The Death of an Empress

See also:

A Modest Proposal for China

The Hermit of Peking

Either a Mandarin Munchausen or a unique witness to history, Sir Edmund Backhouse, in his memoirs, claimed to have not only been the lover of the Dowager Empress but to have had unique access to the details of her murder and that of the Emperor Guangxu. Here is an excerpt from the long-forgotten autobiography, Decadence Mandchoue, now being published in English and Chinese by Hong Kong New Century Press and Earnshaw Book, describing their deaths. The book is the subject of a presentation at the Foreign Correspondents Club of Hong Kong on April 6.

Prince Ch'ing was returning to Peking, to the Old Buddha's annoyance, although she knew him well enough to be assured of his neutrality whatever might betide. Meantime, men talked in whispers all over the capital and P'u Lun was definitely named as the new emperor, thus winning at long last the place that was lawfully his by primogeniture (so far as this principle counts in China) as eldest living great-grandson in the direct line through the empress consort (and not through a concubine) of the Tao Kuang emperor, Tz'u Hsi and her sister regent having passed over his claim thirty-four years before by placing Tsai T'ien on the Throne, despite the stringent dynastic house-law which forbids the accession of one of the same generation as the deceased emperor.

On the morning of Saturday, Nov. 14 (X Moon, 21) it was known all over Peking that Kuang Hsü had "passed to a far-off region"; but the valedictory decree had not yet been issued. What had occurred was as follows: At about 11 o'clock on the previous evening (Tzu Ch'u , hour of the Rat) my friend, the favourite eunuch and ex-catamite, Ts'ui Tê-lung, and an older confidential attendant of the Old Buddha named Mao K'o-ch'in , crossed the drawbridge to the emperor's lakegirt palace, each provided with a revolver in case of opposition from His Majesty's own servants, although shooting was to be avoided except as a last resort. The sentries on duty were all General Feng Shan's bodyguard: they had been forewarned and were to receive Taels 50 apiece from the Empress. Feng Shan was a very intimate friend of mine, Tu Lien Ta Ch'en , inspector general of the Forces and generalissimo of the Banner armies or Wei Tui of some 70,000 men. He was assassinated in October 1911 on arrival at Canton as Chiang Chün , Manchu commander in chief, just after the outbreak of revolution. A servant followed carrying stuffed pillows and cushions. Ts'ui bore a decree from the Empress Dowager: "The emperor is hereby ordained to take a definitive course forthwith, as a separate decree is appointing a new sovereign. Reverence this. Tzu Cho Huang Ti Chi Shih Tzu Ts'ai Ling Yu Chih I Ta Wei Yeh Ch'in Tz'u ." Kuang Hsü's bedchamber was a single Chien facing south, the second on the east side of the third court immediately behind the Lake terrace building later converted into a restaurant, the actual Ying T'ai proper, the haunt today (in the warm months) of anglers and bathers and in winter of patineurs.

The emperor was reclining on the K'ang reading the novel Chin P'ing Mei (not one of the most reputable Chinese novels) of which a wonderful Manchu translation by the brother of K'ang Hsi, Prince Yu, exists. Electric light had for some time been installed in the Lake palaces. Ts'ui said: "Your Majesty, we are respectfully conveying to you our congratulations: we have a decree from the Empress Dowager. Please go on your knees to receive it."

Here Kuang Hsü's faithful body servant, the eunuch Chu Wei-shou , interposed: "The emperor shall not kneel to a piece of paper: let Her Majesty come herself at a reasonable hour of the day."

Ts'ui answered: "Our business will not wait. Either leave us alone here or prepare for the inevitable hour." Chu moved slightly to shield the emperor, and the eunuch Mao shot him dead. Why the sentries did not intervene was due to orders. Then Ts'ui read out the vermilion decree, adding: "Your Majesty had best ‘Shang Tiao' ; we have a silken rope with us and will give you a loyal send-off to Heaven."

