Empress Dowager Cixi

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Empress Xiao Qin Xian
Empress Dowager Cixi
Cixi's Official Portrait.jpg
Reign As Concubine, then Consort (elevated several times through the Xianfeng Emperor's reign) September, 1851 - August 22, 1861, As Empress Dowager until November 15, 1908
Titles Divine Mother Empress Dowager
Born November 29 1835(1835-11-29)
Died November 15 1908 (aged 72)
Issue The Tongzhi Emperor

Empress Dowager Cixi1 (Chinese: 慈禧太后; pinyin: Cíxǐ Tàihòu; Wade-Giles: Tz'u-Hsi T'ai-hou) (November 29, 1835 – November 15, 1908), (pronounced Tsoo Shee) popularly known in China as the West Dowager Empress (Chinese: 西太后), was from the Manchu Yehe Nara Clan. She was a powerful and charismatic figure who became the de facto ruler of the Manchu Qing Dynasty when her son ascended the throne at the age of five, ruling over China for 47 years from 1861 to her death in 1908. Born in an ordinary Manchu family and selected as a concubine for the Xianfeng Emperor, she exercised almost total control over the court under the nominal rule of her son the Tongzhi Emperor and her nephew the Guangxu Emperor, both of whom attempted unsuccessfully to rule in their own right.

During the last decades of the Qing Dynasty, the government was split between a liberal faction that favored reform and modernization, and a conservative faction that was strongly attached to tradition. Empress Dowager Cixi was largely conservative and represented the conservative political faction at court. Many historians have considered her reign despotic, and attribute the fall of the Qing Dynasty, and therefore Imperial China, to Cixi's inability to understand the challenges posed to traditional China by the modern world. Other historians and biographers point out that she acted as might have been expected under the circumstances in which she lived, and believe that she has been unfairly blamed for problems that were beyond her control.

Early Years

Noble Consort Yi's portrait

The exact origins of Empress Dowager Cixi are unclear, but most biographies claim that she was the daughter of a low-ranking Manchu official named Huizheng (Chinese: 惠征) of the Manchu Yehenara clan, and his principal wife, who belonged to the Manchu Fucha (Chinese: 富察) clan.

Huizheng was a member of the Bordered Blue Banner of the Eight Banners, who served in Shanxi Province and later became Commissioner of Anhui Province. Edward Behr suggests that Cixi was born in 1835 as Lan Kueu (Little Orchid)[1], while Genzheng Yehenara, one of Cixi's brother's descendants, insists the name was Xing'er, and the name she used during schooling was Xingzhen. There are various stories about the early background of Cixi, none of which are in historical records. The most popularly circulated tales, some of which have made their way into Chinese historical fiction, suggest that Cixi was from one of four places: the Yangtze Region; Changzhi, Shanxi (this version says Cixi is actually a Han Chinese adopted by a Manchu family); Suiyuan (now Hohhot), Inner Mongolia; and Beijing. It is generally accepted that she spent most of her early life in Anhui Province before moving to Beijing sometime between her third and fifteenth birthday. According to biographers, her father was dismissed from the civil service in 1853, two years after Cixi entered the Forbidden City, for allegedly not resisting the Taiping Rebellion in Anhui Province and deserting his post.[2] Some biographers even claim that he was beheaded for his crime.

In September, 1851, Cixi participated, with 60 other Manchu girls, in the selection process for concubines for the new Xianfeng Emperor. This process was supervised by the Kang Ci Imperial Dowager Consort. Cixi was one of the few girls selected on that occasion, and was appointed Noble Person, concubine of the Fifth Rank. She moved into the Emperor's Old Imperial Summer Palace Complex, and was soon granted the title Worthy Lady Orchid (Chinese: 兰贵人), which was a consort of the second-lowest rank.

In 1855, the Lady Yehenara (as Cixi's name was recorded upon entering the Forbidden City) fell pregnant, and on April 27, 1856, she gave birth to Zaichun, the only male heir of the Xianfeng Emperor, obtaining an elevation to Imperial Consort Yi, which was a consort of the Fourth Rank.[3] When her son reached his first birthday, Yehenara was elevated to Noble Consort Yi. This rank was an imperial consort of the Third Rank (after Empress Consort and Imperial Noble Consort). Because the rank Imperial Noble Consort was empty at that time, the rank Noble Consort placed Yehenara second only to the Empress Consort Zhen (who later became the Empress Dowager Ci'an).

Death of the Xianfeng Emperor

In September 1860, during the closing stages of the Second Opium War, British and French troops attacked Beijing, and by the following month had burned the Emperor's exquisite Imperial Summer Palace Complex to the ground. The attack, under the command of Lord Elgin, was in retaliation for the arrest on September 18 of British diplomatic envoy Harry Parkes. The Xianfeng Emperor and his entourage, including Cixi, fled Beijing for the safety of Rehe in Manchuria.[4] On hearing the news of the destruction of the Summer Palace, the Xianfeng Emperor (who was already showing signs of mental illness) fell into a depression, turning heavily to alcohol and drugs and becoming seriously ill.[5]

On August 22, 1861, the Xianfeng Emperor died at the Rehe Palace in the City of Rehe (now Chengde, Hebei). A day before his death, the Xianfeng Emperor summoned eight of his most prestigious ministers, headed by Sushun, Zaiyuan, and Duanhua, and gave them an Imperial Edict appointing four members of the Imperial line, Zaiyuan, the Prince Yi; Duanhua, the Prince Zheng; Duke Jingshou; and Sushun; and four Ministers, Muyin, Kuangyuan, Du Han, and Jiao Youying, as the "Eight Regent Ministers" to direct and support the future Emperor.

His heir, the son of Noble Consort Yi was only five years old. On his deathbed, the Xianfeng Emperor summoned his Empress and Noble Consort Yi, and gave each of them a stamp. He hoped that when his son ascended the throne, his Empress and Noble Consort Yi would cooperate in harmony and, together, help the young emperor to grow and mature. The stamp was also meant as a check on the power of the eight regents [6]. Upon the death of the Xianfeng Emperor, his Empress Consort, aged 25, was elevated to the Empress Dowager Ci'an (popularly known as the "East Empress Dowager" because she lived in the Eastern Zhong-Cui Palace), and Noble Consort Yi, aged 27, was elevated to the Empress Dowager Cixi (popularly known as the "West Empress Dowager" because she lived inside the Western Chuxiu Palace).

