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City of Heavenly Tranquility

How might Chinese history have changed if six Confucian scholars had not been executed in 1898?

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Takeaways


  • The Qing state always carried out death sentences shortly before the winter solstice, so this was known as the "Autumn Execution."
  • The execution of the reformers was an act of folly that prepared the way for the downfall of imperial China and the 1911 Revolution.
  • The condemned were taken through the "Gate of Proclaimed Military Strength," colloquially known as the Si Men, or "Death Gate."
  • After their task was completed, the executioners would retire to the tea house for a drink.
  • The Empress Dowager acted decisively — she ordered the arrest of the scholars and imprisoned the Emperor Guangxu.

Shu Yi, a large, somewhat shambolic man, talked and walked so quickly that I struggled to keep up as he led me around the jumble of dank alleys and two-story grey brick houses in one of Beijing’s oldest districts.

When we reached the old vegetable market, the Caishikou, he abruptly raised his arm and pointed out a small pharmacy on the other side of the road with a green cross on its roof.

“At this very spot, the six Confucian gentlemen had their heads lopped off,” he said. “And that was where the Broken Bowl Tea House stood. After their task was completed, the executioners would retire to the tea house for a drink.”

We were now standing at the very spot where in 1898 six men had been executed for daring to put forward a bold blueprint for political and social reform. If the declining Qing Empire had not executed them, but rather implemented their proposals, China’s history might have been very different.

The violent convulsions of the 20th century and the defeat by the Japanese might never have happened. By extinguishing belief in the Qing Dynasty’s readiness to carry out necessary reforms, the execution of the reformers was an act of folly that prepared the way for the downfall of imperial China and the 1911 Revolution.

“They should have erected a big bronze statue here. One of the most important events in Chinese history took place here. Every schoolboy learns about it,” Shu Yi said.

The execution ground where the heads of the reformers had fallen amid piles of old cabbage leaves now supports two six-lane highways choked with traffic.

The six condemned men belonged to a group of young Confucian scholars who, in 1895, presented the Emperor Guangxu with a memorial putting forward an ambitious modernization program.

China was reeling from a humiliating naval defeat at the hands of the Japanese and had relinquished control over Korea and Taiwan to Tokyo. Earlier in the century, the empire had already suffered two defeats at the hands of the British Royal Navy during the two Opium Wars.

However, the Japanese victory demonstrated how successful an Asian and Confucian state could be when it committed itself to learning from the West.

Japan’s root-and-branch modernization program began soon after Commodore Perry’s ships arrived in 1853, but the Qing Dynasty had been half-hearted in adapting to the new challenges. It was clear that China had no choice but to follow suit.

The scholars won the backing of the Emperor Guangxu, then just 24 years old and trying to escape from the domineering influence of the 60-year-old Empress Dowager.

By then she had effectively been controlling the destiny of the empire for close to 40 years, ever since the sacking of the Yuanming Yuan in 1860 by British and French forces.

She was counseled by her brother-in-law, Prince Gong, who had negotiated with the Anglo-French expeditionary leaders, and her sinister chief eunuch, Li Lianying.

On his own initiative, Emperor Guangxu pushed through the “100 Days Reforms” with a series of edicts outlining reforms covering education, industry, the military and the political system. These ranged from abolishing the Confucian exams to creating a constitutional monarchy.

The Empress Dowager was enjoying life in the New Summer Palace that she had built for her retirement and was alarmed by the reports she received from Yuan Shikai, a powerful general in command of the best troops. (After 1911 this ambitious general seized power for himself and tried to found his own dynasty, an effort that ended with his death in 1916.)

The Empress Dowager acted decisively — she ordered the arrest of the scholars and imprisoned the Emperor Guangxu.

With their patron stripped of his power, the six were quickly executed on the afternoon of September 28, 1898.

Some fled in time, like Liang Qichao and Kang Youwei — but not Tan Sitong, Kang Guangren (Kang Youwei’s younger brother), Yang Shenxiu, Yang Rui, Lin Xu and Liu Guangdi.

The Qing state always carried out death sentences shortly before the winter solstice, so this was known as the “Autumn Execution” (even today executions are carried out at the same time).

The death sentence, signed by the Empress Dowager Cixi, was declared from the top of the Meridian Gate at the entrance to the Forbidden City.

Then the condemned were taken through the “Gate of Proclaimed Military Strength” (Xuanwumen), colloquially known as the Si Men, or “Death Gate.”

They were brought to Caishikou marketplace in the Chinese part of the city which sold vegetables, near Mishijie, the rice market, Guozixiang, the fruit market, and Zhubaoshi, the jewelry market.

The carts carrying the condemned stopped outside a tea house, where a bowl was taken out to them so they could gulp down a mixture of rice wine and alcohol. Then, the bowl was broken and thrown away — hence the name, “Broken Bowl Tea House.”

A crowd stood and watched as the condemned knelt on the ground and the executioners swiftly wielded their swords. Then the heads were put in a cage and left to rot on the same spot.

Soon afterwards, the Empress Dowager began supporting the Society of Righteous Fists, or Boxers, a quasi-religious anti-foreign sect whose members practiced martial arts and began attacking foreign missionaries in northern China and who eventually descended on Beijing and laid siege to the Legation Quarter in the summer of 1900.

Reprinted with permission from City of Heavenly Tranquility: Beijing in the History of China by Jasper Becker (Oxford University Press). © 2008 by Oxford University Press.

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