"Never," said Kuang Hsü; "I always knew that the empress meant to have my life. My reign has been one long agony. I only ask who is my successor."

"Lun Beitzu ", replied Ts'ui.

"You shall inform the empress of my last wish: ‘let her put Yüan Shih-k'ai to death': he betrayed me and will betray my successor as well as the empress herself sooner or later." He drew an imaginary circle (Yüan which is homophonic with Yüan the surname) and made a downward gesture to indicate decapitation. "Secondly, tell the empress not to exclude my tablet from the ancestral temple but to make P'u Lun my joint heir on a parity with my predecessor, Mu Tsung " (T'ung Chih, this was done a month later).

Then the two murderers, Ts'ui , Mao , with the comparse (who only did what he was told), pressed the resisting but feeble emperor down on the K'ang , according to Ts'ui's own account to me which differed slightly from Li Lien-ying's narrative; partially strangled him with the slip-knot; then suffocated him slowly with pillows.

The remaining attendants of Kuang Hsü were too terrified to show themselves and seem to have hidden in an outhouse beside the entrance. His wife and concubine were both in the Forbidden City. As soon as Ts'ui was satisfied of the emperor's demise – his eyes were bulging almost out of his head, mucus was flowing from his mouth, his genital organ was in a state of excitement and an emission had taken place from the Ma Yen or urethral orifice (despite the thrice told tale of his sexual impotence), his face was black, so that they believed life to be extinct and left him there, pressing the pillows once more on his head. It is said that after the murderers' departure the emperor's servants attempted to revive him without success. There was no time to lose: the Old Buddha was anxiously awaiting the event and in fact Li Lien-ying came to meet them as they crossed the draw-bridge.

"What a time you have been," said Li; "the Old Ancestress is almost hors d'elle with impatience."

"Well," replied Ts'ui, who possessed considerable humour even in a crisis, "these matters can't be done all in a moment, but he has mounted the dragon all right: we have a new emperor. Fan Cheng Chê Lei Shih Tei Jung Kung Fu, Pu Shih Hsü Yü Chih Chien So Neng Ch'eng Kung, K'o Shih Chen Cheng Yü Lung Shang Pin, Huan La Huang Shang Pa Liao." (I was reminded of the Vatican ceremony after a new Pope is elected: "I have tidings of great joy: we have a Pope, habemus Pontificem".)

Said Li: "The job is only half done; the decree appointing the new emperor has to be promulgated; the Old Buddha is going to have a crowded hour or two, we have to put out Kuang Hsü's valedictory decree which Her Majesty has already drafted in the rough and to declare court and national mourning for 27 months." (Actually, as far as the public mourning is concerned, "I Yüeh Wei Jih , change the number of months into as many days", for convenience sake, but the court mourning persists for the full period.) Li and Ts'ui then hurried to memorialize the Empress Dowager of the successful issue: she was beaming with satisfaction and in the highest spirits.

She said: "A Mi T'o Fo , Amitabha Buddha, Thank God. I feel a new life within my veins: it's the most blessed of all events, ich lebe bei dieser Nachricht wieder auf. 29 Wo Ch'ü I K'uai Ping : Ch'i Fei Pen Shen Chih Ta Hsing . . . . . . . . Summon the Grand Council, also T'ieh Liang and Feng Shan, so that everything may be in order and the accession of the new emperor be promulgated in good time."

Prince Ch'ing had, as usual, thought it expedient to sit on the fence (Ch'i Ch'iang ), though back in Peking, but Prince Ch'un , Shih Hsü, Yü Lang, Chang Chih-tung and Yüan Shih-k'ai with T'ieh and Feng as Minister of War and Commander in Chief of the Manchu army respectively (specially summoned for the occasion to the Audience) all attended in the main Throne Hall of the Yi Luan Tien . The Old Buddha, who was wearing a sable robe, sate on the Throne, which consisted of two tiers, with a lower place for the emperor; but P'u Lun had not arrived at the Lake Palace and was said to have gone to the Forbid den City where the formal assumption of the Throne would naturally occur according to dynastic etiquette. The Empress said: "The emperor has become a guest of Heaven. P'u Lun succeeds him. Prepare the necessary decrees immediately so that there may be no delay and that the nation shall feel perfect relief. T'ieh Liang, you must prevent rumours being disseminated. Feng Shan, you must maintain order with the Manchu army."

