ARI SHAPIRO, host:
Today marks the 100th anniversary of the mysterious death of China's second-to-last emperor. NPR's Louisa Lim reports on new government research showing that he was murdered.
LOUISA LIM: One hundred years ago today, a crime was committed here behind the imposing oxblood-red walls of Beijing's Forbidden City. It was the ultimate crime: the murder of an emperor. The victim was the second-to-last emperor of the Qing Dynasty - Guangxu, a tragic figure in Chinese imperial history, as described by Qing historian, Joseph Esherick from the University of San Diego.
Dr. JOSEPH ESHERICK (Qing Historian, University of San Diego): The Guangxu emperor in 1908 was only 37 years old. He had led a very vigorous program of reform 10 years earlier, in 1898, after which he had been deposed by the Empress Dowager and had then been held in their sort of palace arrest from that time forward.
LIM: Guangxu died just 22 hours before the 74-year-old Empress Dowager Cixi. Imperial medical records indicated Guangxu's death was due to natural causes. Even then, there were rumors of murder most foul. Now modern science has uncovered the truth. Deputy director of the National Committee for the Compilation of Qing History, Zhu Chenru, was involved in the research.
Mr. ZHU CHENRU (Deputy Director, National Committee for the Compilation of Qing History): (Through Translator) We took a hair a measuring 10 inches, and after analysis, we found its arsenate content was 2,400 times higher than normal.
LIM: The scientists compared this with samples from the emperor's wife, who'd been buried in the same tomb, to rule out environmental factors. Using the same method, they also ruled out the possibility that the emperor had been poisoned over a long period of time or by taking too much Chinese medicine. So, who was the murderer? The Empress Dowager had the motive. She feared if Guangxu outlived her, he would restart his reforms and undo her work. As to who administered the poison, there are five main suspects, including her favorite eunuch servant. But Zhu Chenru says only one person could have made the decision to kill.
Mr. ZHU: (Through Translator) One thing is certain. The Empress Dowager was the mastermind. All these people were her cronies, and it would be impossible for outsiders to come into the palace to poison the emperor.
LIM: Anecdotal evidence suggests the poison could have been placed in the simple bowl of yogurt. The minister of rituals in the Qing court, Pu Liang, passed this account down to his great-grandson, Qi Gong, who since died. But not before telling his story to Zhu Chenru.
Mr. ZHU: (Through Translator) His great-grandfather told him he'd see a eunuch coming out of the Empress Dowager's room carrying a bowl. He asked what it was. Yogurt, the Emperor Dowager asked me to give it to the emperor. Two hours later, he heard weeping from the emperor's living quarters and shouts of the Emperor is dead.
LIM: For the historian, the act of taking part in the research is a powerful example of just how much has changed.
Mr. ZHU: (Through Translator) One hundred years ago, he was the supreme ruler, and ordinary people weren't even allowed to look at him. But 100 years later, an ordinary person like me can touch his bones. History is like that.
LIM: I'm now on my way to meet the man who would have been the emperor of China if the Qing Dynasty had continued until today. Now, he's a simple mister Jin Yuzhang. He's a government official. And, I'm on my way to find out what he thinks of the latest discoveries.
Unidentified Woman: (Chinese spoken)
Unidentified Man: (Chinese spoken)
LIM: A heavyset 65-year-old wearing thick spectacles, he takes me to sit in a Qing Dynasty palace, which is now a hotel. He accepts the new findings and says he believes Guangxu was murdered to stop his reform program.
Mr. JIN YUZHANG (Guangxu Relative): (Though Translator) In the end, he sacrificed his life for the sake of national unity and social progress.
LIM: Jin Yuzhang doesn't believe that his ancestor's death changed the course of Chinese history. His words echo those of communist leader Mao Zedong.
Mr. JIN: (Through translator) The Qing Dynasty was already at its end. If the reforms had been successful, it might have lasted a few years longer. But the feudal society didn't fit the needs of the times. And if you don't destroy the old world, you can't build a new world.
LIM: This then is the end of the line. I'm standing in the tomb of Guangxu Emperor. I'm looking at his coffin which is a simple wooden box. It's inside a huge underground stone vault. And local people have placed very simple offerings in front of his tomb. There are pieces of fruit, bottles of water, pieces of candy. They and his descendants will be hoping that a hundred years on, finally knowing the truth, the soul of this murdered emperor will be able to rest in peace. Louisa Lim, NPR News, Cixi (unintelligible) Province, China.