Empress Dowager Cixi

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Empress Dowager Cixi
The Ci-Xi Imperial Dowager Empress (5).JPG
Regent of the Qing dynasty
Regency 11 November 1861 – 15 November 1908
concurrently with Empress Dowager Ci'an (1861–81)
Predecessor Sushun, Zaiyuan, Duanhua and other 5 officials as regents for Tongzhi Emperor
Successor Empress Dowager Longyu and Zaifeng, Prince Chun as regents for Puyi
Issue Tongzhi Emperor
Posthumous name
Short: Empress Xiao-Qin Xian Tsu 孝欽顯皇后
Full: Empress Xiao-Qin Ci-Xi Duan-You Kang-Yi Zhao-Yu Zhuang-Cheng Shou-Gong Qin-Xian Chong-Xi Pei-Tian Xing-Sheng Xian 孝欽慈禧端佑康頤昭豫莊誠壽恭欽獻崇熙配天興聖顯皇后
Manchu: ᡥᡳᠶᠣᠣᡧᡠᠩᡤᠠ ᡴᠣᠪᡨᠣᠨ ᠵᡳᠯᠠᠨ ᡥᡡᡨᡠᡵᡳ ᡨᠠᠪ ᡴᠠᡵᠮᠠᠩᡤᠠ ᠨᡝᠯᡥᡝ ᡠᠵᡳᠩᡤᠠ ᡤᡝᠩᡤᡳᠶᡝᠨ ᡶᡠᠵᡠᡵᡠᠩᡤᠠ ᡨᠣᠪ ᡠᠨᡝᠩᡤᡳ ᠵᠠᠯᠠᡶᡠᠩᡤᠠ ᡤᡠᠩᡤᡝᠴᡠᡴᡝ ᡴᠣᠪᡨᠣᠨ ᡶᡝᠩᡴᡳᠨ ᠸᡝᠰᡳᡥᡠᠨ ᡨᠠᡳᡶᡳᠨ ᠠᠪᡴᠠ ᡩᡝ ᠠᡩᠠᠪᡠᡥᠠ ᡝᠨᡩᡠᡵᡳᠩᡤᡝ ᠪᡝ ᠶᡝᠨᡩᡝᡥᡝ ᡳᠯᡝᡨᡠ ᡥᡡᠸᠠᠩᡥᡝᠣ
House House of Aisin Gioro (by marriage)
Father Yehenara Huizheng
Mother Lady Fuca
Born (1835-11-29)29 November 1835
Died 15 November 1908(1908-11-15) (aged 72)
Hall of Graceful Bird, Zhongnanhai, Beijing, Qing Empire

Empress Dowager Cixi1 (Empress Dowager Tzu-hsi; Chinese: 慈禧太后; pinyin: Cíxǐ Tàihòu; Wade–Giles: Tz'u2-hsi3 T'ai4-hou4; Mandarin pronunciation: [tsʰǐɕì tʰâɪ̯ xɤ̂ʊ̯]; Manchu: Tsysi taiheo; 29 November 1835 – 15 November 1908), of the Manchu Yehenara clan, was the empress dowager of China who effectively controlled the Chinese government for 47 years, from 1861 to her death in 1908.

Selected as an imperial concubine for the Xianfeng Emperor in her adolescence, she gave birth to a son in 1856. With Xianfeng's death in 1861 the young boy became the Tongzhi Emperor and she became Empress Dowager. Cixi ousted a group of regents appointed by the late emperor and assumed regency, which she shared with the Empress Dowager Ci'an. Cixi then consolidated control over the dynasty when, at the death of the Tongzhi Emperor, contrary to the dynastic rules of succession, she installed her nephew as the Guangxu Emperor in 1875. Although she refused to adopt Western models of government, she supported technological and military reforms and the Self-Strengthening Movement. Cixi rejected the Hundred Days' Reforms of 1898 as impractical and detrimental to dynastic power and placed the Guangxu Emperor under house arrest for supporting reformers. After the Boxer Rebellion and the invasion of Allied armies, external and internal pressures led Cixi to effect institutional changes of just the sort she had resisted and to appoint reform-minded officials. The dynasty collapsed in late 1911, three years after her death, and a republic was inaugurated 1 January 1912.

Historians both in China and abroad have generally portrayed her as a despot responsible for the fall of the dynasty, while others have suggested that her opponents among the reformers succeeded in making her a scapegoat for problems beyond her control, that she stepped in to prevent disorder, that she was no more ruthless than other rulers, and that she was even an effective if reluctant reformer in the last years of her life.[1]

Early years[edit]

An early portrait of the old Dowager Consort Kangci, foster mother of the Xianfeng Emperor. She hosted the selection of Xianfeng's consorts in 1851, in which Cixi participated as a potential candidate.
Empress Dowager Cixi
Chinese name
Traditional Chinese 孝欽顯皇后
Simplified Chinese 孝钦显皇后
Empress Dowager Cixi
Chinese 慈禧太后
Lady Yehenara
Traditional Chinese 葉赫那拉氏
Simplified Chinese 叶赫那拉氏
Manchu name
Manchu script ᡥᡳᠶᠣᠣᡧᡠᠩᡤᠠ ᡤᡳᠩᡤᡠᡷᡳ ᡳᠯᡝᡨᡠ ᡥᡡᠸᠠᠩᡥᡝᠣ
Romanization hiyoošungga gingguji iletu hūwangheo
The Pavilion of Beautiful Scenery, inside which Cixi gave birth to the future Tongzhi Emperor

Empress Cixi was born in the winter of 1835 and according to the information listed on a red sheet (File No. 1247) within "Miscellaneous Pieces of the Palace" (a Qing dynasty documentation package retrieved from the First Historical Archives of China), Cixi was the daughter of Huizheng, an ordinary official from the Manchu Yehenara clan. Palace archives also show that Huizheng was a member of Bordered Blue Banner of the Eight Banners, and was working in Beijing during the year of Cixi's birth, indicating that she was born in Beijing. Also, the file recorded the location of Cixi's childhood home, which was Firewood Alley of West Sipailou, Beijing (Chinese: 西四牌楼劈柴胡同).

In 1851, Cixi participated in the selection for consorts to the new Xianfeng Emperor alongside sixty other candidates. Cixi was one of the few candidates chosen to stay. She was placed in the 6th rank of consorts, and styled "Noble Lady Lan" (Chinese: 蘭贵人). Among the other chosen candidates were Noble Lady Li of the Tatala clan (later Consort Li), Concubine Yun of the Wugiya clan, and Concubine Zhen of the Niuhuru clan (later Xianfeng's empress consort).

