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  • Reconstructing the Imperial Retreat:Politics, Communications, and the Yuanming Yuan under the Tongzhi Emperor, 1873-4
  • Emily Mokros (bio)

"I was seized with a desire to aid personally in the emperor's endeavor," claimed a Cantonese merchant in a message to the emperor's ministers in the Imperial Household Department (neiwufu).1 "This sum that I contribute is but the tiniest token of my feelings," wrote the head of the Imperial Silk Manufactory in Hangzhou.2 After a decade of abandonment and looting, the Tongzhi Emperor had implemented a project to restore the Yuanming Yuan.3 Supporters of the project lauded it as heralding the restoration of imperial power. Yet at the same time that these devoted messages streamed in, rumors about the project swirled through the bureaucracy and in the new public press. "There is [End Page 76] no way," wrote the governors of several provinces, themselves occupied with post-Taiping reconstruction. The Qing Veritable Records depict the project's uncomfortable conclusions: an errant wood merchant had attempted to bilk the throne of thousands of taels of silver; Imperial Household Department agents had conspired to bring him into the project; and in a fit of anger, the Tongzhi emperor had demoted his closest advisor, Prince Gong, citing problems since the very day of his ascension to the throne.4

Such a burst of controversial activity suggests that we must look more closely at the year-long active reign of the Tongzhi emperor to find out what happened to the Yuanming Yuan, and indeed what was happening in the late Qing. While the Yuanming Yuan reconstruction project proceeded in guarded discussions with court architects and diplomatic correspondence, news of the ill-fated project in edicts and memorials circulated through the empire in the court circular (jingbao) and in the pages of treaty-port newspapers.5 These sources show doubt as well as optimism in the debate over the garden's repair. Although the late Qing is often glossed as a period of "decline" for the dynasty and gardens alike, concerns for the decline and weakness of the Qing dynasty and hopes for the dynasty's restoration were an important component of the argument over the Yuanming Yuan reconstruction project.6 Significant and often overlooked factors in late Qing politics included conciliatory and conflicting interests in imperial restoration, regional sentiment, concerns about national defense, and personal opportunism. In fact, this period was characterized by debate, factionalism, and policy agendas intended to challenge decline. Fittingly, the reconstruction project generated a debate over the restoration of imperial power.

In this article, I first introduce the Yuanming Yuan reconstruction debate in the context of the post-Taiping "Tongzhi Restoration," highlighting the contradictions in past scholarly treatment of the period. From there, I situate the [End Page 77] project's unfolding from the vantage of involved parties: the emperor himself, the Imperial Household Department, opposition in the provinces and at the capital, treaty-port communities, activist censors, and the emperor's advisors. The final section of the article describes how actors from different sections of the official world converged to view the reconstruction of the Yuanming Yuan as part of a larger endeavor to restore the power of the throne. In these discourses, the reconstruction's imminent failure carried portents of decline which were recognized and brought to the throne in pleas for imperial action.

In March 1873, Zaichun, the Tongzhi emperor (1856-75, r. 1861-75) was proclaimed an adult and finally allowed to rule from the throne (qinzheng).7 This ended the Tongzhi Regency, during which the two Empresses Dowager Ci'an and Cixi and the Emperor's uncle Prince Gonghad administered the affairs of the throne.8 Robert Hart, Inspector General of the British-administered Chinese Maritime Customs, wrote his agent in London: "The event of the day is the coming of age of the Emperor . . . on the 23rd Feb. the regency ended and the emperor began to rule in person: not that this change changes the way of managing affairs much . . . ."9 By Hart's own design the Maritime Customs interacted more with the newly founded Chinese diplomatic agency, the Zongli yamen, than with the emperor, and thus Hart anticipated a...