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Arsenic killed Chinese emperor, reports say

  • Story Highlights
  • Forensic tests show arsenic poisoning killed Emperor Guangxu, Chinese media report
  • Guangxu preceded Puyi, China's last emperor
  • Empress Dowager Cixi effectively seized power from Guangxu
  • Guangxu died just 22 hours before elderly Cixi, fueling suspicion
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BEIJING, China (CNN) -- Modern science may have unraveled a mystery about the death of one of China's last emperors.

Forensic tests have revealed that China's second-to-last emperor, Guangxu, died of arsenic poisoning 100 years ago this month, in the waning days of imperial China, according to a report published Monday in the state-run China Daily newspaper.

An examination of hair taken from Guangxu's body found arsenic levels that were 2,000 times higher than that of ordinary people, leading experts to "conclude that Guangxu died of acute arsenic poisoning," the newspaper reported, citing an investigative report.

"The arsenic so far collected from hair, clothing and the remaining stomach substance was about 201.5 mg," the paper reported. "An ordinary person will die of eating 60 to 200 mg of arsenic."

The findings culminate a research project involving the China Institute of Atomic Energy, the Beijing police and the state-run China Central Television, which plans to air a documentary about the emperor's death. The research effort began in 2003 under the national program of the Compilation of Qing Dynasty History, China Daily said.

The results shed light on a mystery that has simmered for a century, since China learned of the emperor's death at age 36 in November 1908.

Guangxu ascended to the Chinese throne in 1875, around age 4, and he ruled in the shadow of his biological aunt, the Empress Dowager Cixi, who adopted the boy just before he became the emperor. The empress continued to exert influence even after Guangxu asserted himself as the emperor, while in his 20s.

When he sought to modernize and reform China's imperial system, Cixi effectively seized power and placed him under house arrest in 1898.

Ten years later, in November 1908, Guangxu died -- just 22 hours before Cixi died at age 74, after a serious illness.

China Daily quoted a historian, Dai Yi, who speculated that Cixi may have known of her imminent death and may have worried that Guangxu would continue his reforms after her death.

After Guangxu and Cixi died, a 2-year-old boy, Puyi, ascended the throne. He was forced to resign four years later, in 1912, when the Chinese Revolution ended the imperial system.

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