Xinyou Coup: Ousting Sushun

Empress Dowager Cixi in her bedroom chamber, the Hall of Happiness and Longevity, inside the Summer Palace

By the time of Xianfeng Emperor's death, Empress Dowager Cixi had become a brilliant manipulator. In Rehe, while waiting for an astrologically favorable time to transport the coffin back to Peking, Cixi plotted to grab power. Cixi's position as the lower Empress Dowager was neither convenient nor legitimate when it came to political power. In addition, the young emperor was not yet enough of a factor to be taken into political consideration. As a result, it became necessary for her to ally herself with other powerful figures. Taking advantage of the naivete and good nature of the late emperor's principal wife, the Empress Dowager Ci'an, Cixi suggested that they become co-reigning Empress Dowagers, with powers exceeding the Eight Regent Ministers. [7]

Tensions grew between the Eight Regent Ministers, headed by Sushun, and the Empress Dowagers. The ministers did not appreciate Cixi's interference in political matters, and the frequent confrontations left the Empress Dowager Ci'an in an angry state, to the point where she refused to come to court audiences, leaving Empress Dowager Cixi alone to deal with the ministers. Secretly, Cixi began collecting the support of talented ministers, soldiers and others who were ignored or hated by the eight regent ministers. Among them was Prince Gong, who had great ambitions and was at that time excluded from the power circle, and the Prince Chun, the sixth and seventh sons of the Daoguang Emperor (brother and predecessor of the Xianfeng Emperor), respectively. While she aligned herself with the Princes, a memorial came from Shandong asking for Cixi to "Listen to politics behind the Curtains," in other words, asking Cixi to become the ruler. The same memorial also asked Prince Gong to enter the political arena as a principal "aide to the Emperor."

When the funeral procession started for Beijing, Cixi made full use of her alliance with Prince Gong and Prince Chun. She and the boy Emperor returned to the capital before the rest of the party, along with Zaiyuan and Duanhua, two of the principle regents, while Sushun was left to accompany the deceased Emperor's procession. Cixi's early return to Beijing allowed her to plot further with Prince Gong, and ensured that the power base of the Eight Ministers was divided between Sushun and his allies, Zaiyuan and Duanhua. History was re-written, and the Regents were dismissed for having carried out incompetent negotiations with the "barbarians," which had caused Xianfeng Emperor to flee to Rehe "greatly against his will," among other charges.[8] Empress Dowager Cixi and Prince Gong produced a document called the "Eight Guilts of Regent Ministers," which included allegations such as altering the late Xianfeng Emperor's wills, causing his death, and stealing power from the two Empress Dowagers.

Empress Dowager Cixi arranged for the execution of three of the eight regent ministers, Sushun, Zaiyuan, and Duanhua. Prince Gong had suggested that they be executed by the most painful method, known as slow slicing, but Dowager Cixi declined the suggestion and decided that Sushun should be beheaded, while the other two, Zaiyuan and Duanhua, were to be given white silks and ordered to commit suicide. Cixi refused the idea of executing the family members of the ministers, as was often done in Imperial tradition with the families of alleged usurpers. Ironically, Qing Imperial tradition also dictated that women and Princes were never to engage in politics. In breaking with tradition, Cixi became the first and only Qing Dynasty Empress to rule from "behind the curtains" (垂帘听政).

This palace coup is known as the "Xinyou Palace Coup" (Chinese: 辛酉政變) in China, after the name of the year 1861 in the Sexagenary cycle.

Behind the Curtains

New Era

Empress Dowager Cixi's
Provincial Appointments c.1863
Province Governor 中文
Zhejiang Zuo Zongtang 左宗棠
Henan Zheng Yuanshan 郑元善
Anhui Li Xuyi 李续宜
Hubei Yan Shusen 严树森
Jiangxi Shen Baozhen 沈葆桢
Jiangsu Li Hongzhang 李鸿章
Guangxi Liu Changyou 刘长佑
Hunan Mao Hongbin 毛鸿宾

In November, 1861, a few days after the coup, Cixi rewarded Yixin, the Prince Gong, for his help by making him head of the General Affairs Office and the Internal Affairs Office, and making his daughter a Gurun Princess, a title usually only bestowed upon the Empress' first-born daughter. Yixin's allowance was also doubled. However, Cixi avoided giving Yixin the absolute political power exercised by princes such as Dorgon during the Shunzhi Emperor's reign. As one of the first acts from behind the curtains, Cixi, in nominal collaboration with Ci'an, issued two important Imperial Edicts on behalf of the Emperor. The first stated that the two Empresses Dowager were to be the sole decision makers "without interference," and the second changed the boy Emperor's era name from Qixiang (祺祥; "Auspicious") to Tongzhi (同治; "collective rule").

Cleaning up the Bureacracy

Cixi's ascendance to power came at a time of internal chaos and challenges from abroad. China was still suffering the effects of the Second Opium War, and the Taiping Rebellion continued a seemingly unstoppable advance through China's south, gradually eroding the Qing Empire. Internally, both the national bureaucracy and regional authorities were infested with rampant corruption. It happened that 1861 was the year of official civil service examinations, when officials of all levels presented their political reports from the previous three years. Cixi decided that the time was ripe for a bureaucratic overhaul, and took on part of the role usually given to the Bureaucratic Affairs Department (吏部). She personally sought audience with all officials above the level of provincial governor, who had to report to her personally. Cixi also executed two prominent officials to serve as examples: Qingying, a military shilang who had tried to bribe his way out of demotion; and He Guiqing, then Viceroy of Liangjiang, who fled Changzhou in the wake of an incoming Taiping army instead of trying to defend the city.

Another significant challenge was the increasingly decrepit state of the country's Manchu elite. Since the beginning of the dynasty, most major positions at court had been held by Manchus, and Emperors had generally shown contempt for powerful Han Chinese. Cixi, in another reversal of Imperial tradition, entrusted the country's most powerful military unit against the Taiping army, to a Han Chinese, Zeng Guofan. During the next three years, Cixi appointed Han Chinese officials as governors of all southern Chinese provinces, alarming an administration traditionally accustomed to Manchu dominance.

