When a generation is convinced they might be the last of their civilization, they take action—and sometimes wind up bitterly disappointed

In the year 1895, the taverns, inns, and brothels of Beijing were full of angry young men. They were bearded, angst-ridden millennial males a whole century before mass-market craft beers, WeChat, and Reddit.

They’d come to the capital to fulfill the duty of all young scholars of that time: taking part in the triennial imperial exams. A pass meant access to the highest echelons of office in the emperor’s service. Only a very lucky few would succeed, their less fortunate peers forced to return to toil in academies hoping for another chance, or else doomed to a career in the penumbra of society: as teachers, secretaries, or managers of family estates.

But 1895 was no ordinary exam year. News of war and defeat had spread throughout the capital: Hostilities over who would dominate the Korean Peninsula had pitted the Qing, then in seeming inexorable decline, against the Japanese Empire, which, since the “restoration” of the Meiji Emperor in 1868, had undergone an ambitious reform and modernization program that threatened to destabilize the balance of power in East Asia.

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Youth Reform is a story from our issue, “The Noughty Nineties.” To read the entire issue, become a subscriber and receive the full magazine. Alternatively, you can purchase the digital version from the App Store.


author Jeremiah Jenne

Jeremiah Jenne is a writer and historian based in Beijing since 2002. He earned his PhD from the University of California, Davis, and has taught Late Imperial and Modern Chinese History for over 15 years. His essays and articles on China have appeared in The Economist, the South China Morning Post, The Journal of Asian Studies, the Los Angeles Review of Books, and The World of Chinese. His writings can also be found in China in “2008: A Year of Great Significance,” “The Insider’s Guide to Beijing,” and the 2015 collection “While We’re Here: China Stories from a Writer’s Colony.” Jeremiah frequent speaks and leads workshops on history, culture, and cultural adaptation for students, embassies, companies, and community groups. Along with David Moser, Jeremiah also hosts the podcast Barbarians at the Gate.

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