In 1854, Cixi was elevated to the 5th rank of consorts and given a title,"Imperial Concubine Yi" (Chinese: 懿嫔). In 1855, Cixi became pregnant. On 27 April 1856, she gave birth to Zaichun, the Xianfeng Emperor's only surviving son. Soon afterward, she was elevated to the 4th rank of consorts,"Consort Yi" (Chinese: 懿妃).[2] In 1857, when her son reached his first birthday, Cixi was elevated to the 3rd rank of consorts as "Noble Consort Yi" (Chinese: 懿贵妃). This rank placed her second only to the Empress Ci'an within Xianfeng's harem.

Unlike many other women in the imperial harem, Cixi was known for her ability to read and write Chinese. This granted her lots of opportunities to help the ailing emperor in daily state governing. On various occasions, the Xianfeng Emperor had Cixi read palace memorials for him, and left instructions on the memorials according to his will. As a result, Cixi became well-informed about state affairs, and learned the art of state governing from the ailing emperor.[3]

Death of the Xianfeng Emperor[edit]

In September 1860, during the closing stages of the Second Opium War, the British diplomatic envoy, Harry Parkes, was arrested and several western hostages were tortured and executed. In retaliation, British and French troops under the command of Lord Elgin attacked Peking (Beijing), and by the following month they had burned the Emperor's Old Summer Palace to the ground. The Xianfeng Emperor and his entourage, including Cixi, fled Beijing to Rehe in Manchuria.[4] On hearing the news of the destruction of the Old Summer Palace, the Xianfeng Emperor (who was already showing signs of dementia) fell into a depression, turned heavily to alcohol and drugs, and became seriously ill.[5] He summoned eight of his most prestigious ministers, headed by Sushun, Zaiyuan, and Duanhua, and named them the "Eight Regent Ministers" to direct and support the future Emperor. On 22 August 1861 the Xianfeng Emperor died at Rehe Palace in the city of Rehe (now Chengde, Hebei).

Following the Death of Xianfeng Emperor[edit]

His heir, the son of Noble Consort Yi (future Empress Dowager Cixi), was only five years old. It is commonly assumed that 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. This may also have been done as a check on the power of the Eight Regents, however there is no evidence for this, and it is unlikely he would have ever intended for Noble Consort Yi to have any political power. It is possible that the seal, allegedly given as a symbol for the child, was really a present for Noble Consort Yi (Cixi) herself, as informal seals numbered in the thousands and were not considered political items, but rather objects of art commissioned for pleasure by emperors to stamp on items such as paintings or given as presents to the concubines.[6] Upon the death of the Xianfeng Emperor, his Empress Consort, aged 25, was elevated to the title 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 title Empress Dowager Cixi (popularly known as the West Empress Dowager 西太后 because she lived inside the Western Chuxiu Palace).

Xinyou Coup: Ousting Sushun[edit]

Portrait of Empress Dowager Ci'an (co-regent with Cixi), with whom Cixi staged the Xinyou Coup.

By the time of the Xianfeng Emperor's death, Empress Dowager Cixi had become a shrewd strategist. In Jehol, while waiting for an astrologically favorable time to transport the coffin back to Beijing, Cixi conspired with powerful court officials and imperial relatives to seize power. Cixi's position as the lower-ranked Empress Dowager had no intrinsic political power attached to it. In addition, her son the young emperor was not a political force himself. As a result, it became necessary for her to ally herself with other powerful figures including 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; the two had long been close friends since Cixi first came to the harem.[7]

Tensions grew among the Eight Regent Ministers, headed by Sushun, and the two Empresses Dowager. The ministers did not appreciate Cixi's interference in political affairs, and the frequent confrontations left the Empress Dowager Ci'an frustrated. Ci'an often refused to come to court audiences, leaving Empress Dowager Cixi to deal with the ministers alone. Secretly, Empress Dowager Cixi began gathering the support of talented ministers, soldiers, and others who were ostracized by the Eight Regent Ministers for personal or political reasons. 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, respectively. While she aligned herself with these Princes, a memorial came from Shandong asking for Cixi to "listen to politics behind the curtains", i.e., asking Cixi to become the ruler. The same petition also asked Prince Gong to enter the political arena as a principal "aide to the Emperor."

When the Emperor's funeral procession left for Beijing, Cixi took advantage of her alliances with Princes Gong and Chun. She and the boy Emperor returned to the capital before the rest of the party, along with Zaiyuan and Duanhua, two of the principal regents, while Sushun was left to accompany the deceased Emperor's procession. Cixi's early return to Beijing meant that she had more time to plan with Prince Gong, and ensure that the power base of the Eight Regent 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 Jehol "greatly against his will," among other charges.[7]

To display her high moral standards, Cixi executed only three of the eight regent ministers. Prince Gong had suggested that Sushun and others be executed by the most painful method, known as slow slicing, but Dowager Cixi declined the suggestion and ordered that Sushun be beheaded, while the other two also marked for execution, Zaiyuan and Duanhua, were given white silks to allow them to commit suicide. In addition, Cixi refused outright the idea of executing the family members of the ministers, as would be done in accordance with Imperial tradition of an alleged usurper. Ironically, Qing Imperial tradition also dictated that women and princes were never to engage in politics. In breaking with tradition, Cixi became the only Qing Dynasty Empress to rule from "behind the curtains" (垂簾聽政).

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[edit]

New era[edit]

In November 1861, a few days following the coup, Cixi was quick to reward Yixin, the Prince Gong, for his help. He was made head of the General Affairs Office and the Internal Affairs Office, and his daughter was made a Gurun Princess, a title usually bestowed only on the Empress's first-born daughter. However, Cixi avoided giving Yixin the absolute political power that princes such as Dorgon exercised during the Shunzhi Emperor's reign. As one of the first acts from behind the curtains, Cixi (nominally along 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 stable").

However, despite being the sole decision makers, both Ci'an and Cixi were forced to rely on the Grand Council and a complex series of procedures in order to deal with affairs of state. When state documents came in, they were to be first forwarded to the dowager empresses, and then referred back to the prince adviser and the Grand Council. Having discussed the matters, the prince and his colleagues would seek the instruction of the dowager empresses at audiences and imperial orders would be drawn up accordingly, with drafts having to be approved by the dowagers before edicts were issued.[8]

It also seems that their most important role during the regency was merely to apply their seals to edicts, a merely mechanical role in a complex bureaucracy.[9]

Cleaning up the bureaucracy[edit]

Cixi's entrance as the absolute power figure in China came at a time of internal chaos and foreign challenges. The effects of the Second Opium War were still hovering over the country, as the Taiping Rebellion continued its seemingly unstoppable advance through China's south, eating up the Qing Empire bit by bit. Internally, both the national bureaucracy and regional authorities were infested with corruption. 1861 happened to be the year of official examinations, whereby officials of all levels presented their political reports from the previous three years. Cixi decided that the time was ripe for a bureaucratic overhaul, where she personally sought audience with all officials above the level of provincial governor, who had to report to her personally. Cixi took on part of the role usually given to the Bureaucratic Affairs Department (吏部). Cixi also executed two prominent officials to serve as examples as a more immediate solution: 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 as opposed to trying to defend the city.