Taiping Victory and the Prince Gong

A photograph of the seated Empress Dowager Cixi, aged around 55, colored by Imperial Court Painters according to reality (c. 1890)

In July, 1864, under the command of Gen. Zeng Guofan, the victorious Xiang Army defeated the Taiping Army in a hard-fought battle at Tianjing (present-day Nanjing). Zeng Guofan was rewarded with the title of Marquess Yiyong, First Class, and his brother Zeng Guoquan, along with Li Hongzhang and Zuo Zongtang, all Han Chinese generals from the war, were rewarded with decorations and titles. With the Taiping threat receding, Cixi focused on new internal threats to her power. Of special concern was the position of Yixin, the Prince Gong, and the Chief Policy Advisor (议政王) at Court. Yixin, who had the loyalty of at least half of the country, had effectively gathered under his command the support of all outstanding Han Chinese armies. In addition, Yixin controlled daily court affairs as the first-in-charge at the Grand Council, as well as the Zongli Yamen, the de facto ministry of foreign affairs. With his increasing stature, Yixin was considered a serious threat to Cixi and her power.

Although the Prince had been rewarded for his conduct, and for his recommendation of Zeng Guofan before the Taiping defeat, Cixi responded quickly when Cai Shaoqi, a little-known official who was the recorder at Court, filed a memorial asking for Yixin's resignation. Having built up a powerful base and a network of allies at court, Yixin considered the memorial insignificant. Cixi, however, used the memorial to initiate Yixin's removal. In April, 1865, under the pretext that Yixin had displayed "improper court conduct before the two Empresses," among a series of other charges, Yixin was dismissed from all his positions but was allowed to keep his title.[9] This dismissal, however, surprised the nobility and court officials, and brought about numerous petitions for his return. Yicong, the Prince Tun, as well as Yixuan, the Prince Chun, both sought their brother's reinstatement. Yixin himself, in an audience with the two Empresses, burst into tears [10]. Bowing to popular pressure, Cixi allowed Yixin to return to his position as the head of the foreign ministry, but rid Yixin of his title of Chief Policy Advisor. Yixin never returned to political prominence again, and neither did the liberal and pro-reform policies of his time. Yixin's demotion demonstrated Cixi's iron grip on Qing politics, and her unwillingness to giving up power to anyone, even her most important ally in the Xinyou Coup, the Prince Gong.

Foreign Influence

China's loss in the Second Opium War was undoubtedly a warning for its imperial rulers. Cixi presided over a country whose military strategies and weaponry, both on land and sea, were vastly outdated. In addition, there were significant difficulties in communications between China and the western powers. Recognizing an immediate threat from foreigners, and realizing that China's agricultural-based economy could not hope to compete with the industrial prowess of the West, Cixi decided that, for the first time in Imperial Chinese history, China would learn from Western powers and import their knowledge and technology. At the time, three prominent Han Chinese officials, Zeng Guofan, Li Hongzhang and Zuo Zongtang, had all began industrial programs in the country's southern regions. In supporting these programs, Cixi also decreed the opening of Tongwen Guan in 1862, a university-like institution in Beijing that hired foreigners as teachers and specialized in new-age topics such as astronomy and mathematics, as well as the English, French, and Russian languages. Groups of young boys were also sent abroad to study in the United States.

China's "learn from foreigners" programs quickly met with impediments. China's military institutions were in desperate need of reform, and Cixi's solution, under the advice of officials at court, was to purchase seven British warships. When the warships arrived in China, however, they carried with them boatloads of British sailors, all under British command. Enraged at this "international joke," China broke off negotiations and returned the warships to Britain, where they were to be auctioned off.

Some scholars attribute the failure of China's foreign programs to Cixi's conservative attitude and old ways of thinking. Cixi refused to allow any modernization that might infringe upon her own power. She forbade the construction of a railway under the pretext that it was too loud and would "disturb the Emperor's tombs." When construction went ahead anyway in 1877, under Li Hongzhang's recommendation, Cixi asked that the railway cars be pulled by horses [11]. Cixi was especially alarmed by the liberal thinking of people who had studied abroad, and saw that it posed a new threat to her power. In 1881, Cixi put a halt to sending children abroad to study, and withdrew her formerly open attitude towards foreigners.

Tongzhi's marriage and rule

Empress Dowager Cixi looks into a mirror while inserting a flower into her hair. Cixi, though shrewd, had great presence, charm, and graceful movements resulting in "an unusually attractive personality."

In 1872, when the Emperor was 17, under the guidance of the Empress Dowager Ci'an, the Tongzhi Emperor was married to Lady Alute (the Jiashun Empress). Empress Jiashun's grandfather had been an enemy of Empress Dowager Cixi during the Xinyou Coup. From the beginning, the relationship between Empress Dowager Cixi and the Jiashun Empress was tense and often a source of irritation to Cixi.

The Tongzhi Emperor began to spend most of his time with his new Empress, at the expense of his four Imperial Consorts and Concubines, including the Lady Fucha, Noble Consort Gui, who had been chosen by Cixi. Empress Dowager Cixi became hostile to the Jiashun Empress and told them that they were both still young and should spend more time studying how to effectively manage the country. Cixi also used eunuchs to spy on Tongzhi. After her warnings were ignored, Empress Dowager Cixi ordered Tongzhi to concentrate on ruling the country. Tongzhi purportedly spent several months following Cixi's order in isolation at Qianqing Palace.