Prince Ch'un, who looked mortified and as dumbfoundered as a cicada in autumn, managed to mutter: "But Your Majesty promised Junglu that the Throne shall descend to his grandson, if my wife, his daughter, gave birth to a male heir. Can you break your promise to a loyal statesman? What feelings will animate his devoted soul at the Yellow springs, if he be conscious of this unfulfilled undertaking?"

"Yes, I can and do; because your wife has been disloyal to me, has demanded my abdication and has spoken slightingly of my morals. It is for me to make or to unmake whom I will: you had better be circumspect in your words."

Yüan Shih-k'ai approved of P'u Lun's accession, and none of the oth er officials spoke except Chang Chih-tung who asked what steps the Old Buddha meant to take to prevent foreign governments asking awkward questions.

"I have provided for that already," said the Empress; "it is no one's business except mine."

Feng Shan, in discussing the event, told me that Her Majesty was wonderfully alert and vigorous: the death of her bête noire had verily rejuvenated her. She announced her intention of continuing the Regen cy with the rank of Impératrice Grand-mère, T'ai Huang T'ai Hou. The Council withdrew to prepare the decrees, while the Old Buddha retired for a short rest, it being now about 12:45 a.m. Naturally, in such a delicate matter, the drafting of the phraseology took some time and it must have been 4 a.m., the hour of the Tiger, when the Council sent in a message through Li Lien-ying to invite the Old Buddha to Sheng Tien , accord her presence on the imperial seat. At 5 a.m., the hour of the Rabbit, the Empress rose from her shortened slumbers, maids of honour being as usual in attendance by the Phoenix Bed, and ascended her yellow chair to enter the Throne Hall. T'ieh Liang and Feng Shan were not summoned to the audience, not being on the Council, but were waiting in attendance in a side hall. By dynastic customs eunuchs were not admitted to the deliberation, although Li Lien-ying told me that he sometimes stood behind a curtain watching developments and ready, I presume, to defend his great mistress in case of treachery, although physically he would have been no match against a coup de main. On this occasion, said Li, he heard everything that passed until the dénouement, which I am about to describe, but apparently retired for a few minutes to take a few "whiffs" (Ch'ih Liang K'ou Yen ) as his craving was insurmountable. So the Councillors handed the draft decrees to the Empress for approval: she read them with her usual meticulous care, altered several phrases and added a few words of eulogy toward her august self to the valedictory decree. Then she said: "So be it: let these decrees be printed and issued at noon today. The new emperor shall proceed tomorrow to the T'ai Ho Tien to receive the homage of the officials. Yüan Shih-k'ai, you must go and tell Prince Ch'ing to notify the diplomatic corps not later than this evening. He is to attend here first at the hour of the Dragon (9 a.m.) for further orders."

Feng Shan and Li Lien-ying both told me independently that the Council prepared to withdraw, Prince Ch'un almost in hysterics with rage and disappointment. It does not appear from what they said that he and his three colleagues, Chang Chih-tung, Yü Lang and Shih Hsü had any part nor lot in the subsequent event; personally, I should imagine Prince Ch'un was privy to the plot, and his guilty complicity would have been a motive for his intended decapitation of Yüan a couple of months later (only prevented by the totally unjustified intervention of Sir John Jordan, the British Minister, under orders from His Majesty's government to say that Yüan's death would be regarded by Great Brit ain, then (quantum mutatus) a great power, as a casus belli.)

