The book was biography of Tan Sitong, a man with the same family name as Tan Mei.
He was one of the activists involved in the Hundred Days Reform of 1898.
He was part of the group that, driven by the defeat of China in the Sino-Japanese War of 1894-5, persuaded the young Guang Xu emperor — who was 27 at the time — to adopt a reform programme. This was opposed by the dowager empress, Ci Xi, who staged a coup against the young emperor.
Tan Sitong, on becoming aware of her opposition, alerted a general whom he thought was sympathetic to the reformist cause, but the general betrayed him.
The reformers were rounded up and Tan Sitong was beheaded. Though he had the chance to escape to Japan, as some other group members did, it is said that he chose to remain because he thought his execution would add support to the cause of reform.
His wife, Li Run, committed suicide by slashing her throat.
The Guang Xu emperor remained emperor and was kept under house arrest and occupied himself with his collection of clocks. He died at the age of 37 only a day before Ci Xi who was in her 70’s and seriously ill.
He was probably poisoned by supporters of the dowager who were afraid he might reassume power. That seemed to be confirmed by an investigation of his remains 2008.
Tang Mei’s remark about Englishmen getting caught up in Chinese politics seems to relate to Timothy Richards, a missionary and friend of one of the leading reformers Kang Youwei. He was pushing the idea of a federation with Japan, supported by Britain and America, to accelerate reforms in China.
Some historians now think this was the last straw that drove the conservatives in to action and precipitated the coup d’état.