Another significant challenge Cixi faced 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 the powerful Han Chinese. Cixi, again in a reversal of Imperial tradition, entrusted the country's most powerful military unit against the Taiping army into the hands of a Han Chinese, Zeng Guofan. Additionally, in the next three years, Cixi appointed Han Chinese officials to become governors of all southern Chinese provinces, raising alarm bells in an administration traditionally fond of Manchu dominance.

Taiping victory and Prince Gong[edit]

Photograph of Prince Gong, Cixi's crucial ally during the Xinyou Coup. He was rewarded by Cixi for his help during her most difficult times, but was eventually eliminated from office by Cixi for his ambition.
Photograph of Princess Rongshou (center seated), daughter of Prince Gong. As a way to show gratitude to the Prince, Cixi adopted his daughter, and elevated her to the rank of Kurun Princess (the highest rank for imperial princesses).

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, historically known internationally as Nanking) in July 1864. 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 respectively with their decorations and titles. With the Taiping threat receding, Cixi was 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, whose loyalties stretched at least half of the country, also 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 was rewarded for his conduct and recommendation of Zeng Guofan before the Taiping defeat, Cixi was quick to move after 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, took the memorial as a stepping stone to Yixin's removal. In April 1865, under the pretext that Yixin had "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.[10] The dismissal, however, surprised the nobility and court officials, and brought about numerous petitions for his return. Yicong, 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.[11] 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 would never return to political prominence again, and neither would the liberal and pro-reform policies of his time. Yixin's demotion showed Cixi's iron grip on Qing politics, and her lack of willingness to give up absolute power to anyone, including her most important ally in the Xinyou coup, Prince Gong.

Foreign influence[edit]

China's loss in the Second Opium War was undoubtedly a wake-up call for its imperial rulers. Cixi presided over a country whose military strategies, both on land and sea, and in terms of weaponry, were vastly outdated. Sensing 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 made a decision 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 begun 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 the United States.

China's "learn from foreigners" program quickly met with impediments. China's military institutions were in desperate need of reform. 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 British sailors, all under British command. The Chinese were enraged at this "international joke", negotiations broke down between the two parties, and China returned the warships to Britain, where they were to be auctioned off. Scholars sometimes attribute the failure of China's foreign programs to Cixi's conservative attitude and old methods of thinking, and contend that Cixi would learn only so much from the foreigners, provided it did not infringe upon her own power. Under the pretext that a railway was too loud and would "disturb the Emperor's tombs", Cixi forbade its construction. When construction went ahead anyway in 1877 on Li Hongzhang's recommendation, Cixi asked that they be pulled by horse-drawn carts.[12] Cixi was especially alarmed at 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[edit]

Portrait of Empress Xiaozheyi, also known as Empress Jiashun and "Lady Alute", who had the approval of Empress Dowager Ci'an but never Cixi's. It is widely speculated that the Empress was pregnant with Tongzhi's child and that Cixi orchestrated the Lady's demise.
Ceremonial headdress likely worn by Cixi. The small phoenixes emerging from the surface represent the empress.[13] The Walters Art Museum

In 1872, the Emperor turned 17. Under the guidance of the Empress Dowager Ci'an, Tongzhi was married to Empress Jiashun. Empress Jiashun's grandfather, Prince Zheng, was one of the eight ministers selected by Xianfeng to guide Tongzhi. He had been Cixi's enemy during the Xinyou Coup, and was ordered to commit suicide after Cixi's victory. As a consequence, tension existed in the relationship between Cixi and Empress Jiashun ever since the beginning, and it was often a source of irritation for Cixi. Moreover, the Empress's zodiac symbol of tiger was perceived as life-threatening by the superstitious Cixi, whose own zodiac symbol was a goat. According to Cixi's belief, it was a warning from God that she would eventually fall prey to the Empress.

As the principal consort of the Emperor, Empress Jiashun was well received by both Tongzhi and Empress Dowager Ci'an. Her personal consultants once warned her to be more agreeable and docile to Cixi, as Cixi was the figure who truly held the power. She replied: "I am a principal consort, having been carried through the front gate with pomp and circumstance, as mandated by our ancestors. Empress Dowager Cixi was a concubine, and entered our household through a side gate."

Since the very beginning of his marriage, the Emperor proceeded to spend most of his time with his empress at the expense of his four concubines, including the Lady Fuca, Noble Consort Hui, who was the empress intended by Cixi. As hostility grew between Cixi and Empress Jiashun, Cixi suggested the couple spend more time on studies, and spied on Tongzhi using eunuchs. After her warning was ignored, Cixi ordered the couple to separate, and Tongzhi purportedly spent several months following Cixi's order in isolation at Qianqing Palace.

The young emperor, who could no longer cope with his grief and loneliness, grew more and more ill-tempered. He began to treat his servants with cruelty, and punished them physically for minor offences. Under the joined influence of court eunuchs and Zaicheng, eldest son of Prince Gong and Tongzhi's contemporary and best friend, Tongzhi managed to escape the palace in search of pleasure in the unrestricted parts of 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 among court officials and commoners, and there are many records of Tongzhi's escapades.[citation needed]

Tongzhi's deficiencies in ruling[edit]

Portrait of the Tongzhi Emperor doing his coursework. Cixi's high expectations of him caused his strong distaste for learning.

Tongzhi received a rigorous education from four famous teachers of Cixi's own choosing, in addition to making Mianyu his supervisor. Namely, Li Hongzao, Qi Junzao, Weng Xincun (later his son Weng Tonghe, and Woren) were all imperial teachers who instructed the Emperor in the classics and various old texts for which the Emperor displayed little or no interest.

The pressure and stress put 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 memorandum in full sentences by age sixteen. Worried about her son's inability, Cixi only pressured Tongzhi more. When he was given personal rule at age 18, in November 1873 (four years behind the usual custom), Tongzhi proved to be an incompetent Emperor.

Tongzhi made two important policy decisions during his short stint of rule, lasting from 1873 to 1875. First, he decreed that the Imperial Summer Palace, destroyed by the English and French in the Second Opium War, would 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 rule without interference in policy or his private affairs.

The imperial treasury was almost depleted at the time from internal strife and foreign wars, and as a result Tongzhi asked the Board of Finance to forage for the necessary funds, as well as members of the nobility and high officials to donate their share. 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 (Prince Chun), along with the Court's top officials, submitted a joint memorandum 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 Prince title and be demoted to become a commoner. Two days later, Yicong, Yixuan, Yihui, Jingshou, Yikuang, Wenxiang, Baoju, and Grand Councillors Shen Guifen and Li Hongzao were all to be 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 me."[14]

Feeling a grand 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 13 January 1875, the Emperor died. The Jiashun Empress followed suit in March. Judging from a modern medical perspective the onset of syphilis comes in stages, thus the Emperor's quick death does not seem to reflect its symptoms. Therefore most historians maintain that Tongzhi did, in fact, die from smallpox. Regardless, by 1875, Cixi was back onto the helm of imperial power.

