On July 10, 1898, the reformist leader Kang Youwei 康有為 (1858–1927) memorialized the throne proposing that all academies and temples in China, with the exception of those included in registers of state sacrifices (sidian 祀典), be turned into schools. The Guangxu emperor was so pleased with the proposal that he promulgated an edict (shangyu 上諭) the same day taking over Kang’s phrasing. On three occasions in the following weeks, the editorial in the famous Shanghai daily Shenbao 申報 discussed the edict not as a piece of legislation aiming at facilitating the creation ex nihilo of a nationwide network of public schools, but as the declaration of a religious reform, that is, a change in religious policy that would rid China of temple cults and their specialists, Buddhists, Taoists, and spirit-mediums. This it was, indeed, although both Chinese and Western historiography have so far usually neglected to appreciate the importance of the religious element in the so-called Wuxu reforms (June 11–September 21, 1898) and later modernist policies. This importance, as we will see, can be gauged both in the writings of some of the reformist leaders, and among the populations concerned by the practical consequences.

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