Yüan Shih-k'ai and T'ieh Liang asked Her Majesty to grant to them a special private audience to submit their humble views on a matter of state. The Empress graciously acceded and they knelt before her. Yüan kotowed thrice and T'ieh followed his example. "Your Majesty is full of years, riches and honours. You should pass your remaining years in the profound seclusion of Yi Ho Yüan and not be troubled by multitudinous state affairs (Cheng Shih Ts'ung Ts'o ). I ask Your Majesty, and T'ieh Liang (who nodded assent) joins me in the prayer, to issue one more decree announcing your irrevocable abdication and appointing us as Grand Imperial Preceptors, T'ai Shih , who will advise the new emperor on all governmental business as joint Regents."

The Old Buddha's wrath kindled even as thunder – Ta Fa Lei T'ing ; she shouted in her rage and fury: "You traitor, nay you two traitors. After all I have done for you, is this the way you repay my benevolence? I dismiss you both from your offices and shall order that you be handed for trial to the Minister of Justice. Though you die a thousand deaths, your retribution will be too light (Ch'ien Ssu Wan Ssu Pu Tsu Pi Ku ). The cup of your treason and iniquity is full to the brim. Leave the presence and await my orders."

Feng Shan (courtesy name Yü-men ) who was in the side hall and T'ieh Liang who was kneeling before the Throne agree in saying that Yüan thereupon drew out a six-chambered revolver and fired three shots at the Empress. Both claimed that he wished to frighten her into acquiescence, whereas the eunuch Ts'ui says that he fired point blank, à bout portant, at her, hitting her.

She did not collapse on the instant but shouted: "Treason! arrest Yüan and decapitate him. Unnatural villain, why have I spared him so long?"

The court apothecaries, the women of the bedchamber, the eunuchs, hearing the shots, all came rushing in. Li Lien-ying, beside himself with grief and remorse, prostrated himself (kowtowing) on the floor and wailing: "Old Ancestress! Live for us all."

The haemorrhage was terrible to witness and the physicians seemed utterly helpless. She tried to rise but sank back muttering: "So this is the end. Where is Junglu? What treason! Is this indeed my latest hour? Taoist Yogi, you deceived me in saying I had ten years to live. Buddha's curse on you traitors. Bury me according to my rank as Empress Dowager. Carry out my will. Behead Yüan and T'ieh, I can no more." (Compare the dying voice of Queen Catherine of Aragon: "As the daughter of a king inter me . . . can no more.") Thus saying, she expired amidst the wailing of the eunuchs and of the household who called upon her spirit not to leave the tenement of the body.

The dead body of the Old Buddha, whose pen had indeed been mightier than a thousand swords, was taken by eunuchs to her bed chamber and placed upon the bed (Shang Ch'uang) after ablution and the arraying in royal robes, new and never previously worn, in accord with custom both Manchu and Chinese. Her mouth remained obstinately open; her eyes were not closed; the face was puckered and ghastly. She was dead. Truly a great personality had "fallen in Israel". How would the population take the news, with horror or with relief? Surely the former. In fact, the whole of North China was literally stunned and bewildered with grief.

The tidings did not become known immediately, as the public were only informed in instalments: the official announcement of her "fatal illness" was promulgated by the Gazette at about 3 p.m. on the Sunday, the following day, Kuang Hsü's death being announced on Saturday evening when I received the latter decree still in the Empress' name. I had heard the news of her murder but faithful to my promise, in calm, calculated defiance of the truth, allowed in my writings both the emperor's demise and that of the Old Buddha to appear as due to natural causes (unwillingly so, as regards the Empress' death). In fact, H.M. Government, on hearing the true facts, enjoined me almost with menaces never to give out the truth to the world, their blind faith in the traitor Yüan Shih-k'ai depriving them of all sense of perspective or of inclination to brand their beloved protégé as an assassin. In the city, and in China generally, the facts became known as in a glass darkly and Yüan was cursed, as he deserved to be, as a villain, unparalleled in history, not even by Ts'ao Ts'ao himself.

See also:

A Modest Proposal for China

The Hermit of Peking