Regency over the Guangxu Emperor[edit]

New challenges and illness[edit]

The Empress Dowager (front middle) poses with her court attendants and Guangxu's empress (second from left), who was also her niece
The Empress Dowager holds hands with the fourth daughter of Prince Qing (to her left) and chief palace eunuch Li Lianying (to her right). The lady standing in the background is Consort Jin (later Dowager Consort Duankang).

Tongzhi died without a male heir, a circumstance that created an unprecedented succession crisis in the dynastic line. Members of the generation above were considered unfit, as they could not, by definition, be the successor of their nephew. Therefore, the new Emperor had to be from a generation below or the same generation as Tongzhi. After considerable disagreement between the two Dowagers, Zaitian, the first-born of the Prince Chun Yixuan and Cixi's sister, then aged four, was to become the new Emperor. 1875 was declared the era of Guangxu, or the reign of Glorious Succession. Young Zaitian was taken from his home and for the remainder of his life would be cut completely off from his family. While addressing Ci'an conventionally as Huang O'niang (Empress Mother), Zaitian was forced to address Cixi as Qin Baba (親爸爸; lit. "Biological Dad"), in order to enforce an image that she was the fatherly power figure in the house.[15] The Guangxu Emperor began his education when he was aged five, taught by Imperial Tutor Weng Tonghe, with whom he would develop a lasting bond.

Shortly after the accession of the Emperor Guangxu, Cixi fell severely ill,[16] leaving Ci'an to attend to most of the affairs of state.[17] Cixi was largely inaccessible to her young nephew, as well.

The sudden death of 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 and as the Emperor Xianfeng's empress, took seniority over Cixi, despite being two years Cixi's junior. Some have argued that there had been a 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 and that rumours began circulating at court that Cixi had poisoned Ci'an.[18] Because of a lack of evidence, however, 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.[citation needed]

In the years between 1881 and 1883, Cixi resorted to communicating with her ministers in writing.[19] Furthermore, the young Emperor Guangxu reportedly had been forced to conduct some audiences alone, without Cixi.[20]

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 Manchu 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, 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 city 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.

The Guangxu Emperor's accession[edit]

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's youth as the main reason. Shiduo, Yixuan, and Weng Tonghe, each with a different motive, asked Guangxu's accession to be postponed until a later date. Cixi, with her 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.

However, despite her prolonged regency, the Emperor Guangxu began to slowly take on more responsibilities. In 1886, the emperor attended his first field plowing ceremony and also began commenting on imperial state documents and by 1887, he began to rule under Cixi's supervision.[20]

Emperor Guangxu would eventually marry and take up the reins of power in 1889. By then the Guangxu Emperor was already 18, older than the conventional marital 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".

Consort Zhen, Guangxu's most beloved consort, was initially liked but eventually hated by Cixi.

As his empress, Empress Dowager Cixi chose her niece & Guangxu's cousin, Jingfen, who would become the Empress Longyu. Cixi also selected two concubines for him who were sisters, Consorts Jin and Zhen. Guangxu eventually would prefer to spend more time with Zhen, neglecting his Empress, much to Cixi's dismay. In 1894, Cixi, citing intervention in political affairs as the main reason, degraded Zhen, and according to some reports, had her flogged.[21] Jin had also been implicated in Zhen's reported influence peddling, also apparently suffered a similar punishment[21] and a cousin of theirs, an official named Zhi Rui, was banished from the capital to a military outpost.[22]


On March 5, 1889, the dowager empress retired her second regency. However, despite no longer being regent, she still was, effectively, head of the imperial family.[23] Many officials, furthermore, owing in part to her seniority, along with her personalized approach to court favorites, which had included giving them gifts of her artwork and inviting them to join her at the theater for opera and acrobatics,[24] felt and showed more loyalty to the dowager empress than they did to the emperor.[25]

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 which she had ordered Guangxu's father to construct, 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, where major political decisions would be made. Weng Tonghe observed that while Guangxu dealt with day-to-day administration, in more complex cases, the Grand Councillors gave their advice, and in the most complex cases, they sought the advice of Cixi.[26]

In 1894, the First Sino-Japanese War broke out for control of Korea. During this period, Cixi was continuously called upon to arbitrate in policy decisions, with the emperor even being bypassed in the decision-making process.[27] Cixi eventually was given copies of the secret palace memorials, as well, and this practice was carried on until 1898 when it was rendered unnecessary.[28]

Cixi, in November 1895, celebrated her sixtieth birthday. Borrowing from the plans for used for celebrations of the seventieth and eightieth birthdays of the mother of the Qianlong Emperor, plans included a triumphal progress along the decorated road between the Forbidden City and the Summer Palace, decorations of the Beijing city gates and monumental archways, free theatrical performances, remission of punishments and the restoration of degraded officials.[29] However, the war between China and Japan forced the dowager empress to cancel the lavish celebration and a much smaller celebration was held in the Forbidden City.

Hundred Days' Reform[edit]

After taking power, the Guangxu Emperor was more reform-minded than the conservative-leaning Empress Dowager Cixi. After a humiliating defeat in the First Sino-Japanese War of 1894, during which China's Beiyang Navy was crushed by the Japanese forces, 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 learning from 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), aimed at 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 massive 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 it served as a serious check on her power. Some government and military officials warned Cixi that the ming-shih (reformation bureau) had been geared toward 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 21 September 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 with only a controlled causeway. Empress Dowager Cixi would follow with an edict dictating the Guangxu Emperor's total disgrace and "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 crowning Punji, 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 honours, respect, power, and privileges, including his freedom of movement. Most of his supporters, including his former tutor Weng Tonghe, and the man he had recommended, 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. His efforts would prove to be in vain.

Boxer Rebellion[edit]

Empress Dowager Cixi and Emperor Guangxu holding court. Drawing by Katharine Carl.
Empress Dowager Cixi and women of the American legation. Holding her hand is Sarah Conger, wife of the American minister to China.