The young Emperor, who could no longer cope with his loneliness, grew more and more ill-tempered. He began to treat his servants badly and to beat them for minor offenses. Under the combined influence of court eunuchs and Zaicheng, the eldest son of Prince Gong, who was also Tongzhi's contemporary and best friend, Tongzhi would escape from the palace and seek pleasure in Beijing. For several evenings, the Emperor disguised himself as a commoner and secretly spent the nights in the brothels of Beijing. The Emperor's sexual habits became common talk amongst court officials and commoners, and there are many records of Tongzhi's escapades.[12]

Under his mother’s control for most of his life, Tongzhi received a rigorous education from four famous teachers of Cixi's own choosing, in addition to his supervisor Mianyu; Li Hongzao, Qi Junzao, Weng Xincun (later his son Weng Tonghe), and Woren. These Imperial teachers taught the Emperor from the classics and various old texts for which the Emperor displayed little or no interest. The pressure placed upon the young Emperor made him despise learning for the majority of his life. According to Weng Tonghe's diary, the Emperor could not read a memorial in full sentences by the age of sixteen. Worried by her son's lack of aptitude for learning, Cixi only pressured Tongzhi more. When he was given personal rule In November, 1873, at the age of 18, four years behind convention, Tongzhi proved to be an incompetent Emperor.

Tongzhi made two important policy decisions during his short rule, which lasted from 1873 to 1875. First, he decreed that the Imperial Summer Palace, destroyed by the English and French in the Second Opium War, was to be completely rebuilt under the pretext that it was a gift to Cixi and Ci'an. Historians also suggest that it was an attempt to drive Cixi from the Forbidden City so he could rightfully rule without intervention in policy or his private affairs. The Imperial treasury was almost depleted at the time from internal strife and foreign wars, and Tongzhi asked the Board of Finance to forage for the necessary funds, as well as seeking donations from members of the nobility and high officials. Once construction began, Tongzhi checked its progress on a monthly basis, and would often spend days away from court, indulging himself in pleasures outside of the Forbidden City.

Uneasy about the Emperor's neglect of national affairs, Princes Yixin and Yixuan (the First Prince Chun), along with the Court's top officials, submitted a joint memorial asking the Emperor to cease the construction of the Summer Palace, among other recommendations. Tongzhi, unwilling to submit to criticism, issued an Imperial Edict in August 1874 to rid Yixin of his title of Prince and demote him to a commoner. Two days later, Yicong, Yixuan, Yihui, Jingshou, Yikuang, Wenxiang, Baoju, and Grand Councilors Shen Guifen and Li Hongzao were to be all stripped of their respective titles and jobs. Seeing the mayhem unfold from behind the scenes, Cixi and Ci'an made an unprecedented appearance at court, directly criticizing the Emperor for his wrongful actions, and asked him to withdraw the Edict; Cixi said that "without Prince Gong, the situation today would not exist for you and I."

Feeling a great sense of loss at court and unable to assert his authority, the Emperor returned to his former habits. It was rumored that the Emperor caught syphilis and became visibly ill. The doctors spread a rumor that the Emperor had caught smallpox, and proceeded to give medical treatment accordingly. Within a few weeks, on January 13, 1875, the Emperor died. The Jiashun Empress followed suit in March. Judging from a modern medical perspective, the onset of syphilis occurs in gradual stages, and the Emperor's quick death does not seem to reflect its symptoms. Therefore most historians maintain that Tongzhi did, in fact, die from smallpox.

Regency over the Guangxu Emperor

New challenges

Emperor Guangxu (Glorious Succession)

Tongzhi died without leaving a male heir, creating an unprecedented succession crisis in the dynastic line. Members of the generation above Tongzhi were considered unsuitable, because an Emperor could not be the successor of his nephew. The new Emperor had to come from a generation below, or the same generation as, Tongzhi. After considerable disagreement between the two Dowagers, Zaitian, the first-born of the First Prince Chun Yixuan and Cixi's sister, then aged four, was chosen to become the new Emperor. The year 1875 was declared the beginning of the era of Guangxu, or the reign of Glorious Succession. Young Zaitian was taken from his home and cut off completely from his family for the remainder of his life. While addressing Ci'an conventionally as Huang O'niang (Empress Mother), Zaitian was forced to address Cixi as Qin Baba (亲爸爸; lit. "Biological Dad"), in order to enforce an image that she was the fatherly power figure. The Guangxu Emperor began his education at five years old, taught by Imperial Tutor Weng Tonghe, with whom he would develop a lasting bond.

The sudden death of Empress Dowager Ci'an in April 1881 brought Cixi a new challenge. Ci'an took little interest in running state business, but was the decision maker in most family affairs. Owing to possible conflict between Cixi and Ci'an over the execution of An Dehai, or a possible will from the late Xianfeng Emperor issued exclusively to Ci'an, rumors began circulating at court that Cixi had poisoned Ci'an [13]. During March, 1881, Ci'an fell ill and Cixi became the only regent at Court, and on the Imperial records, Ci'an appeared sick on the morning of April 11, and was dead by the evening[14]. The circumstances looked suspicious, but because of a lack of evidence, historians are reluctant to believe that Ci'an was poisoned by Cixi, but instead choose to believe that the cause of death was a sudden stroke, as validated by traditional Chinese medicine. Ci'an's death meant that the balance of power was now tipped completely in Cixi's favour, and Prince Gong's position was considerably weakened.

The once fierce and determined Prince Gong, frustrated by Cixi's iron grip on power, did little to question Cixi on state affairs, and supported Chinese involvement in the Sino-French War. Cixi used China's loss in the war as a pretext for getting rid of Prince Gong and other important decision makers in the Grand Council in 1885. She downgraded him to "advisor," and promoted the more easily influenced Yixuan, the First Prince Chun. After being appointed President of the Navy, Prince Chun, in a sign of unswerving loyalty to Cixi, but in reality a move to protect his son, the new Emperor, moved funds from the military to reconstruct the Imperial Summer Palace outside of Beijing as a place for Cixi's retirement. Prince Chun did not want Cixi to interfere with his son Guangxu's affairs once he came of age. Cixi showed no opposition to the construction of the palace.

For her sixtieth birthday in 1895, Empress Dowager Cixi was given ten million taels of silver, which many believe was used to furnish her Summer Palace. Although money was diverted from the Chinese Navy, which had recently lost most of its modern warships in the First Sino-Japanese War of 1894, and urgently needed funds to rebuild a modern fleet, it is a common misconception that Empress Dowager Cixi chose to use that money for her own pleasure. Instead, she probably used the money to pay for public events and as gifts to the many favorite princes, courtiers, viceroys, governors, mayors, magistrates, and other officials in payment for their services. The Empress Dowager Cixi canceled her birthday celebration, upsetting many nobles, gentry and others who had expected to receive generous gifts.

