Sunday, November 18, 2012

Historical Context: The Xinyou Coup

With the defeat of the Qing army during Second Opium War, the Xianfeng Emperor and the Imperial family were forced to flee to the Mountain Resort in Rehe (, now known as Chengde). When he learned of the Burning of Yuan Ming Yuan, his health quickly deteriorated and not long after, the Emperor died at the Mountain Resort.

On his deathbed, Xianfeng appointed eight regents for his young successor, including Sushun (). As a balance to their power, Xianfeng also gave Imperial seals to his Empress Ci’an and the boy emperor’s mother, Cixi. The two seals would be required to issue any Imperial edicts.
A power struggle ensued between the two sides. The regents insisted that the two Empress Dowagers merely rubberstamp any edicts issued by them. The Empress Dowagers refused and demanded to be able to “Listen behind curtains” (垂簾聽). The regents vigorously opposed this policy, stating a long-standing Qing tradition that barred women from interfering with political matters.

To secure her power, Cixi convinced Ci’an that they needed to oust the eight regents. They secretly allied with Prince Gong, the brother of Xianfeng. Prince Gong had surprisingly been left out as a regent despite the fact that he was the closest relative of Xianfeng. At the time of Xianfeng’s death, Prince Gong was in Beijing, so he used the excuse of mourning for his brother to travel to Rehe. There he met with the Empress Dowagers to discuss their plans to overthrow the eight regents. They agreed that they had to travel back to Beijing since Rehe was under the political control of the regents.

After that, Prince Gong returned to Beijing to contact with more allies, including his brother Prince Chun, who held military power. The Empress Dowagers arranged for six of the regents to accompany Xianfeng’s funeral procession back to the capital. Meanwhile, they travelled ahead of the group with the boy emperor and two of the regents. Upon arriving with Beijing, they met with Prince Gong once again.

Next, they issued an edict that condemned the regents on several charges. The humiliation of the Second Opium War was placed squarely on the regents, blaming them of incompetent negotiations, forcing Xianfeng to flee the capital and causing his death. The regents were also accused of altering the will of Xianfeng and attempting to undermine the legitimate power of the Empress Dowagers. 

The two regents that had accompanied the Empress Dowagers back to Beijing were forced to commit suicide. Sushun, who was still making his way back to Beijing with the funeral procession, was promptly arrested by Prince Chun and executed for treason. The five other regents were spared, but released from their duties. The families of the eight regents were also spared.
In the aftermath, the boy emperor officially began his reign under the era name Tongzhi (). The name means “To rule together”, which is commonly interpreted as “mother and son ruling together”. Cixi began her de facto rule over China that would last for the next forty-plus years. Prince Gong was rewarded for his role in the coup with increased political power and influence.

The event became known as the Xinyou Coup (辛酉政變) named for the year in the Chinese sexagenary cycle that it took place (Gregorian calendar year 1861).


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