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CERA: The First Global Effort for Chinese Reform

For the week of Monday, May 8, 2017

On May 10, 1903, the Chinese Empire Reform Association (CERA) of Victoria, BC, placed an advertisement for their organization in the British Colonist. Though ultimately unsuccessful, the organization advocated constitutional reform for the Qing dynasty of Imperial China.

CERA published this poster in the British Colonist, showing its members and leaders with the Guangxu Emperor at middle top
© “University of Victoria Libraries, Victoria’s Chinatown digital exhibit; archive # CERA in Victoria. 2pdf; source Times-Colonist (Can West)”

CERA was formed in 1899 by Kang Youwei and merchant leaders of Victoria’s Chinatown. A political reformer and philosopher, Youwei fled China after the Empress Dowager Cixi led a coup d’état against the Guangxu Emperor in 1898. Cixi placed the Emperor under house arrest, ending his Hundred Days reform, which Youwei had supported. The reform sought to revitalize the educational system, adopt Western technologies, and shift from autocracy to constitutional monarchy.

Also known as Baohuanghi – Protect the Emperor Society – CERA aimed to free China from foreign aggression and protect its overseas citizens. After forming CERA, Youwei, fearing assassination, moved to Coal Island, just north of Victoria. Guarded by a Canadian police officer and private bodyguards, he planned a military campaign to free the Emperor. Meanwhile, CERA raised funds for the campaign and sent volunteers to China. In the summer of 1900 the campaign began, but ended in failure after a premature start from the city of Datong revealed the plan to local authorities.

Undeterred, CERA expanded operations becoming the first worldwide Chinese political organization, with branches in more than 150 cities by 1905. In 1910, the Victoria branch of CERA, now called the China Imperial Constitutional Association (Xianzhenghui), launched a petition for the Chinese government to convene a parliament. The government’s refusal was a key factor that led to the 1911 revolution, which ended the Chinese imperial system. Although influential until the 1920s, infighting that began before the revolution resulted in the organization’s rapid decline.

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CERA’s headquarters, at middle left, in Victoria, BC, today. Constructed in 1905, at 1715 Government Street, the building replaced the previous meeting place at Chinatown’s fifth theatre
© Joe Mabel / Wikimedia Commons

Moreover, in 1903, Youwei’s daughter, Kang Tongbi, formed the first Chinese women’s political association – the Chinese Empire Ladies Reform Association – in Victoria. Tongbi then travelled across North America, receiving education in the United States, giving speeches on Chinese affairs, pioneering feminist movements and encouraging the formation of new branches of the Chinese Empire Ladies Reform Association branches.

Victoria’s Chinatown is a designated national historic site. To learn more read Victoria’s Chinatown: Not Enough Women in the This Week in History archives.

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