The Qing court ca. 1900 had more narcissistic drug-addled half-wits than Justin Bieber’s mansion on a Friday afternoon but even with that competition, Prince Duan (Aisin Gioro Zaiyi 1856-1922) was something special.
Despite being the grandson of the Daoguang Emperor, for most of his life Zaiyi was something of a non-entity at court, a minor noble with very little power or respect. This changed when he inherited the title of “Prince” from a childless uncle.
Even in good fortune, Prince Duan failed to gain respect. He was supposed to be Prince Rui 瑞, as his uncle had styled himself, but due to a clerical error his title was changed to Prince Duan 端, just a few strokes off. In earlier times, this would have been noticed and fixed immediately — with likely terminal results for the offending clerk — but the Qing bureaucracy in the late 19th century was such a black hole of incompetence that nobody really noticed and after a while they just figured, whatever…we’ll call him Duan.
When people decide it’s easier for you to change your name than for them change a typo that’s not good.
So how did this sad sack of a prince eventually become public enemy #1 in the eyes of the foreign community in China?
Tired of being sidelined, Prince Duan decided to bolster his political profile by becoming a toady of the Empress Dowager Cixi. After all, they were kind of related. Prince Duan’s wife was Cixi’s niece, and with all the corruption at court getting on the Empress Dowager’s good side was probably the best career move available to a politically ambitious Manchu with no discernible skills.
In 1898, the Guangxu Emperor, in cahoots with a group of young scholars led by Kang Youwei, tried to take advantage of Cixi being on summer holiday to push through a series of reforms that would dramatically overhaul the government and modernize the Qing bureaucracy. Faced with the possibility of being politically sidelined (or worse), Cixi led a counter-coup against the emperor with Prince Duan as one of her biggest cheerleaders and co-conspirators.
So touched was the Empress Dowager for the Prince’s support that on January 24, 1899 she named Prince Duan’s son Pujun as heir-apparent for the soon-to-be executed Guangxu Emperor.
Cixi may have called that putt a tad early.
The foreign community, alarmed at the level of palace intrigue and worried the conservative Prince Duan would incite anti-foreign elements among the populace, protested vociferously. Fortunately for the Guangxu Emperor, this timely intercession meant that his majesty remained alive and nominally on the throne, less fortunately he spent the rest of his reign — nearly 10 years — under lock and key.
Meanwhile, a humiliated Prince Duan and Cixi nurtured a burning hatred for the foreigners.
In 1900, Cixi and her cronies got their revenge, throwing their support behind the 义和团 Yihetuan (Boxers) during the Boxers’ bloody crusade against foreign elements in North China. Prince Duan believed the myths of Boxer magic which supposedly made them impervious to bullets and cannons and he even personally led several Boxer mobs against foreign targets in Beijing. When the Boxers proved less than bullet proof and the foreign powers sacked Beijing, Duan was forced into exile.
There have been a few historians recently who have tried to rescue Prince Duan from the outhouse of history. Revisionists accuse contemporary chroniclers such as Edmund Backhouse of fabricating documents and concocting stories demonizing Prince Duan and the rest of Cixi’s inner circle as bloodthirsty xenophobes, but I’m skeptical of the skeptics. There are sufficient non-Backhouse sources that confirm Prince Duan was basically a know-nothing yutz with the emotional maturity of a drunken Schnauzer.