44. Empire Reform Society medal

Perhaps nothing demonstrates the shallowness of the gold miner/market gardener stereotype of the history of Chinese people in Australia than this medal, designed and distributed by the international body know as the Baohuanghui (保皇會) or Empire Reform Society. This medal represents the high level of political engagement that was common as people in China and around the Chinese Diaspora strove to cope with the fast changing modern world at the turn of the 20th century. This was an engagement that at first sought to preserve and reform along constitutional lines an imperial dynasty hundreds of years old before its more revolutionary wing predominated and helped transform the Qing Empire into the Republic of China. 

Photo courtesy of Nola Bramble

The roots of the Empire Reform Society lay in the 100 days reform, an abortive effort by the then Guangxu Emperor to bring the Qing dynasty into a better position to cope with the modern world and the European nations that were taking increasing advantage of the decay they were themselves partly responsible for. The failure or suppression of that reform effort lead to some of the leading reformers such as Kang Youwei and Liang Qichao to flee abroad where the extensive network of Chinese people living overseas were very receptive of their message.

This message of the need to reform China was to increasingly connect with the needs and desires of those now beginning to be labelled “overseas Chinese”. For those of Chinese heritage living in colonial and white settler dominated places the need for a reformed – or what was seen as the same thing – a stronger China was increasingly seen to be necessary. A strong China, it was argued, was needed if Chinese people were not to continue to be discriminated against by such as the new Commonwealth of Australia and its Immigration Restriction Act of 1901 (see No.1). One result of all this was the establishment of the Baohuanghui which took the now closely secluded Emperor as their symbolic leader in an international organisation aimed at bringing about a reformed Qing Empire that would perhaps make the Qing similar to the constitutional monarchy of the then global superpower, Britain or that of Meiji Japan, which had recently defeated the Qing in war.

Guangxu Emperor

Branches of the Empire Reform Society were established around the world and also around Australia where Sydney’s Tung Wah Times was their modern media mouthpiece. Reformers were of course not the only ones who were politically active and in the period immediately following the Boxer movement the Qing found themselves discredited as did those who were trying to reform them. As a result, a more revolutionary moment began to gather strength in Australia and around the Chinese diaspora that would seek a Chinese Republic.

The Chinese Australian community was intensely involved in all the political movements of the early 20th century. One of the most prominent of the early reformers, Liang Qichao visited Australia and published some of his most influential works in Australia’s Chinese language press. When, after the collapse of the Qing, Wong Shee Ping, the author of The Poison of Polygamy (see No.11), supported the revolutionary cause of the new republic he was continually attacked politically by the more conservative who had previously supported reform. 

While many a market gardener no doubt did not involve themselves in these political arguments to the degree perhaps of the merchant elite, the stereotype that ignores the modernity of Chinese people in Australian is as one scholar aptly described it – a Big White Lie.[1]


[1] John Fitzgerald , Big White Lie: Chinese Australians in White Australia (UNSW Press, 2007) 

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