The Guangxu Emperor's accession

Guangxu technically gained the right to rule at the age of 16 in 1887, after Cixi issued an edict for Guangxu to have his Accession to Rule ceremony. Because of her prestige and power, however, court officials voiced their opposition to Guangxu's personal rule, citing the Emperor young age as the main reason. Shiduo, Yixuan, and Weng Tonghe, each with a different purpose in mind, asked that Guangxu's accession be postponed until a later date. Cixi, with reputed reluctance, accepted the "advice" and legitimized her continued rule through a new legal document that allowed her to "aid" the Guangxu Emperor in his rule indefinitely.

Cixi slowly let go of her iron grip on power as the court prepared for the Guangxu Emperor's wedding ceremony in 1889. By then the Guangxu Emperor was already 18, much older than the conventional marriage age for Emperors. Prior to the wedding, a large fire engulfed the Gate of Supreme Harmony at the Forbidden City, following a trend of natural disasters in recent years, which according to Chinese political theory meant that the current rulers were losing the "Mandate of Heaven." In another political move, Cixi forced Guangxu to choose Jingfen (later the Empress Dowager Longyu), her niece, to become the Empress, against Guangxu's will. In later years, Guangxu preferred spending time with Consort Zhen, neglecting his Empress, much to Cixi's dismay.

In 1894, Cixi, citing intervention in political affairs as the main reason, but in reality fearful that Consort Zhen has become a liberal influence on the Emperor, flogged and punished Consort Zhen. Even after Guangxu began formal rule at age 19, Cixi continued to influence his decisions and actions, despite residing for a period of time at the Imperial Summer Palace with the official intention not to intervene in politics. Guangxu paid visits to her, along with the entourage of court officials, every second or third day, at which major political decisions would be made.

Hundred Days' Reform

Empress Dowager Cixi resumed the role of regent and once again took control of the country.

After taking power, the Guangxu Emperor was more reform-minded than the conservative Empress Dowager Cixi. After experiencing a rather embarrassing defeat in the First Sino-Japanese War of 1894, where China's Beiyang Navy was crushed by the Japanese naval fleet, the Qing government faced numerous unprecedented challenges internally and abroad, with its very existence at stake. Under the influence of reformers Kang Youwei and Liang Qichao, Guangxu believed that by emulating constitutional monarchies like Japan and Germany, China would become more powerful politically and economically. In June 1898, the Guangxu Emperor began the Hundred Days' Reform (戊戌变法), intended to initiate a series of sweeping changes politically, legally, and socially. For a brief time, after the supposed retirement of the Empress Dowager Cixi, the Guangxu Emperor issued edicts for a large number of far-reaching, modernizing, reforms.

The reforms, however, were too sudden for a China still under significant neo-Confucian influence, and displeased Cixi as they imposed a serious check on her power. Some government and military officials warned Cixi that the ming-shih (Reformation Bureau) was a conspiracy. Allegations of treason against the Emperor, as well as suspected Japanese influence within the reform movement, including a suspicious visit from the Japanese Prime Minister, led Empress Dowager Cixi to resume the role of regent and once again take control of the country.

In another coup d'etat carried out by General Ronglu's personnel on September 21, 1898, the Guangxu Emperor was taken to Ocean Terrace, a small palace on an island in the middle of Zhongnanhai, linked to the rest of the Forbidden City by only a controlled causeway. Empress Dowager Cixi followed this action with an edict declaring the Guangxu Emperor's total disgrace and stating that he was "not being fit to be Emperor." The Guangxu Emperor's reign had effectively come to an end.

A crisis followed in the Qing court on the issue of abdication. However, bowing to increasing western pressure and general civil discontent over the issue, Cixi did not forcibly remove Guangxu from the throne, although she attempted to intall Pujun, a boy of fourteen who was from a close branch of the Imperial family, as the Crown Prince. The Guangxu era nominally continued until 1908, but the Emperor lost all honors, respect, power, and privileges, including his freedom of movement. Most of his supporters, including Kang Youwei, were exiled, while six prominent reformers led by Tan Sitong were executed in public by Empress Dowager Cixi. Kang continued to work for a more progressive Qing Empire while in exile, remaining loyal to the Guangxu Emperor and hoping eventually to restore him to power.

The Boxer Rebellion

In 1900, Empress Dowager Cixi's support of the Self-strengthening Movement was again called into question when the Boxer Rebellion broke out in northern China. Eager to preserve traditional Chinese values, Empress Dowager Cixi threw in her lot with the rebels, making an official announcement of her support for the movement. When the Westerners responded by dispatching the Eight-Nation Alliance, the Chinese military, badly underdeveloped due to Empress Dowager Cixi's misappropriation of military funds, was unable to prevent the technologically-advanced Allied army from marching on Peking and seizing the Forbidden City. Cixi, along with the Guangxu Emperor and the Longyu Empress, fled the Forbidden City and embarked on a western trek to Xi'an. Determined to prevent another Chinese rebellion, the Western powers imposed a humiliating treaty on China, and Empress Dowager Cixi, with no military forces capable of protecting even her own palace, was forced to sign. The treaty demanded the presence of an international military force in China and the payment of £67 million (almost $333 million) in war reparations.

Death and Final Resting Place

Empress Dowager Cixi died in the Middle Sea Hall of Graceful Bird (Chinese: 中海儀鸞殿) on November 15, 1908, after having installed Puyi as the new Emperor of the Qing Dynasty on November 14. Her death came only a day after the death of the Guangxu Emperor.

Empress Dowager Cixi was interred amidst the Eastern Qing Tombs (Chinese: 清東陵), 125 km (75 miles) east of Beijing, in the Dong Dingling (Chinese: 東定陵), along with Empress Dowager Ci'an. More precisely, Empress Dowager Ci'an lies in the Pu Xiang Yu Ding Dong Ling (Chinese: 普祥峪定東陵) (literally: the "Tomb East of the Ding Ling Tomb in the Vale of Wide Good Omen"), while Empress Dowager Cixi built herself the much larger Pu Tuo Yu Ding Dong Ling (Chinese: 菩陀峪定東陵) (literally: the "Tomb East of the Ding Ling Tomb in the Vale of Putuo"). The Dingling tomb (literally: the "Tomb of Quietude") is the tomb of the Xianfeng Emperor, the spouse of Empress Dowager Ci'an and Empress Dowager Cixi, which is located indeed west of the Ding Dong Ling. The Vale of Pu Tuo owes its name to Mount. Pu Tuo (literally: the "Mountain of the Dharani of the Site of the Buddha's Enlightenment"), at the foot of which the Dingdongling is located.

