The Blueblood—Prince Zaifeng
For a man whose family believed that heaven had installed them as supreme rulers at the center of the universe, Prince Zaifeng (载沣) was a worldly fellow. He was one of the first members of the Chinese imperial family ever to leave the Middle Kingdom—his early “apology tour” of Germany was a chance for the royals to express regret for the murder of the German ambassador during the Boxer Rebellion.
Although no one’s idea of a “youth” at the time of the Xinhai Revolution, Zaifeng was only 28 when, on his watch, the curtain came crashing down on 2,000 years of dynastic rule. Empress Dowager Cixi had planned to use him as her next docile puppet, appointing his son Puyi as the imperial successor. But her death just one day later on November 15, 1908 left Zaifeng suddenly in charge of a sinking ship.
Foreigners liked the well-traveled Zaifeng. When Beijing banker E. G. Hillier learned that Zaifeng would be regent, he called the new ruler “a serious-minded young fellow, of clean life and irreproachable integrity, and full of sincere zeal for the good of his country.”
The revolutionaries did not take such a magnanimous view. Wang Jingwei, later a turncoat and Japanese collaborator, began to plot against Zaifeng along with a small assassination corps. The group decided to plant a bomb beneath a bridge that Zaifeng crossed every day. Because of technical problems, the hapless group labored for three nights to set up the bomb, and on the third night, police discovered it.
Arrested and brought before Zaifeng, the melodramatic Wang waved revolutionary newspaper articles in the air and declared that they were written in ink, but “I wanted 37 to translate them into blood.” Zaifeng spared his life.
Though indecisive, Zaifeng did make some progress during his brief three-year regency. He convened the rst meeting of the National Assembly in 1910, and some think that if the revolution had not occurred, China might have become a constitutional monarchy under his leadership. But at the first meeting, the assemblymen failed to kneel in his presence, and according to a biographer, “thereafter life was never again the same for Zaifeng.”
Zaifeng, like everyone else, was caught by surprise by the success of the Wuchang Uprising. Imperial forces put up a fight, but could not contain the spread of revolution, and the Qing Dynasty soon abdicated. Less than a year later, Zaifeng announced that he formally accepted the Republic of China. For this he was spared a life of humiliation, and was well treated even by the Communists in his final years, even as his hapless son remained a revolutionary punching bag.