In 1900, the Boxer Uprising broke out in northern China. Perhaps fearing further foreign intervention, Cixi threw in her support to these anti-foreign bands, making an official announcement of her support for the movement and a formal declaration of war on the European powers. The Manchu General Ronglu deliberately sabotaged the performance of the Imperial army during the rebellion. Dong Fuxiang's Muslim troops were able and eager to destroy the foreign military forces in the legations, but Ronglu stopped them from doing so.[30] The Manchu prince Zaiyi was xenophobic and was friends with Dong Fuxiang. Zaiyi wanted artillery for Dong Fuxiang's troops to destroy the legations. Ronglu blocked the transfer of artillery to Zaiyi and Dong, preventing them from destroying the legations.[31] When artillery was finally supplied to the Imperial Army and Boxers, it was only done so in limited amounts; Ronglu deliberately held back the rest of them.[32] The Chinese forces defeated the small 2,000 person Western relief force at the Battle of Langfang but lost several decisive battles, including the Battle of Beicang, and the entire royal court was forced to retreat as the allied forces invaded Beijing. Due to the fact that moderates at the Qing court tried to appease the foreigners by moving the Muslim Kansu Braves out of their way, the Allied army was able to march into Beijing and seize the capital.[33]

During the war, Cixi displayed concern about China's situation and foreign aggression, saying, "Perhaps their magic is not to be relied upon; but can we not rely on the hearts and minds of the people? Today China is extremely weak. We have only the people's hearts and minds to depend upon. If we cast them aside and lose the people's hearts, what can we use to sustain the country?" The Chinese people were almost unanimous in their support for the Boxers due to the Western Allied invasion.[34][35]

When Cixi received an ultimatum demanding that China surrender total control over all its military and financial affairs to foreigners,[36] she defiantly stated before the entire Grand Council, "Now they [the Powers] have started the aggression, and the extinction of our nation is imminent. If we just fold our arms and yield to them, I would have no face to see our ancestors after death. If we must perish, why not fight to the death?" [37] [38] It was at this point that Cixi began to blockade the legations with the armies of the Peking Field Force, which began the siege.[39]

Cixi stated that "I have always been of the opinion, that the allied armies had been permitted to escape too easily in 1860. Only a united effort was then necessary to have given China the victory. Today, at last, the opportunity for revenge has come", and said that millions of Chinese would join the cause of fighting the foreigners since the Manchus had provided "great benefits" on China.[40]

During the Battle of Peking, the entire Chinese Imperial Court, including the Empress Dowager and Emperor Guangxu, fled Beijing and evacuated to Xi'an in Shaanxi province as the allied forced invaded the city. After the fall of Beijing, the allied forces negotiated a treaty with the Qing dynasty, sending messengers to the Dowager Empress in Xi'an. Included in the terms of the agreement was a guarantee that the China would not have to give up any further territories to foreign powers. Many of the Dowager Empress's advisers in the Imperial Court insisted that the war against the foreigners be continued. They recommended that Dong Fuxiang be given responsibility to continue the war effort. The Dowager was practical, however, and decided that the terms were generous enough for her to acquiesce and stop the war, at least after she was assured of her continued reign when the war was concluded.[41] The Western powers needed a government strong enough to suppress further anti-foreign movements, but too weak to act on its own; they supported the continuation of the Qing, rather than allowing it to be overthrown. Cixi turned once more to Li Hongzhang to negotiate. Li agreed to sign the Boxer Protocol, which stipulated the presence of an international military force in Beijing and the payment of £67 million (almost $333 million) in war reparations. The United States used its share of the war indemnity to fund the creation of China's prestigious Tsinghua University. The Emperor and the Empress Dowager did not return to the capital from Xi'an until roughly eighteen months after their flight.[42]

Return to Beijing and Reforms[edit]

In January 1902, the Empress Dowager, Emperor, Empress and the rest of the court made a ceremonious return to Beijing. At the railhead at Chengtingfu, Cixi and the court boarded a twenty-one car train to convey them the rest of the way to the capital.[43] In Beijing, many of the legation women turned out to watch the procession from Beijing's railroad station to the Forbidden City, and for the first time, ordinary Chinese were permitted to watch, as well.[44]

Once back in the palace, Cixi implemented sweeping political reforms. High officials were dispatched to Japan and Europe to gather facts and draw up plans for sweeping administrative reforms in law, education, government structure, and social policy, many of which were modeled on the reforms of the Meiji Restoration. The abolition of the examination system in 1905 was only the most visible of these sweeping reforms. Ironically, Cixi sponsored the implementation of the New Policies reform program more radical than the one proposed by the reformers she had beheaded in 1898.[45]

She also, in an attempt to woo the foreigners, invited the wives of the diplomatic corps to a tea in the Forbidden City soon after her return, and in time, would hold summer garden parties for the foreign community at the Summer Palace. In 1903, she acquiesced to the request of Sarah Conger, wife of Edwin Conger, the American minister to China, to have her portrait painted by American artist Katharine Carl for the St. Louis World's Fair. Between 1903 and 1905 Cixi had a western educated lady-in-waiting by the name of Der Ling, along with her sister and mother, serve at her court. Der Ling, fluent in English and French, as well as Chinese, often served as translator at meetings with the wives of the diplomatic corps.

Empress Dowager Cixi, 1904, was given to President Theodore Roosevelt, who had it added to the Smithsonian Museum of American Art collections[46]

In 1903, Cixi allowed a young aristocratic photographer named Xunling, a brother of Der Ling, to take elaborately staged shots of her and her court, designed to convey imperial authority, aesthetic refinement, and religious piety. As the only photographic series taken of Cixi—the supreme leader of China for more than forty-five years—it represents a unique convergence of Qing court pictorial traditions, modern photographic techniques, and Western standards of artistic portraiture. The rare glass plates have been blown up into full-size images, included in the exhibition "The Empress Dowager" at the Arthur M. Sackler Gallery, Smithsonian Institution, Washington, D.C.[47]

Death and final resting place[edit]

Entrance to the burial chamber in Cixi's tomb
Memorial tower of the tomb of Empress Dowager Cixi

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

On 4 November 2008, forensic tests concluded that the death of the Emperor was caused by acute arsenic poisoning. 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. CNN reported in November 2008 that the level of arsenic in his remains was 2,000 times higher than that of ordinary people.[48]

Empress Dowager Cixi was interred amidst the Eastern Qing tombs (Chinese: 清東陵), 125 km (78 mi) east of Beijing, in the Dong Dingling (東定陵), along with Empress Dowager Ci'an. More precisely, Empress Dowager Ci'an lies in the Pu Xiang Yu Ding Dong Ling (普祥峪定東陵) (literally: the "Tomb East of the Ding Ling Tomb in the Broad Valley of Good Omen"), while Empress Dowager Cixi built herself the much larger Pu Tuo Yu Ding Dong Ling (菩陀峪定東陵) (literally: the "Tomb East of the Ding Ling Tomb in the Potala Valley"). 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 Putuo Valley owes its name to Mount Putuo, one of the Four Sacred Buddhist Mountains of China.

Empress Dowager Cixi, unsatisfied with her tomb, 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). Urban legend states 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, Soong May-ling, but this is unconfirmed.

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.