Empress Dowager Cixi, unsatisfied with her tomb, had ordered its destruction and reconstruction in 1895. The new tomb was a lavish, grandiose complex of temples, gates, and pavilions, covered with gold leaf, and with gold and gilded-bronze ornaments hanging from the beams and the eaves. In July 1928, Empress Dowager Cixi's tomb was occupied by warlord and Kuomintang general Sun Dianying and his army, who methodically stripped the complex of its precious ornaments, then dynamited the entrance to the burial chamber, opened Empress Dowager Cixi's coffin, threw her corpse (said to have been found intact) on the floor, and stole all the jewels contained in the coffin, as well as the massive pearl that had been placed in Empress Dowager Cixi's mouth to protect her corpse from decomposing (in accordance with Chinese tradition). A modern legend claims that the large pearl on Empress Dowager Cixi's crown was offered by Sun Dianying to Kuomintang leader Chiang Kai-shek and ended up as an ornament on the gala shoes of Chiang's wife, the famous Soong May-ling.

After 1949, the complex of Empress Dowager Cixi's tomb was restored by the People's Republic of China, and it is still today one of the most impressive imperial tombs of China.

Names of Empress Dowager Cixi

The Room of Beautiful Scenery (Part of Empress Dowager Cixi's western Chu-Xiu Palace), inside which the Imperial Concubine Yi (the future Empress Dowager Cixi) gave birth to the future Tongzhi Emperor.

The name by which she is most frequently known and the name used in most modern texts is simply Cixi, which is neither her birth name nor family name. It is an honorific name given to her in 1861 after her son ascended the throne. Empress Dowager Cixi's name at birth is not known, although a recent book published by one of Cixi's brother's descendants seems to suggest that it was Xingzhen (杏贞). The first recorded occurrence of her name is at the time she entered the Forbidden City in September 1851, where she was recorded as "the Lady Yehenara, daughter of Huizheng" (Chinese: 惠征). Thus, she was called by her clan's name, the Yehe-Nara clan, as was customary for Manchu girls. On entering the Forbidden City, she was a preparative concubine (Chinese: 秀女).

After her encounter with the Xianfeng Emperor, Yehenala (Empress Dowager Cixi) was made a concubine of the fifth rank Noble Person, in other words,. Worthy Lady (Chinese: 貴人), and was given the name Lan (蘭,meaning "Orchid"). Her name was thus "Noble Person of Orchid," or Worthy Lady Orchid (Chinese: 蘭貴人). At the end of December 1854 or the beginning of January 1855, she was promoted to concubine of the fourth rank, Imperial Concubine (Chinese: 嬪). Her name was changed, and the new name given to her was Yi (Chinese: 懿), meaning "good," "exemplary," "virtuous"), so that her new name was Imperial Concubine Yi (Chinese: 懿嬪).

On April 27, 1856, Yehenara gave birth to a son, the only son of Xianfeng, and was immediately made Imperial Consort Yi" (Chinese: 懿妃). Finally, in February 1857 she was again elevated and made "Noble Consort Yi" (Chinese: 懿貴妃).

In the end of August 1861, following the death of the Xianfeng Emperor, her five-year-old son became the new Emperor, known as the Tongzhi Emperor. Empress Dowager Cixi, as biological mother of the new emperor, was officially made Divine Mother Empress Dowager (Chinese: 聖母皇太后). She was also given the honorific name Cixi (Chinese: 慈禧), meaning "Motherly and Auspicious." As for the Empress Consort, she was made "Mother Empress Dowager" (Chinese: 母后皇太后), a title giving her precedence over Empress Dowager Cixi, and she was given the honorific name Empress Dowager Ci'an (Chinese: 慈安), meaning "Motherly and Calm."

On seven occasions after 1861, Empress Dowager Cixi was given additional honorific names (two Chinese characters at a time), as was customary for Emperors and Empresses, until by the end of her reign her name was a long string of 16 characters starting with Cixi (as Empress Dowager she had the right to nine additions, giving a total of 20 characters, had she lived long enough). At the end of her reign, her official name was:

  • (Chinese: 大清國當今慈禧端佑康頤昭豫莊誠壽恭欽獻崇熙聖母皇太后)

which reads: "The Current Divine Mother Empress Dowager Ci-Xi Duan-You Kang-Yi Zhao-Yu Zhuang-Cheng Shou-Gong Qin-Xian Chong-Xi of the Great Qing Empire".

The short form was The Current Divine Mother Empress Dowager of the Great Qing Empire

(Chinese: 大清國當今聖母皇太后)

At the time, Empress Dowager Cixi was addressed as "Venerable Buddha" (Chinese: 老佛爺), literally "Master Old Buddha," a term used for all the Emperors of the Qing Dynasty. At official and ceremonial occasions, the phrase Long Live the Empress Dowager for ten thousand years (Chinese: 大清國當今聖母皇太后萬歲萬歲萬萬歲), which is by convention, only used by Emperors, was used for Cixi. The convention for Empress Dowagers of imperial China was usually Long live for one thousand years.

At her death in 1908, Empress Dowager Cixi was given a posthumous name which combines the honorific names that she gained during her lifetime with new names added just after her death. This is the name that is usually used on official documents to refer to an Empress. This long form of the posthumous name is:

  • (Chinese: 孝欽慈禧端佑康頤昭豫莊誠壽恭欽獻崇熙配天興聖顯皇太后),

which reads: Empress Xiao-Qin Ci-Xi Duan-You Kang-Yi Zhao-Yu Zhuang-Cheng Shou-Gong Qin-Xian Chong-Xi Pei-Tian Xing-Sheng Xian. This long name is still the one that can be seen on Cixi's tomb today. The short form of her posthumous name is: Empress Xiao Qin Xian (孝欽顯皇后).

