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There is a secret in this picture I took last year outside the Summer Palace, Beijing, China. Inside that building, all the doors and windows are blocked by an inside wall so the occupant, the Emperor of China, could not escape. In the year 1898, the Emperor was a prisoner in his own house.




This is the prisoner, Zaitian, the Guangxu Emperor from the Qing Dynasty. He had been made Emperor when he was five years old. Too young to rule, he was controlled by his adoptive mother.





This is his adoptive Mother and captor, the Grand Dowager Cizi. She had been Empress of China for 39 years. Cizi had come to power because, as a concubine, she had given birth to a son with her husband, the Emperor of China.

After her husband died, Cizi’s son became Emperor and she ruled through him.

When her son died, Cizi adopted Zaitian, her nephew, in the direct line of the Qing Dynasty and continued her rule through him.

By 1898, her adopted son was 37 years old. His royal tutors had raised him to believe his mother, the Empress, was brilliant, knew everything and was the smartest person in China. But now, he was beginning to have his doubts.


China had just lost a war with Japan. There was a rebellion of his own people against modern foreign influence. The Emperor saw his mother making decisions leading to a great financial loss for China.

He  saw problems everywhere he looked and came to believe that a constitutional monarchy would be best for modern China.

The Guangxu Emperor wanted to exercise his authority without the interference of his mother.

The Grand Dowager, however, would have none of this.  To stop the talk of modernization, she placed her son under house arrest for the rest of his life.


Nevertheless, change did come in high drama worthy of a major motion picture or novel. In November 1908, the Empress Cizi fell ill and believed she was about to die. She realized that after her death, her son would exercise his full power as Emperor of China and make the reforms she hated.


So .….she murdered him.


It was said that he was given a bowl of yogurt containing arsenic. It was said that upon eating it, his face turned blue. The Emperor died on November 14, 1908.  On the left is a picture of his funeral procession.

Later that very day, the Empress installed as Emperor the next in line from the Qing Dynasty, a 2-year-old boy.


Undoubtedly, the Empress felt she could continue her rule over China through the boy, just as she had ruled through the two previous Emperors.  But it was not to be. She was very ill and died November 15, 1908, the day after she murdered her son.


The child Emperor’s name was Henry Pu Yi, and his story became a motion picture in 1997. It was titled, “The Last Emperor”.

After the Grand Dowager‘s death, China remained as she had wanted it: old fashioned, out of date, and out of step with the outside world.


And that is why, six years later, when Americans Roy Chapman Andrews and his wife, Yvette Borup Andrews, explored China for the Natural Science Museum of New York, they found the country in frightful condition.

Life was lived as it had been for centuries, with very little sign of progress. The couple wrote about their fascinating journey in their book “Camps and Trails in Old China,” which I have recorded and published as a Listen To Read audiobook in our American Adventure Library series.

Here are Roy and Yvette, wearing white hats, encamped at Fuchow. In one chapter of the audiobook, the couple describe their encounter with the ancient practice of binding women’s feet, still taking place in the countryside, although Empress Cizi had been against the brutal practice.

Some Chinese were afraid to have their photographs taken; most people had never traveled more than 5 miles from their home. And Roy Chapman Andrews wrote, “No matter how long one has lived in China, one remains in mental suspense unable to decide which is the filthiest city of the republic.”


Our audiobook “Camps and Trails in Old China” describes a time warp between the ancient dictatorship of the Dowager Empress and the modern era, when a constitutional government was just struggling to take hold.

If you would like to hear their lively and fascinating true adventure, you can download it into your cell-phone from and listen while driving. Here is the link:


Here are Roy and Yvette shipside before the trip. By the way, Roy Chapman Andrews is said to be the model for Steven Spielberg’s character Indiana Jones.

Andrews didn’t search for the Ark of the Covenant, but he did explore bat caves, the haunts of the legendary Blue Tiger, travel through a wild country by mule train and take cover from a rain of bullets, surviving an attack in the Yen Ping Rebellion. Roy and Yvette had quite an adventure.


Andre Stojka
Listen To Read audiobooks
© 2017

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