  • Paternal great-grandfather
    • Yehenara Jilang A (葉赫那拉·吉郎阿)
  • Paternal grandfather
    • Yehenara Jingrui (葉赫那拉·景瑞)
  • Father
    • Yehenara Huizheng (葉赫那拉·惠徵) (29 September 1805 – ?), Manchu official of the Blue Bordered Banner, served in Shanxi Province before becoming Commissioner of Anhui
  • Mother
    • Lady Fuca (富察氏), Huizheng's primary wife, daughter of Fuca Huixian (富察·惠顯)
  • Mate
  • Son
  • Daughter (by adoption)
    • Princess Rongshou

Siblings and their descendants[edit]

Cixi's younger sister Yehenara Wanzhen (left) was the principal wife of Prince Chun, and gave birth to Emperor Guangxu.
  • 1st younger sister: Yehenara Wanzhen (葉赫那拉·婉貞) (13 September 1841 – 19 June 1896), married Yixuan, Prince Chun
    • 1st son: Zairong (載瀚) (1 February 1865 – 9 December 1866)
    • 2nd son: Zaitian (載湉) (14 August 1871 – 14 November 1908), became the Guangxu Emperor
    • 3rd son: unnamed (13 February 1875 – 14 February 1875)
    • 4th son: Zaiguang (載洸) (28 November 1880 – 18 May 1884)
  • 2nd younger sister: Lady Yehenara (葉赫那拉氏), married Yixun (奕勛) (second younger brother of Yikuang, Prince Qing)
  • 1st younger brother: Yehenara Zhaoxiang (葉赫那拉·照祥)
    • Son: Yehenara Deshan (葉赫那拉·德善)
  • 2nd younger brother: Yehenara Guixiang (葉赫那拉·桂祥)
    • 1st daughter: Yehenara Jingrong (葉赫那拉·靜榮), married Zaize, Duke of Zhen in 1894
    • 2nd daughter: Yehenara Jingfen (葉赫那拉·靜芬) (1868 – 22 February 1913), married her first cousin, the Guangxu Emperor on 26 February 1889 and became Empress Dowager Longyu (known posthumously as mpress Xiao Ding Jing)
    • 3rd daughter: Yehenara Jingfang (葉赫那拉·靜芳), married Zaiyi
      • Son: Pujun (溥儁) (1885–1942)
        • 1st son: Yuwei (毓巍) (September 1908 – May 1998)
          • 1st son: Henglu (恆祿)
          • 2nd son: Hengyu (恆玉)
          • 3rd son: Hengjun (恆均)
            • Son: Luowei (羅偉)
        • 2nd son: Yuling (毓嶺)
    • 1st son: Yehenara Deheng (葉赫那拉·德恒), courtesy name Jianting (健亭)
      • 1st daughter: Yehenara Shumin (葉赫那拉·淑敏)
      • 2nd daughter: Yehenara Shuqin (葉赫那拉·淑琴)
      • Son: Yehenara Enxian (葉赫那拉·恩賢)
    • 2nd son: Yehenara Deqi (葉赫那拉·德祺), courtesy name Shouzhi (壽芝)
      • 1st daughter: Yehenara Xixian (葉赫那拉·希賢)
      • 2nd daughter: Yehenara Xiyan (葉赫那拉·希嬿)
      • 1st son: Yehenara Enyin (葉赫那拉·恩印)
      • 2nd son: Yehenara Enxian (葉赫那拉·恩顯)
      • 3rd son: Yehenara Enmin (葉赫那拉·恩民)
      • 4th son: Yehenara Enzhi (葉赫那拉·恩植)
  • 3rd younger brother: Yehenara Fuxiang (葉赫那拉·福祥)
    • Son: Yehenara Dekui (葉赫那拉·德奎), courtesy name Wenbo (文伯)
      • 1st daughter: Yehenara Enhua (葉赫那拉·恩華)
      • 2nd daughter: Yehenara Enxiu (葉赫那拉·恩秀)
      • 1st son: Yehenara Enquan (葉赫那拉·恩銓)
      • 2nd son: Yehenara Enhui (葉赫那拉·恩輝)
      • 3rd son: Yehenara Enyao (葉赫那拉·恩耀)
      • 4th son: Yehenara Enguang (葉赫那拉·恩光)

Names of Empress Dowager Cixi[edit]

The plaque hanging above Cixi is inscribed with her title in full
The Empress Dowager was a devoted Buddhist and seized every opportunity to dress up as Avalokiteśvara, the goddess of mercy. This photograph shows her sitting on a barge on Zhonghai. The white smoke forms the character for longevity, and on top of the smoke was her Buddhist name "Guangrenzi" (literally Universal Benevolence).

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 (Chinese: 杏貞; pinyin: Xìngzhēn; Wade–Giles: Hsingchen). The first 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: 惠徵; pinyin: Huì Zhēng). 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; pinyin: xiù nǚ).

After her sexual union with the Xianfeng Emperor, she was made a concubine of the fifth rank Noble Person, a.k.a. "Worthy Lady" (Chinese: 貴人; pinyin: Guìrén), and was given the name Yi (Chinese: ; pinyin: , "good, exemplary or virtuous"). Her name was thus "Noble Person of Yi", or Worthy Lady Yi (Chinese: 懿貴人; pinyin: Yì Guìrén). At the end of December 1854 or the beginning of January 1855, she was promoted to concubine of the fourth rank, Imperial Concubine (Chinese: ; pinyin: Pín), so that her new name was Imperial Concubine Yi (Chinese: 懿嬪).

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

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; pinyin: Shèngmǔ Huáng Tàihòu). She was also given the honorific name Cixi (Chinese: 慈禧; pinyin: Cíxǐ), meaning "Motherly and Auspicious". As for the Empress Consort, she was made "Mother Empress Dowager" (Chinese: 母后皇太后; pinyin: Mǔhòu Huáng Tàihòu), a title giving her precedence over Empress Dowager Cixi, and she was given the honorific name Empress Dowager Ci'an (Chinese: 慈安; pinyin: Cí'ān), meaning "Motherly and Calm".

On 7 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 for it). At the end of her life, 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; pinyin: Dà qīng guó dāngjīn cíxǐ duān yòu kāngyízhāo yù zhuāng chéngshòu gōng qīn xiàn chóng xī shèngmǔ huáng tàihòu) 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; pinyin: Dà qīng guó dāngjīn shèngmǔ huáng tàihòu)

At the time, Empress Dowager Cixi was addressed as "Venerable Buddha" (Chinese: 老佛爺; pinyin: Lǎo Fóyé),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; pinyin: Dà qīng guó dāngjīn shèngmǔ huáng tàihòu wàn suì wàn suì wàn wàn suì), which is by convention, only used by emperors. 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; pinyin: Xiào qīn cíxǐ duān yòu kāngyízhāo yù zhuāng chéngshòu gōng qīn xiàn chóng xī pèi tiān xìng shèng xiǎn huáng tàihòu), 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 (Chinese: 孝欽顯皇后; pinyin: Xiào Qīn Xiǎn Huánghòu).

