Hidden History

The Prince and the Rebel7 min read

A thwarted assassination that almost changed the course of Chinese history – Jeremiah Jenne

Beijing. Early spring, 1910. The early hours of morning. Two young men are furtively digging a hole in the hard dirt beside a small stone bridge in the hutong just north of Houhai. Most other residents are asleep. March nights in Beijing are usually cold, and most people sleep with the windows shut. But there are ears other than human. The clanging of shovels and scratching of earth draws the attention of the neighborhood dogs, whose barking threatens the men with discovery. They run off with the job half-finished.

The next night, they return and complete their excavation. They carefully lower an iron cask into the hole, covering it with dirt to conceal it. That is when they discover that they are missing a crucial item. Their mistake means another delay. After a visit to a local hardware store the next day, the two young men are back the following evening. Only now there is a human witness to their nocturnal activities.

One of the alley’s residents, who would later claim he was restless – his wife had just run off with another man – has gone out for a walk to clear his head and get some fresh air. As he is heading back home, he spots the two men poking in the dirt near the bridge. What could be in the hole? Treasure? Stolen goods? Something to sell? After the diggers have left, the man skulks toward the bridge and investigates. Uncovering the package, he is scared and surprised – or so he tells the authorities – to find that the two men had planted a bomb.

The would-be bombers are at first oblivious that their plot is unraveling. They had packed the iron cask with explosives and newspaper, but their booby trap would require somebody to light the fuse manually, to ensure it goes off at just the right moment. (It was a longer strip of wire that they needed to go back to purchase, having at first brought a too short one.) Even with the longer fuse, it is unlikely that whoever lit it would be able to escape the blast.

If only one of the hutong residents hadn’t been cuckolded”

The Prince and the Rebel (Wikicommons)

In 1910, Wang Jingwei was 26 years old and a semi-professional revolutionary. Like many of his generation, he studied in Japan, and it was there that he had joined Sun Yat-sen’s Revolutionary Alliance (Tongmenghui), soon becoming one of Sun’s protégés and closest advisors. While Sun remained overseas raising money and giving speeches, Wang and his co-conspirators looked for an opportunity to light the spark of rebellion. Wang had became interested in Russian anarchism while in Japan, and perhaps he drew inspiration from the more extreme European anarchists who advocated violence to further their goals.

In 1910, morale in the Revolutionary Alliance was at an all-time low. Since its founding in 1905, the Alliance’s attempts to overthrow China’s Qing rulers had failed or fizzled. Many of its members, such as Wang, were returned students, easily mocked as ardent ideologues who were reluctant to get any actual blood on their hands. Without an army or any military support, assassination was one of the only ways for the revolutionaries to keep people focused on the cause – and to keep the donations from drying up.

As Wang left Japan for Beijing that year, his goodbyes had an air of finality, as if he knew that he wouldn’t be returning. For it was Wang who had volunteered to light the fuse, in what his friends feared was a suicide mission.

The target of the assassination was the Qing prince Zaifeng, also known as Prince Chun, father of the boy emperor Puyi. Zaifeng was born in 1884, the same year as Wang Jingwei, although their lives had taken radically different trajectories. The son of a Manchu nobleman from whom he inherited his title, Zaifeng was the younger brother of the Guangxu Emperor, who had reigned from 1875 until his untimely demise by arsenic poisoning in 1908. As the father of Puyi – the Guangxu Emperor’s successor – the 26-year-old Zaifeng found himself in an unenviable position as de facto ruler of a tottering empire.

It was a job for which he was unsuited both in temperament and aptitude. Zaifeng’s political experience was limited to a diplomatic foray in Germany, where he had delivered a personal apology on behalf of the Qing Empire to Kaiser Wilhelm for the murder of the German minister to China in the early days of the Boxer Rebellion in 1900.

Yet as Imperial Prince Regent, Zaifeng was one of the highest profile targets for assassination in the empire. Puyi was protected behind the high crimson walls of the Forbidden City, but his father Zaifeng still resided in their family mansion on the shores of Houhai, traveling back and forth between the palace as required. Wang Jingwei’s plan was simple: detonate the bomb right as Zaifeng’s carriage passed through Little Stone Bridge Hutong, and decapitate the imperial court.

The media and the Beijing back-alleys feasted on rumors”

If only one of the hutong residents hadn’t been cuckolded. Or Wang’s co-conspirators had bought the right length of fuse wire in the first place. The man who discovered a bomb instead of buried treasure alerted the authorities, who removed the threat and saved the life of Zaifeng. But while it was clear to them that an assassination attempt had been thwarted, it was less obvious who was responsible.

Zaifeng, Prince Chun (Wikicommons)

Newspaper accounts at first suggested that Zaifeng was caught up in murderous palace intrigue. After all, he wouldn’t be the first of his family killed to further the ambitions of other court members. Perhaps Zaifeng’s uncle, Prince Qing, was unhappy with his role as cabinet minister; with his nephew out of the way, he could depose the boy emperor and take the throne. Other newspapers blamed agents of foreign powers, who were forever meddling in China’s dynastic politics. It seemed at first that everyone was a suspect except for Wang Jingwei and his friends. While the media and the Beijing back-alleys feasted on rumors, investigators closed in on the conspirators by tracing components of the bomb.

Wang Jingwei was arrested, and would have surely been executed, but instead languished in prison until the Wuchang Uprising of October 1911. This, and the dynasty-toppling Xinhai Revolution that it precipitated, threw China into disarray, leading to the abdication of the Qing court in early 1912 and the establishment of the Republic of China. Finally, the revolutionaries had their victory, and Wang was eventually released.

Despite his willingness to sacrifice himself for the revolution, and his active support of Sun Yat-sen, Wang Jingwei found himself outflanked by another Sun protégé, Chiang Kai-shek, for  leadership of the new China. Wang and Chiang engaged in a bitter political feud in the years after Sun’s death from ill-health in 1925. This led Wang to make the fateful decision to collaborate with the Japanese as titular head of the Reorganized National Government of the Republic of China, under the control of the Japanese military. Now branded a traitor, Wang died in 1944 in Japan while undergoing an operation to fix lingering injuries from an assassination attempt by KMT agents nearly five years earlier.

Zaifeng continued as an advisor to his son Puyi, even after Puyi was no longer officially the emperor of anything. But in 1924, Puyi was evicted from the Forbidden City and sought refuge with Japanese authorities inside China. Zaifeng opposed his son’s decision to throw in his lot with Japan, and later refused to travel to Manchuria when Puyi became the emperor of another Japanese puppet state, Manchukuo. Retiring to the shores of Houhai, Zaifeng became another relic in his mansion, and died in 1951. In 1949, when the Communists came to power, he was persuaded to “donate” his palace to the new state, and much of the main compound is now the headquarters of the State Religious Affairs Administration.

Today, Little Stone Bridge Hutong (Xiao shi tiao hutong 小石橋胡同) is a quiet residential street. A historic marker at the top of the street mentions the attempted bombing in 1910, the only indicator of the drama which shook the neighborhood in the last days of the Qing Empire. ∎

Header: A hutong bridge in Beiijing’s Houhai neighborhood. (Flickr/Gauthier Delecroix)

Jeremiah Jenne

Jeremiah Jenne is a writer, educator, and historian based in Beijing.