After the disastrous Boxer Rebellion of 1900-01, the Dowager Empress Cixi and the young Emperor Zaitien whom she dominated as regent, issued an edict blaming their officials for China's weakness and for China's domination by foreigners. Cixi's edict proclaimed that China's method of government should change with the times and that China should learn more than just words and phrases from the nations that dominated it. Cixi's government began encouraging students to study abroad, and it began educational reforms within China. Civil Service examinations were to test more than one's knowledge of classical literature. In 1902, the government joined foreign missionaries and progressive Chinese in a campaign against the foot binding of women. The government also ordered provincial governors to reorganize their armies. A new military academy was to be created in each province, and old-style military exams were to be abolished.
Royalty in China was Manchu – seen by most Chinese as aliens – and in 1902 the Manchu government attempted to improve its relations with its subjects by lifting a ban on marriages between Manchu males and Chinese females. In 1904 it opened some government positions to Chinese. It opened military duty to Chinese, and it stopped discouraging Manchu males from entering farming or commerce. And around 1905, the throne began talking about preparing China for constitutional government.
China's merchants shared with the government the view that China should become a more wealthy and more powerful nation, and to advance their interests they formed associations and pushed for boycotts against foreign goods. Concerned about competition, the merchants lobbied against collusion between the Manchu government and foreign capitalists. They lobbied against foreigners in China regulating commerce, and they lobbied for freedom from government controls.
As the government talked about reforms, unrest in China continued. By 1905 the number of Chinese students in Japan had risen to about 8,000, from about 280 in 1901. And many among China's growing student population joined those among the gentry who believed that one way to advance China quickly was to rid China of the Manchu monarchy. The monarchy tried to defend its authority by warning merchants and gentry against interfering in government affairs, and it told the students in Japan that they should concentrate on their studies and not concern themselves with politics or make speeches in public. Sovereignty, said the monarchy, belonged to the throne.
The monarchy also faced continued unrest among the peasantry – which was eighty percent of China's population. In various localities the peasants were suffering hardships, and sometimes famine. Since the Boxer Rebellion, various uprisings had been attempted against local authorities. They remained isolated and easily crushed by local governors.
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