ON 21 SEPTEMBER 1898, conservative opponents of the Qing emperor Guangxu, led by his aunt Cixi (above), seized power in a coup d’état. Cixi was a consort of the emperor Xianfeng and the mother of his only son, Tongzhi, who ascended to the throne, in 1861, at the age of six. A few months later, along with the senior consort Ci’an and Xianfeng’s half-brother Gong, she orchestrated a coup that deposed the regency council and ruled in her son’s name until his eighteenth birthday. Following Tongzhi’s death, in 1875, she adopted her sister’s three-year-old son and declared him emperor. The triumvirate again assumed the regency. Ci'an died in 1881. After dismissing Gong, three years later, Cixi ruled alone.
In 1889, when Guangxu came of age, Cixi nominally relinquished power but continued to influence policy. The Qing army’s defeat in 1895 to Japan, which had undergone three decades of modernisation under the emperor Meiji, sparked a reform movement among the educated classes in China. Guangxu’s advisors, most of whom were loyal to Cixi, resisted proposals for reforms until 1898, when the threat of the empire being partitioned by Western powers seemed imminent. On 11 June that year, after appointing several leading reformists as his advisors, Guangxu began issuing a series of edicts—which came to be known as the Hundred Days’ Reform—establishing a constitutional monarchy, abolishing civil-service examinations, overhauling the education system, adopting rapid industrialisation and modernising the military.
Cixi did not initially oppose the reforms, but conservative officials sought her intervention by arguing that the edicts would jeopardise the empire. After they uncovered an alleged plot to remove her from power, Guangxu was placed under house arrest and several leading reformists were executed. Cixi repealed most of the edicts. She died in 1908, a day after Guangxu was allegedly poisoned to death while still in her custody.