Tuesday, 4 November 2008

Chinese Guangxu Emperor poisoned with arsenic

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by Kathryn Hadley

Following five years of research, a team including administrators of the Western Qing Tombs, the China atomic energy academy and forensic scientists from the Beijing city police has recently concluded that the second-to-last Chinese emperor Guangxu was poisoned with arsenic. Prior to his death the emperor had allegedly complained of stomach pains.

Close examination of remnants of hair and clothing from his burial chamber has revealed that his remains contained 201 milligrammes of arsenic, which is 2,000 times higher than the rate in a healthy person. A dose of between just 60 and 200 miligrammes is considered fatal. The revelations have been made almost exactly a century after the emperor’s death, aged 38, on November 14th 1908. His death was followed a day later by that of his aunt, the Empress Dowager, just a couple of weeks before her 74th birthday.

In the words of Lei Yi, a prominent Chinese historian:
This has been a mystery for 100 years and everyone wanted to crack this puzzle
Emperor Guangxu, known as the “Son of Heaven”, was placed on the throne, aged three, by his aunt, following the death of her own son. Empress Dowager continued to rule China as regent. He became increasingly eager, however, to assert his independence and ambitious to reform and revive the declining Qing dynasty. In 1898, he notably sought to introduce a constitutional monarchy and democracy, to found a modern university in Beijing, to replace Confucian studies with mathematics and to reform the army.

His attempts at reform lasted, however, a mere hundred days, until the empress organised a coup. His advisers were arrested and executed and he was imprisoned for a decade on an island in the gardens of the Forbidden City. The Qing dynasty ended three years after his death and was replaced by a republic in 1912.

The culprit, however, remains unknown. The three main suspects include the dying Empress Dowager, her loyal courtier, Li Lianying, and the military commander ,Yuan Shikai. Sensing the approaching death of Empress Dowager, Li Lianying may have feared reprisal following his betrayal during the coup to end the emperor’s programme of reform. Her courtier, Li Lianying, allegedly found out that Guangxu had written in his dairy that he would seek revenge against the Empress Dowager’s favourite and may thus have similarly feared the consequences of her demise.

The debate thus continues and remains considerably political. The popular view that Empress Dowager was a cruel and tyrannical leader who ultimately weakened China and caused it to fall under the influence of western powers is still part of communist propaganda. Jin Yuzhang, the nephew of the last emperor claimed that
I think the downfall of the Qing dynasty was a historical inevitability. But the Dowager Empress cannot escape responsibility for some of these events. It was during her period in power that China's decline happened
With the anniversaries of both deaths occurring soon, here's Richard Cavendish from our print edition on the death of the dowager Empress.

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