Historical Assessment

One of the historical oil paintings by Western artists depicting Empress Dowager Cixi

The traditional view of the Empress Dowager Cixi is that she was a devious despot who contributed in no small part to China's slide into corruption, anarchy, and revolution. During Cixi's time, she used her power to accumulate vast quantities of money, gold bullion, antiques and jewelry, using the revenues of the state as her own. By the end of her reign she had amassed a huge personal fortune, stashing away some eight and half million pounds sterling in London banks. The lavish palaces, gardens and lakes built by Cixi were excessively extravagant at a time when China was verging on bankruptcy.[15]

However, some authors maintain a far more positive view of the Empress Dowager, arguing that she has been unfairly maligned and when seen more closely, her actions were reasonable responses to the difficulties that China faced.

It is argued by some that the traditional Confucian idea widely held in Empress Dowager Cixi's day, that influential women caused trouble and were not to be trusted, must not be confused with her frequent portrayal as a despot. While other powerful women of Chinese history, such as Empress Wu Zetian of the Tang Dynasty, are generally given a positive assessment by modern historians, the negative views on Empress Dowager Cixi largely remain predominant.

Katherine Carl

Katherine Carl spent some ten months with the Empress Dowager Cixi in 1903 to paint her portrait for the St. Louis Exposition. Two years later she published a book about her experience, titled With the Empress Dowager.[16]In the book's introduction, Katherine Carl says she wrote the book because "After I returned to America, I was constantly seeing in the newspapers (and hearing of) statements ascribed to me which I never made."

In her book, Katherine Carl describes the Empress Dowager Cixi as a kind and considerate woman for her station. Empress Dowager Cixi, though shrewd, had great presence, charm, and graceful movements resulting in "an unusually attractive personality." Carl wrote of the Dowager's love for dogs and of flowers, as well as boating, Chinese opera and her Chinese water pipes and European cigarettes. Carl also made note of Empress Dowager Cixi's loyalty, describing the case of "a Chinese woman who nursed Her Majesty through a long illness, about twenty-five years since, and saved her life by giving her mother's milk to drink. Her Majesty, who never forgets a favor, has always kept this woman in the Palace. Being a Chinese, she had bound feet. Her Majesty, who cannot bear to see them even, had her feet unbound and carefully treated, until now she can walk comfortably. Her Majesty has educated the son, who was an infant at the time of her illness, and whose natural nourishment she partook of. This young man is already a Secretary in a good yamen (government office)."

Sterling Seagrave

Seagrave argues[17] that most of the more sensational stories of Empress Dowager Cixi's life can be traced to the boasting, self-important "Wild Fox" Kang Youwei and his cronies, who having never having met the Empress Dowager, concocted stories of plots and poisonings and passed them on to the Western press. Many other "details" of her life are based on accounts by J.O.P. Bland and known forger Edmund Backhouse. As life in the Forbidden City remained a mystery for most Westerners, these stories created by Kang and Backhouse (some up to thirty years after the supposed events) were used by many twentieth century historians to paint a misleading picture of the Empress Dowager.

In contrast, Seagrave portrays Empress Dowager Cixi as a woman stuck between the xenophobic Iron Hats faction, made up of Manchu nobility wanting to maintain Manchu dominance and remove Western influences from China at all cost, and more moderate influences trying to cope with China's problems on a more realistic footing, such as Prince Gong in her earlier days. The Empress Dowager, Seagrave argues, did not crave power but simply acted to balance these influences and protect the Dynasty as best she could.

Princess Der Ling

Der Ling, whose Christian name was Elisabeth Antoinette, was born in Beijing in June 1885 and died in Berkeley, California in November 1944. She was the eldest daughter of Yu Keng, an official of the Chinese-Martial (hanjun) Plain White Banner, and his wife, Louisa Pierson, daughter of an American merchant in Shanghai and his Chinese consort. When Der Ling's father was recalled from Paris, where he had been Chinese minister, in 1903, Der Ling, her sister Rong Ling (later the wife of General Dan Paochao) and their mother were summoned by Cixi to become court ladies. Their responsiblities were something between ladies-in-waiting and translators/hostesses when the Empress Dowager had foreign female guests from Beijing's Legation Quarter. Der Ling served at court from March 1903 till October 1905, and married an American, Thaddeus Cohu White, in 1907. After Cixi's death in 1908, Der Ling professed to be so angered by what she saw as false portraits of Cixi appearing in books and periodicals that she wrote her own account of serving "Old Buddha," which she called Two Years in the Forbidden City. This book appeared in 1911, just before the fall of the Qing Dynasty, and was a popular success. In this book, Cixi is not the monster of depravity depicted in the popular press and in the second and third hand accounts left by foreigners who had lived in Beijing, but an aging woman who loved beautiful things, had many regrets about the past and the way she had dealt with the many crises of her long reign, and apparently trusted Der Ling enough to share many memories and opinions with her. It was clearly Cixi's favoritism toward Der Ling, including permitting her to wear a "princess button" on her hat, that prompted Der Ling in later years, when seeking an English equivalent to her office at court, to add "Princess" to her name, a move that undermined her credibility in China. However it increased her popularity in America when she went before the public in the 1920s to give lectures about life at court with the semi-legendary Cixi. Der Ling ultimately wrote a full-length biography of Cixi titled Old Buddha.[18]

Der Ling wrote seven more books about the relatively brief period in her youth when she had been close to the center of failing imperial Chinese power, and her self-promotion caused most of her family to turn against her. Though this has made it difficult to assess Der Ling's contribution to late Qing historiography, the fact remains that she was the first woman of Cixi's own ethnic background to live with and observe her, and then write about her. Der Ling's recollections, full of the every day minutiae of a court that throve on details and form, are valuable because life within the Forbidden City and the Summer Palace was unknown even to people in China. Cixi has been wholly blamed for many problems which simply emanated from the circumstances in which she lived.

