- Enemy, Friend, Martyr:Commemorating Liangbi (1877–1912), Contesting History
In the early days of the 1911 revolution, even as one southern province after another seceded from the empire, the Qing was not yet vanquished. It was buttressed by the fierce loyalty of the Imperial Guards and the substantial military might of Yuan Shikai (1859–1916), recently called back from retirement by the court. To many at the time, a protracted stalemate between the north and the south seemed likely. But then, on January 26, 1912, a bomb-thrower assaulted Liangbi, head of the Imperial Guards, in front of his Beijing residence.1 The assassin died instantly and Liangbi died an agonizing death three days later. Historians generally agree that this assassination, coming at it did on the heels of several similar high profile strikes, "took the wind out of the Manchu resistance."2 Within days, the Empress Dowager Longyu agreed to the child-emperor Puyi's abdication and on February 12, the Qing Empire formally ended.
Liangbi (zi Laichen) was known as one of the up-and-coming young Manchus of his time. A collateral descendant of the ruling Aisin Gioro family, he acquired modern military training at the Imperial Japanese Army Academy (Rikugun shikan gakkō) and played a significant role in modernizing the Qing military. In history books, he is chiefly [End Page 1] remembered as one of the leaders of the Society for the Support of the Constitution, better known as Zongshe dang (imperial clan faction), a group of Qing nobles who banded together in a last ditch effort to revive the empire.
This study focuses on the curious project of Liangbi's commemoration, which began soon after his death, with a grassroots petition for his canonization as a martyr. All told, 184 people signed, but the project went nowhere, ignored by the deposed Qing court and rebuffed by the newly established Republican government. Although Liangbi was never recognized as a martyr in any official capacity, his commemorators conferred on him a private canonization (sishi) title of "Loyalty and Peacefulness" (Zhongjing), established a memorial hall in western Beijing, and more than a decade after his death, published a commemorative volume in 1923. In addition to the usual tributes from friends and family, the list of those who endorsed a private canonization consists of Qing loyalists as well as a good number of revolutionaries. Still more surprising, the volume contains a lengthy eulogy to Peng Jiazhen (1888–1912), Liangbi's assassin. At the very end of the volume, yet another surprise awaits — a letter from Sun Yatsen (1866–1925) that explicitly refuses the organizer's invitation to contribute a commemorative plaque for the deceased. Thus bound in one volume, assassin and victim are commemorated back to back; revolutionaries and Qing loyalists spar between the pages.
This slim volume raises large questions about the dead: Who got to be recognized as a martyr? What kind of death deserved collective grieving and was allowed to acquire lasting meaning? If Peng Jiazhen was to be celebrated as a martyr for the new Republic, one of "our martyrs" in Sun Yatsen's words, what of Liangbi, one of "their dead"? Was Liangbi a victim, whose death was something to regret and lament? Or was he simply an enemy, whose death cleared the way for the revolutionary cause, and thus a matter for celebration? Or was he, as his friends would have it, also a martyr, to be commemorated and celebrated? But a martyr for what? What burden of history did he bear?
Equally important, the commemorative volume raises questions about the living; for after all, martyrs are made by the living and largely for the living. Although private canonization had a long history (at least to the sixth century BCE)3, this particular one carries a whiff of tension, even of [End Page 2] contention, as it conferred a posthumous title on the deceased that in its highly compressed two-character form passed judgment on the deceased and on the changing times. To whom was he loyal? And why peaceful? What did it mean to be loyal to a defunct dynasty — and how could he rest in peace given the...