A Hundred Years After This Man's Death Scientists Confirmed He Was Murdered

This historical mystery is not a “whodunnit.” It’s more of an “ifdunnit.” In 1908 the emperor of China died a very suspicious death. It took until 2008 for people to know that the person who almost definitely did murder him actually did murder him.

For a hundred years, people didn’t know if this man was murdered. They were fairly certain he was. The man above was Emperor Guangxu, the official second-to-last emperor of the Qing dynasty. He was also the unofficial prisoner of Empress Dowager Cixi, his adoptive mother and the actual ruler of China. They died within a day of each other. Cixi was on her deathbed when Guangxu officially died—leaving behind a very convenient will which named Cixi’s choice for the next emperor.


In 2008, the National Committee for the Compilation of Qing History plucked a hair from the head of the Emperor, a hair from his wife, the Empress (when she died she was buried with him), a hair from a courtier of the same time period, and a hair from someone who suffered from chronic arsenic poisoning. They found that the Emperor’s hair did not resemble that of a person who had undergone chronic but mild arsenic poisoning, and that the arsenic level in his hair was 132 times higher than the level of the courtier. More damningly, when they tested Guangxu’s clothes, they found very high levels of arsenic on the clothes around his stomach region. The man was almost certainly poisoned.

Most people agree that he was poisoned by Cixi, his adoptive mother. What few can agree on is what that means. The NPR article that describes the National Committee’s findings casts Empress Dowager Cixi as the villain, an old-school conservative who led a coup because Guangxu was too much of a progessive. Jung Chang, author of a biography of the Empress Dowager, makes the opposite case. Cixi, who had orchestrated several coups which kept her in power for decades, was a competent ruler, a staunch modernizer and progressive, and an ardent nationalist. Chang argues that while Cixi had faults and made mistakes, she only orchestrated a coup against Guangxu because he had fallen under the influence of “Wild Fox” Kang, a snaky political firebrand who plotted (perhaps with the Emperor) against Cixi’s life and would have handed over the empire to Japan for an “alliance” which would have been domination. Even Chang admits that Cixi almost certainly murdered Guangxu, but argues that it was the empress’s last play to keep China independent.

So we have a political murder, but we don’t know what it means. Was it an act, delayed until the last minute, to keep a country safe? Or was it the last revenge of a villain, exerting conservative control from beyond the grave?


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