Starting with Sterling Seagrave's biography of Cixi, Dragon Lady: The Life and Legend of the Last Empress of China, Der Ling and her reminiscences of the imperial court have been rehabilitated in recent years, alongside reassessments of the Empress Dowager herself. In March 2008, Hong Kong University Press published the first biography of Der Ling, Imperial Masquerade: The Legend of Princess Der Ling.[19]

Other Accounts

Another sympathetic account of Cixi can be found in Anchee Min's historical novels Empress Orchid (2004) and The Last Empress (2005), and she appears frequently in ceremonies described in the diaries of Sir Ernest Satow for 1900-06 when Satow was British envoy in Peking.

The China Central Television production Towards the Republic portrayed Empress Dowager Cixi as a capable ruler, albeit not entirely positive, for the first time in the history of Mainland Chinese television, although it also clearly demonstrated her political views as very conservative.

Pearl S. Buck's novel Imperial Woman chronicles the life of the Empress Dowager from the time of her selection as a concubine until near to her death. Empress Dowager Cixi is portrayed as a stern, motivated woman who stands to the old ways of life and government and resists the changes brought by Westerners. Empress Dowager Cixi's actions on behalf of the two Emperors that she raised and her own actions are all accounted for and rationalized as being for the good of her people and her country.


Preceded by:
Empress Xiao Zhen Xian,
the Empress Dowager Ci'an
Empress of China
Succeeded by:
Empress Xiao Zhe Yi

In Popular Culture

  • Forbidden City: Portrait of An Empress, a Singapore Musical that tells the story of Empress Dowager Cixi, was staged by the Singapore Repertory Theatre originally on October 17-19, 2002.


  1. Edward Behr. The Last Emperor. (Bantam, 1987), 38
  2. Sue F. Chung, "The Much Maligned Empress Dowager: A Revisionist Study of the Empress Dowager Tz'u-Hsi (1835-1908)." Modern Asian Studies 13 (2) (1979): 3.
  3. Keith Laidler. (2003), The Last Empress. (John Wiley & Sons Inc., ISBN 0470848812) 58
  4. Immanuel C.Y. Hsu. The Rise of Modern China, sixth ed. (Oxford Univ. Press, [1995] 1999), 215.
  5. Behr, 1987, 44
  6. Sui Lijuan: "Carrying out the Coup." CCTV-10 Series on Cixi, Episode. 4
  7. Behr, 1987, 45
  8. Behr, 1987, 45
  9. 清史稿:恭忠亲王奕䜣,宣宗第六子 Retrieved December 16, 2007.
  10. 清史稿:恭忠亲王奕䜣传记载:“王入谢,痛哭引咎”。
  11. Sui Lijuang: Lecture Room Series on Cixi, Episode 9
  12. Wah-Shan Chou. Tongzhi: Politics of Same-Sex Eroticism in Chinese Societies. (London: Routledge, 2000. ISBN 978-1560231547.
  13. Behr, 1987, 49
  14. 清德宗实录
  15. Behr, 1987, 51
  16. Katherine A. Carl. With the Empress Dowager of China. (Kessinger Publishing's Rare Reprints (original 1905 2004, ISBN 1417917016)
  17. Dragon Lady: The Life and Legend of the Last Empress of China by Sterling Seagrave, Vintage Books, New York, 1992 ISBN 0-679-73369-8.
  18. Princess Der Ling. Old Buddha. (reprint ed.Kessinger Publishing, LLC , (original 1929) 2007. ISBN 1432579177)
  19. Grant Hayter-Menzies. Imperial Masquerade: The Legend of Princess Der Ling. (Hong Kong University Press, 2007. ISBN 9789622098817)

ISBN links support NWE through referral fees

  • Behr, Edward. The Last Emperor. Bantam, 1987. ISBN 0553344749
  • Bland, J. O. P., and E. Backhouse. China under the empress dowager, being the history of the life and times of Tzǔ Hsi, comp. from the state papers and the private diary of the comptroller of her household. Philadelphia: J.B. Lippincott Co.; [etc.]. 1910.
  • Buck, Pearl S. Imperial woman; a novel. New York: J. Day Co., 1956.
  • Carl, Katherine A. With the Empress Dowager of China. Kessinger Publishing's Rare Reprints, 2004 (original 1905). ISBN 1417917016
  • Chou, Wah-shan. Tongzhi: Politics of Same-Sex Eroticism in Chinese Societies. London: Routledge, 2000. ISBN 978-1560231547
  • Chung, Sue Fawn. "The Much Maligned Empress Dowager: A Revisionist Study of the Empress Dowager Tz'u-Hsi (1835-1908)." Modern Asian Studies 13 (2) (1979): 177-196.
  • Der Ling, Princess. Old Buddha. reprint ed. Kessinger Publishing, LLC, 2007 (original 1929). ISBN 1432579177
  • Hayter-Menzies, Grant. Imperial Masquerade: The Legend of Princess Der Ling. Hong Kong University Press, 2007. ISBN 978-9622098817
  • Hsu, Immanuel C.Y. The Rise of Modern China, 6th ed. Oxford University Press, USA. 1999 (1985). ISBN 0195125045
  • Hummel, Arthur W.(ed.). Eminent Chinese of the Ch'ing Period (1644-1912). 2 vols. Washington, DC: United States Government Printing Office, 1943. online through Questia (subscription) or reprint ed. Ch'eng-Wen Pub. Co; 1967. edition {ASIN|B0007JIND0}
  • Laidler, Keith. The Last Empress. Hoboken, NJ: John Wiley & Sons Inc., 2003. ISBN 0470848812
  • Min, Anchee. Empress Orchid. Boston: Hougton Mifflin, 2004. ISBN 0618068872
  • Seagrave, Sterling, and Peggy Seagrave. Dragon lady the life and legend of the last empress of China. New York: Knopf, 1992. ISBN 0679402306
  • Warner, Marina. The Dragon Empress: Life and Times of Tz'u-his 1835-1908. New York: Vintage, 1993 (original 1972). ISBN 0679733698
  • Woo, X. L. Empress dowager Cixi China's last dynasty and the long reign of a formidable concubine: legends and lives during the declining days of the Qing dynasty. New York: Algora Pub, 2002. ISBN 0875861660
  • Yuan, Hong-qi, and Bao-guang Wang. Empress Dowager Cixi her art of living. Hong Kong: Museum Section, Regional Services Dept, 1996. ISBN 978-9627213222

External Links

All links retrieved February 13, 2024.


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