unemployment (or worse) if Guangxu grabbed the reins of power.  The general consensus was that it was probably best to off the guy and–fate of the dynasty be damned–put another kid on the throne, which is exactly what happened.  While almost everyone has assumed Guangxu was poisoned it’s always nice to have proof, and a recent study found lethal amounts of arsenic in samples of hair, clothing and other personal effects from Guangxu’s tomb. The findings, which correspond to symptoms suffered by the emperor and noted in the official record, seem to confirm long-standing suspicions of regicide.

As to whodunnit? I’m going with Cixi.  Certainly a lot of people had motive, but Guangxu was still the emperor and the question is one of access.  It seems unlikely that somebody outside the palace would have had sufficient contact with the emperor to carry out arsenic poisoning, and it seems equally implausible (though certainly not impossible) that an inside job could have been carried out without the knowledge and, at the very least, tacit permission of the Empress Dowager.

  • http://theproseccolife.blogspot.com Kiki

    This definitely ranks as one of my favorite ‘Historical Record’ posts – I actually laughed out loud when you mentioned the “Keith Hernandez moment.” Love the blend of history and pop culture!

  • Eric

    I thought that Sterling Seagrave did a pretty good job in “Dragon Lady” of debunking the Cixi-as-devil story which was so popular with western powers and, later, with the PRC. I’d love to know why you think his research doesn’t stand up.

  • Tim

    I’ve been enjoying your posts on China’s history for quite some time now. I’d be interested in your suggestions on books about the Guangxu Emperor and Cixi. I’ve read Seagrave’s book on her life, which was decidedly revisionist in its portrayal. Any suggestions?

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