China’s Qing monarchy may have possessed one of the world’s oldest and most lavish imperial courts by the turn of the last century, but as far as their cash flow was concerned they were flat ass broke. Shit in fact had gotten so bad that, according to historian Jia Yingua, upon the death of the Guangxu Emperor in 1908, his widow, the Empress Dowager Longyu, not only couldn’t afford to give him a funeral, but even resorted to pawning off his more lavish silk robes for some desperately needed cash. The situation outside the Forbidden City was even worse. With the Qing government having fallen into first a steady, then rapid, decline following their defeat by the British in the two Opium Wars of the 1840s, their defeat by the Japanese in the Sino-Japanese War, various internal conflicts and court intrigues, and the multi-state European invasion following their failed attempt to expel foreign domination through the Boxer Rebellion, they had hemorrhaged more territory, trade concessions and indemnities than they could possibly afford. The national state was consequently in a state of terminal collapse, and calls for the overthrow of the monarchical system to be replaced by a republic had crescendoed by 1911 into a full scale revolution. Matters weren’t helped by the fact that the new all powerful emperor was all of 5 years old.
The real power behind the throne rested in the hands of the Xuantong Emperor’s dynastic stepmother, the Empress Dowager Longyu, and his father, Prince Chun. Neither had any clue how best to resolve this imperial shit show, and with revolutionaries popping up all over the empire, they entrusted their fate to a powerful general in charge of a large army located in the north named Yuan Shikai. Insofar as the preservation of the dynasty was concerned, he had other ideas.
Former civil service official and noted author Jia Yingua writes in his biography, The Extraordinary Life of the Last Emperor, assembled from heretofore secret archives contained at the Chinese government compound at Zhongnanhai, that once Shikai became Prime Minister, his first order of business was to convince the monarchy to dissolve itself. To that end, he went about bribing court officials and imperial family members to convince the Empress Dowager to abolish the throne. As Yingua writes, he wasn’t tightfisted.
For Xiao Dezheng, Empress Longyu’s chief eunuch, the Prime Minister gave him two million silver dollars, the equivalent of a billion U.S. dollars in today’s values, to talk her into leaving the dragon throne to heaven. Shortly after the overthrow of the empire, this metaphorically ballsy eunuch hightailed it to Tinsjin where he built a mansion replete with treasures he’d stolen from the imperial palaces. Prince Yikuang, a powerful member of the dynasty, also made off with a similar amount stashed in his Hong Kong and Shanghai bank accounts. Both advised the empress that a future awash with similar riches awaited her if she’d just apply her stepson’s imperial stamp to the instrument of abdication.
As if that weren’t enough persuasion, Longyu’s favorite half man also assured her that if she tried to defend the imperial system to the bitter end, the victorious revolutionaries would likely make an example out of her in the same manner their French compatriots had done in the 1790s to Louis XVl and Marie Antoinette: by decapitating her. Faced with the option of becoming a billionaire or being beheaded, the author presumes most human beings, regardless of their background, would choose the former over the latter. Alas, China’s penultimate Empress Dowager was no exception.
But the Prime Minister had even more tricks up his sleeve! Yinghua writes General Shikai also resorted to threats and intimidation to ensure Longyu would accept an offer that, by 1912, it was becoming clearer and clearer she couldn’t refuse. Not only did he secretly mastermind the mailing of 44 different telegrams sent by as many army commanders to the Forbidden City demanding an end to the empire, but he also convinced the Russian ambassador to communicate to the Empress Dowager that if she didn’t give in to the inevitable, the foreign powers operating in China would ensure the dynasty’s overthrow regardless.
At the end of the day, Longyu agreed to end China’s over 2000 year old monarchy in exchange for 1700 pounds of silver. On February 12, 1912 she signed the emperor’s instrument of abdication on his behalf. She also proved, however, that she wasn’t without her own whiles when it came to bargaining. She in turn forced the new republic to agree to the Articles of Favorable Treatment, a legal document ensuring that, in exchange for the voluntary abolition of the dynasty, the Emperor and his court would be allowed to remain within the northern half of the Forbidden City until they permanently relocated to the Summer Palace at an indeterminate future date; that the Imperial Court would continue its traditional existence as if nothing had happened; that the government would fund the former monarchy to the tune of the modern day equivalent of $2 billion a year; and that the government would also pay for the proper burial and entombing of the previous Emperor, whom was likely murdered on the orders of Longyu’s aunt, the previous Empress Dowager. In terms of agreements worked out by an outgoing monarchy with the governments overthrowing them, this instrument stands out as history’s most ingenious of its kind. Empress Dowager Longyu deserves that much credit.
No doubt worn out, and probably heartbroken, by the struggles that had engulfed her life within the last few years, Longyu died a little over a year after the monarchy’s abolition in February of 1912. With the republic having never entirely held up its end of the bargain, the imperial family and court were expelled by a warlord from their palace in 1924 and never returned.
The greatest irony of Empress Longyu’s life is that she served her two roles in history as a puppet: first as an instrument of control over the Guangxu Emperor when her aunt, the Empress Dowager Cixi, arranged her marriage to him so that she might act as a spy for her auntie dearest; then later when she was serving as empress dowager in her own right and she was once again used as a puppet by the final prime minister to ensure the destruction of the dynasty. One can only imagine the recollections that passed before her eyes on her deathbed. At her funeral, no less than the Vice President of the new republic eulogized Longyu as being “exemplary among women.” In terms of her ability to serve the will of others, he was absolutely right.