Historical opinions[edit]

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

The dominant historical view of the Empress Dowager Cixi was that of 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, bullion, antiques and jewelry, using the revenues of the state as her own. However, the most problematic points in Chinese history happened when she was in "retirement" such as when her nephew focused on studying Confucian texts instead of building up the army at the same time that Japan was amassing its navy. When the First Sino-Japanese War became untenable, Cixi came out of retirement in order to clean up her nephew's shoddy administration. The lavish palaces, gardens and lakes built by Cixi were hugely extravagant at a time when China was verging on bankruptcy.[49]

Katharine Carl[edit]

Katharine Carl's oil painting of Cixi

Katharine 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. In the book's introduction, 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."[50]

In her book, Katharine 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 of 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)."

Luke Kwong[edit]

Luke Kwong, in his analysis of the Hundred Days of Reform, has argued that many of the allegations of being power-hungry and immoral cannot be verified.[23] He also portrays her as a relatively insecure woman, concerned about her legitimacy and haunted by her relatively humble origins in the palace.[51] Yet, despite her concerns about her legitimacy, she was not necessarily power-hungry tyrant who manipulated the court, but was rather content to remain as merely part of a coalition government between the herself and the Grand Council, as well as a dynastic figurehead, so long as her sense of legitimacy was respected and unchallenged.[52] He also argues that her return to power in 1898 was driven less by Cixi's desire to gain power and opposition to reform, as she had been privy to dispatches from the Grand Council and consulted by the emperor, but that her detachment from court politics[53] and tendency to rely on second-hand accounts had made her subject to manipulation by her informants[54] to the point that she felt it urgent[53] to resume her "tutelage" of the emperor.

Sterling Seagrave[edit]

Seagrave, argues[55] 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, 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 30 years after the supposed events) were used by many 20th-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 Ironhats 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 Cixi's 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.

Lei Chia-sheng[edit]

According to research by Professor Lei Chia-sheng (雷家聖),[56] during the Hundred Days' Reform (戊戌变法), former prime minister of Japan Itō Hirobumi (伊藤博文) arrived in China on 11 September 1898. Almost at the same time, British missionary Timothy Richard was invited to Beijing by Kang Youwei. Richard suggested that China should hand over some political power to Itō in order to help push the reforms further.[57] On 18 September, Richard convinced Kang Youwei to adopt a plan by which China would join a federation composed of China, Japan, the United States, and England. This suggestion did not reflect the policies of the countries concerned. It was Timothy Richard’s (and perhaps Itō Hirobumi's) trick to convince China to hand over national rights. Kang Youwei nonetheless asked fellow reformers Yang Shenxiu (楊深秀) and Song Bolu (宋伯魯) to report this plan to the Guangxu Emperor.[58] On 20 September, Yang sent a memorial to this effect to the Emperor.[59] In another memorial written the next day, Song Bolu also advocated the formation of a federation and the sharing of the diplomatic, fiscal, and military powers of the four countries under a hundred-man committee.[60]

Still according to Lei Chia-sheng's findings, on 13 October, British ambassador Sir C. MacDonald reported to his government about the Chinese situation, saying that Chinese reforms had been damaged by Kang Youwei and his friends’ actions.[61] British diplomat Baurne claimed in his own report that Kang was a dreamer who had been seduced by Timothy Richard’s sweet words. Baurne thought Richard was a plotter.[62] The British and American governments were unaware of the "federation" plot, which seems to have been Timothy Richard’s personal idea. Because Richard's partner Itō Hirobumi had been Prime Minister of Japan, the Japanese government might have known about Richard's plan, but there is no evidence to this effect.

Princess Der Ling[edit]

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 (Han Jun) 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 a 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 – something between ladies-in-waiting and translators/hostesses for 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 favouritism 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 even as it drove up her stock when she went before the American 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.'

Der Ling would go on to write seven more books about this relatively brief period in her youth when she had been close to the centre of failing imperial Chinese power, and sharing this personal history and her habit of promoting herself and her writings caused most of her family to turn against her. All of this has made it difficult to assess Der Ling's contribution to late Qing historiography. But 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 what it was like; if many of Der Ling's recollections smack of the every day minutiae of a court that thrived on details and form, her writings are no less valuable for focusing on them, particularly as life within the Forbidden City and the Summer Palace was a closed book for most people in China, let alone in the rest of the world. It was misunderstanding of much of what emanated from the throne that created so many of the problems Cixi has been wholly blamed for.

Starting with Sterling Seagrave's biography of Cixi, 'Dragon Lady: The Life and Legend of the Last Empress of China', Der Ling and her reminiscence of the imperial court have been rehabilitated in recent years, in tandem with reassessments of the Empress Dowager herself. In January 2008, Hong Kong University Press published the first biography of Der Ling, 'Imperial Masquerade: The Legend of Princess Der Ling'.[63]

Jung Chang[edit]

In 2013, Jung Chang's biography of the empress dowager, Empress Dowager Cixi: The Concubine Who Launched Modern China, set out to correct the negative history. Chang portrays Cixi as the most capable ruler and administrator that China could have had at the time. Katie Baker wrote in The Daily Beast "There have indeed been many judgments passed on Cixi's legacy, from the rumors (possibly spread by Wild Kang) that she was a sexually voracious despot to Chang’s final pronouncement that "the past hundred years have been most unfair to Cixi" and that "the political forces that have dominated China since soon after her death have also deliberately reviled her or blacked out her accomplishments…[but] in terms of groundbreaking achievements, political sincerity and personal courage, Empress Dowager Cixi set a standard that has barely been matched." [64] Historian Pamela Crossley, however, cautions that Chang Jung "does not merely repeat what are now truisms in the representation of Cixi – that she has been obscured by misogyny and orientalist stereotyping, as well as the anti-Manchu sentiment running through Chinese nationalist narratives – but also claims to have discovered something new." Crossley says that these claims regarding Cixi's importance "seem to be minted from her own musings, and have little to do with what was actually going on in China." She faults the book for crediting Cixi with powers that were in fact held elsewhere.[65]

Other sources[edit]

Cixi appears frequently in ceremonies described in the diaries of Sir Ernest Satow for 1900–06 when Satow was British envoy in Peking.

Another well known but now widely questioned biography is "China Under The Empress Dowager" by J. O. P. Bland and Edmund Backhouse. Backhouse was later found to have forged some of his source materials when he wrote this work. This is a book that gave rise to much of the negative perspective of the dowager empress.[66]


In popular culture[edit]

See also[edit]


