The reform movement of 1898 sought to move the Qing empire toward comprehensive and unprecedented institutional change and thus was a critical event in modern Chinese history. Had it succeeded, China could have, like Meiji Japan, entered the modern era without revolutions. Yet, however determined and daring its leaders, the historic effort was suddenly and tragically cut short by a coup.

The standard view of the Reform Movement has been that, in reaction to China's repeated defeats and humiliation as well as the inadequacy of the Self-strengthening Movement, the reform-minded Kang Youwei (illustration 1) and Liang Qichao finally won support for change from a sympathetic Guangxu Emperor. The reformers then managed to put into effect a nationwide reform program through imperial decrees. But the movement, which lasted barely over one hundred days, came to an abrupt end when the Empress Dowager Cixi and her conservative supporters recaptured political power, executed or imprisoned many of the reformers, and placed the emperor under permanent house arrest.

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