1901: Cixi and her ministers promise sweeping reforms

In January 1901, at the height of the Boxer Rebellion, Cixi authorised her ministers to issue this edict, promising sweeping reforms of the government, bureaucracy and military:

“Certain principles of morality are immutable, whereas methods of governance have always been mutable. The Classic of Changes states that “when a measure has lost effective force, the time has come to change it.” And the Analects of Confucius state that “the Shang and Zhou dynasties took away from and added to the regulations of their predecessors, as can readily be known…”

Throughout the ages, successive generations have introduced new ways and abolished the obsolete. Our own august ancestors set up new systems to meet the requirement of the day… Laws and methods become obsolete and, once obsolete, require revision in order to serve their intended purpose of strengthening the state and benefiting the people…

We have now received Her Majesty’s decree to devote ourselves fully to China’s revitalisation, to suppress vigorously the use of the terms new and old, and to blend together the best of what is Chinese and what is foreign. The root of China’s weakness lies in harmful habits too firmly entrenched, in rules and regulations too minutely drawn, in the over-abundance of inept and mediocre officials and in the paucity of truly outstanding ones, in petty bureaucrats who hide behind the written word and in clerks and yamen runners who use the written words as talismans to acquire personal fortunes, in the mountains of correspondence between government offices that have no relationship to reality, and in the seniority system and associated practices that block the way of men of real talent…

Those who have studied Western methods up to now have confined themselves to the spoken and written languages and to weapons and machinery. These are but surface elements of the West and have nothing to do with the essentials of Western learning. Our Chinese counterparts to the fundamental principles upon which Western wealth and power are based are the following precepts, handed down by our ancestors: “to hold high office and show generosity to others”, “to exercise liberal forbearance over subordinates”, “to speak with sincerity”, and “to carry out one’s purpose with diligence”. But China has neglected such deeper dimensions of the West and contents itself with learning a word here and a phrase there, a skill here and a craft there, meanwhile hanging on to old corrupt practices… To sum up, administrative methods and regulations must be revised and abuses eradicated. If regeneration is truly desired, there must be quite and reasoned deliberation.

We therefore call upon the members of the Grand Council, the Grand Secretaries, the Six Boards and Nine Ministries, our ministers abroad, and the governor-general and governors of the provinces to reflect carefully on our present sad state of affairs and to scrutinise Chinese and Western governmental systems with regard to all dynastic regulations, state administration, and official affairs, matters related to people’s livelihood, modern schools, systems of examination, military organisation, and financial administration. Duly weigh what should be kept and what abolished, what new methods should be adopted and what old ones retained. By every available means of knowledge and observation, seek out how to renew our national strength, how to produce men of real talent, how to expand state revenues and how to revitalise the military.

The first essential, even more important than devising new systems of governance, is to secure men who govern well. Without new systems, the corrupted old system cannot be salvaged; without men of ability, even good systems cannot be made to succeed… Once the appropriate reforms are introduced to clear away abuses, it will be more than ever necessary to select upright and capable men to discharge the functions of the office. Everyone, high and low – take heed! The Empress Dowager and we have long pondered these matters. Now things are at a crisis point where change must occur, to transform weakness into strength. Everything depends on how the change is effected.”