Eminent Chinese of the Ch'ing Period/Wu K'o-tu

WU K'o-tu 吳可讀 (T. 柳堂), 1812–1879, Apr. 25, was a native of Kao-lan (Lanchow), Kansu. He became a chü-jên in 1835 and served as sub-director of schools of Fu-ch'iang, Kansu (1848–50). In 1850 he became a chin-shih and was appointed a secretary in the Board of Punishments, later rising to be an assistant sub-director. In 1859 he served as one of the assistant examiners during the provincial examination held in Peking. A year later, when the Allied British and French troops were approaching Peking (see under I-hsin), and the residents of the capital were moving out of the city, he was looking after his aged mother, then seriously ill. She died on September 26, 1860. On October 15, two days after the Allies entered Peking, he sent his family with the coffin of his mother to Paoting and thence to Kansu, he himself following later. He left an account of his experiences during those days in Peking when the Allied forces pressed on to the city.

During the mourning period for the death of his mother, Wu K'o-tu was back in Lanchow where he headed the Academy, Lan-shan Shu-yüan 蘭山書院. At the same time he was ordered to assist the local authorities in organizing a militia to fight the Mohammedan rebels. In 1862 he served on the staff of Grand Councilor and Acting Governor-general Shên Chao-lin 沈兆霖 (T. 尺生, 子菉, H. 雨亭, 朗亭, 萸井生, posthumous name 文忠, 1801–1862), in the latter's campaign against the Salar rebels of Sining. The rebellion was suppressed, but Shên was drowned in a freshet from a mountain stream. Wu himself returned safely to Lanchow, and about the year 1863 went to Peking where he was reinstated in his original post. In time he rose to be a department director and then a censor. In the latter capacity he commented in a memorial, in 1873, on the question of the Emperor's audience with foreign envoys. Early in that year the envoys had demanded an audience, but since they would not perform the ceremony of kowtow, the Court hesitated to grant it. Wu reproved the courtiers for paying attention to these small matters while overlooking the great concessions that were then being made to foreigners, and advised the Emperor to receive the envoys without the kowtow ceremony. The audience finally took place on June 29, 1873 (see under Tsai-ch'un).

Early in 1873, during the campaign against the Mohammedan rebels in Kansu and Turkestan (see under Tso Tsung-t'ang), a general, Ch'êng-lu 成祿, was accused by Tso Tsung-t'ang [q. v.] of having misappropriated military funds and of having disobeyed orders. That general was arrested in May and, after being tried in Peking, was sentenced to imprisonment awaiting execution. In January 1874 Wu K'o-tu, in a memorial to the throne, enumerated the crimes of the offender and argued for immediate execution, but the Grand Council advised the Emperor that the original sentence should stand. Highly incensed, Wu submitted a second memorial asking again for immediate execution, pledging his own life as a guarantee that the punishment was justified. He declared that he would not mind being imprisoned while the justice of his charge was being verified or even being executed so long as that general was forthwith beheaded. Confronted with this memorial, the Grand Councilors advised the Emperor to begin an investigation of Wu's sources of information. The Emperor, however, ignored the advice and punished Wu by lowering his rank three grades. Without waiting for an appointment, Wu returned at once to Lanchow where he was engaged by Tso Tsung-tang to head the Lan-shan Academy for a second time.

In 1876, nearly two years after Emperor Mu-tsung died, Wu was recalled to Peking and was appointed a secretary in the Board of Civil Appointments. According to Li Tz'ŭ-ming [q. v.], he led a quiet life in Peking, declining to join other officials in any sort of conviviality. In March 1879 he volunteered to serve on the commission to escort the coffin of Emperor Mu-tsung to the

Eastern Mausoleum for interment there. The ceremonies ended on April 17 but, instead of returning to Peking, he remained behind to dwell in a nearby Taoist monastery at Chi-chou. There, in the daytime, he took long walks in the hills and at night was busily occupied in writing. The result was a memorial to the throne, and two letters: one to the Taoist abbot and the other to his son, Wu Chih-huan 吳之桓 (T. 西白), then a secretary of the Board of War. On April 25 he took a dose of poison. His letter to the abbot was really intended for the eyes of the magistrate, to inform him that he died by his own hand and to give instructions concerning the burial of his remains in Chi-chou, near the tomb of the Emperor whose rights he had upheld. In the second letter he advised his son to leave Peking, and gave instructions about family matters.

Wu's main purpose in committing suicide was to have the memorial he had written submitted to the throne. No minor official, except a censor, had the right to memorialize the throne directly. Infringement of the rule would subject him to punishment and to a charge that he was seeking notoriety. A minor official might request a higher one to transmit a memorial, but the latter by reading and transmitting, and so presumably approving it, would be held equally responsible with the writer. Wu was certain that no high official could be found who would transmit the memorial, and certain also that he himself would be branded as a trouble-maker if he lived after the memorial was made known. For in his memorial he openly accused the Dowager Empresses (see under Hsiao-ch'in) of having erred in selecting, as heir to the throne, one (Emperor Tê-tsung) of the same generation of Emperor Mu-tsung, instead of one of the next generation as the laws of the dynasty required (see under Tsai-ch'un). He suggested that the Dowager Empresses might correct their error by announcing once more, but in more reassuring terms, that among the prospective sons of Emperor Tê-tsung, only the one who had been designated heir to the deceased Emperor (Mu-tsung) could rightfully inherit the throne.

Although the suggestion was treated by the Court as pointless, Wu K'o-tu, by his dramatic death, did register, against Empress Hsiao-ch'in in particular, a protest that was heard throughout the land. He chose suicide as preferable to inevitable punishment—but more especially to make certain that the document would not be shelved and that he himself would not be branded as insane. The Empress Dowager, on her part, was quite willing to reiterate her statement that the future heir to Emperor Tê-tsung would at the same time be the heir to the deceased Emperor Mu-tsung. She conferred on Wu the posthumous rank of a fifth-grade official, and so showed that she could also be generous. The case was thus disposed of at the Court.

The remains of Wu K'o-tu were properly buried in Chi-chou as he wished, under the able direction of the magistrate, Liu Chih-yen 劉枝彥, and a temple was raised at his tomb, with funds contributed by his admirers. Eulogies and poems, written by many people, including his friends, Chang Chih-tung and Chang P'ei-lun [qq. v.], were collected and printed in 1880 under the title, 吳柳堂先生誄文 Wu Liu-t'ang hsien-shêng lei-wên. This was expanded in 1883 by adding facsimile reproductions of his letters to the abbot and to his son. There is a portrait of Wu in the latter edition. His literary collection, entitled 攜雪堂全集 Hsi-hsüeh t'ang ch'üan-chi, was printed in 1893. A translation of his Memorial and of his Last Will and Testament appears in Evan Morgan's A Guide to Wênli Styles and Chinese Ideals (1912) p. 258–278.


[1/451/1a; 5/54/25b; Kansu t'ung-chih (1909) 64/29b, 87/26a; Li Tz'ŭ-ming, Yüeh-man t'ang jih-chi 32/7b; Tso Shun-shêng, Chung-kuo chin pai-nien shih tzŭ-liao hsü-pien (1933, see under Li Hsiu-ch'êng), pp. 125–32; Ch'ou pan I-wu shih-mo (see under I-hsin) T'ung-chih 90/35a; Morse, H. B., The International Relations of the Chinese Empire, vol. 2, pp. 279–81.]

Fang Chao-ying