  1. ^ Sue Fawn Chung, "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.
  2. ^ Laidler, Keith (2003), "The Last Empress" (p. 58), John Wiley & Sons Inc., ISBN 0-470-84881-2.
  3. ^ http://www.56.com/u11/v_MjYwNjk3NjI.html
  4. ^ Immanual Hsu (1985), The Rise of Modern China (pg. 215).
  5. ^ Edward Behr, The Last Emperor, 1987, p. 44
  6. ^ [Sui Lijuan: Carrying out the Coup. CCTV-10 Series on Cixi, Ep. 4]
  7. ^ a b Edward Behr, The Last Emperor, 1987, p. 45
  8. ^ Kwong, Luke S.K. A Mosaic of the Hundred Days: Personalities, Politics and Ideas of 1898 (Harvard University Press 1984), pg. 21
  9. ^ Kwong, pg. 22
  10. ^ 清史稿:恭忠親王奕訢,宣宗第六子
  11. ^ 清史稿:恭忠親王奕訢傳記載:“王入謝,痛哭引咎”。
  12. ^ [Professor Sui Lijuang: Lecture Room Series on Cixi, Episode 9]
  13. ^ "Ceremonial Headdress". The Walters Art Museum. 
  14. ^ 《清德宗實錄》
  15. ^ "光绪皇帝为什么叫慈禧太后亲爸爸? Why does the Guangxu Emperor call the Empress Dowager Cixi as Qin Baba?". Lishi Qiannian. Retrieved 15 March 2010. 
  16. ^ Executive Documents Printed By Order of the House of Representatives 1875-'76, pg. 288, retrieved July 24th, 2013 http://digital.library.wisc.edu/1711.dl/FRUS.FRUS187475
  17. ^ Seagrave, Sterling Dragon Lady: the Life and Legend of the Last Empress of China (Alfred A. Knopf, 1992) pg. 163-164
  18. ^ Edward Behr, The Last Emperor, 1987, p. 49
  19. ^ Kwong, pg. 25
  20. ^ a b Kwong, pg. 54
  21. ^ a b Kwong, pg. 60
  22. ^ Kwong, pg. 61
  23. ^ a b Kwong, pg. 29
  24. ^ Kwong, pg. 32
  25. ^ Kwong, pg. 38
  26. ^ Kwong, pg. 26-27
  27. ^ Kwong, pg. 27
  28. ^ Kwong, pg. 27-28
  29. ^ Papers Relating to the Foreign Relations of the United States (1893) Denby to Gresham, pg. 240-241; retrieved August 13th, 2013 http://digital.library.wisc.edu/1711.dl/FRUS.FRUS189394v01
  30. ^ Paul A. Cohen (1997). story in three keys: the boxers as event, experience, and myth. Columbia University Press. p. 54. ISBN 0-231-10650-5. 
  31. ^ X. L. Woo (2002). 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. Algora Publishing. p. 216. ISBN 1-892941-88-0. 
  32. ^ Stephen G. Haw (2007). Beijing: a concise history. Taylor & Francis. p. 94. ISBN 0-415-39906-8. 
  33. ^ Sterling Seagrave, Peggy Seagrave (1993). Dragon lady: the life and legend of the last empress of China. Vintage Books. p. 311. ISBN 0-679-73369-8. 
  34. ^ Joseph Esherick (1988). The origins of the Boxer Uprising. University of California Press. p. 289. ISBN 0-520-06459-3. 
  35. ^ Keith Laidler (2003). The Last Empress: The She-Dragon of China. John Wiley & Sons. p. 221. ISBN 0-470-86426-5. 
  36. ^ Keith Laidler (2003). The Last Empress: The She-Dragon of China. John Wiley & Sons. p. 221. ISBN 0-470-86426-5. 
  37. ^ Chester C. Tan (1967). The Boxer catastrophe (Issue 583 of Columbia studies in the social sciences) (reprint ed.). Octagon Books. p. 73. ISBN 0-374-97752-6. 
  38. ^ Marilyn Blatt Young (1969). The rhetoric of empire: American China policy, 1895–1901. Harvard University Press. p. 147. a surrender of sovereignty: (1) a special place to be assigned to the emperor for residence; (2) all revenues to be collected by the foreign ministers; (3) all military affairs to be committed to their hands. . .After reading them out the empress dowager declare, "Now they [the powers] have started the aggression, and the extinction of our nation is imminent. If we just fold our arms and yield to them, I would have no face to see our ancestors after death. If we must perish, why not fight to the death? 
  39. ^ Nat Brandt (1994). Massacre in Shansi. Syracuse University Press. p. 181. ISBN 0-8156-0282-0. 
  40. ^ Richard O'Connor (1973). The spirit soldiers: a historical narrative of the Boxer Rebellion (illustrated ed.). Putnam. p. 85. 
  41. ^ Diana Preston (2000). The boxer rebellion: the dramatic story of China's war on foreigners that shook the world in the summer of 1900. Bloomsbury Publishing USA. p. 312. ISBN 0-8027-1361-0. 
  42. ^ Jaques Gernet, A History of Chinese Civilization (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, second edition 1982): 604.
  43. ^ Seagrave, pg. 404
  44. ^ Seagrave, pg. 404-405
  45. ^ Douglas Reynolds, China, 1898–1912: The Xinzheng Revolution and Japan (Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press, 1993). ISBN 0-674-11660-7 passim.
  46. ^ Empress Dowager Cixi. Smithsonian Museum of American Art. Retrieved March 18, 2014.
  47. ^ "Power|Play: China's Empress Dowager". Arthur M. Sackler Gallery. Smithsonian Institute. Retrieved January 20, 2015. 
  48. ^ "Arsenic killed Chinese emperor, reports say - CNN.com". CNN. 4 November 2008. Retrieved 2 May 2010. 
  49. ^ Edward Behr, The Last Emperor, 1987, p. 51
  50. ^ With the Empress Dowager of China by Katharine Carl 1907, current print Kessinger Publishing 2004, ISBN 978-1-4179-1701-3.
  51. ^ Kwong pg. 31-32
  52. ^ Kwong, pg. 33-34
  53. ^ a b Kwong, pg. 203
  54. ^ Kwong, pg. 35-36
  55. ^ 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.
  56. ^ Lei Chia-sheng雷家聖, Liwan kuanglan: Wuxu zhengbian xintan 力挽狂瀾:戊戌政變新探 [Containing the furious waves: a new view of the 1898 coup], Taipei: Wanjuan lou 萬卷樓, 2004.
  57. ^ Timothy Richard, Forty-five years in China, Ch. 12.
  58. ^ Kang Youwei 康有為, Kang Nanhai ziding nianpu 康南海自訂年譜 [Chronicle of Kang Youwei's Life, by Kang Youwei], Taipei: Wenhai chubanshe 文海出版社, p. 67.
  59. ^ Yang Shenxiu, "Shandong dao jiancha yushi Yang Shenxiu zhe" 山東道監察御史楊深秀摺 [Palace memorial by Yang Shenxiu, Investigating Censor of Shandong Circuit], in Wuxu bianfa dang'an shiliao 戊戌變法檔案史料 [Archival sources on the history of the 1898 reforms], Beijing: Zhonghua shuju, 1959, p. 15.「臣尤伏願我皇上早定大計,固結英、美、日本三國,勿嫌『合邦』之名之不美。」
  60. ^ Song Bolu, "Zhang Shandong dao jiancha yushi Song Bolu zhe" 掌山東道監察御史宋伯魯摺 [Palace memorial by Song Bolu, Investigating Censor in charge of the Shandong Circuit], in Wuxu bianfa dang'an shiliao, p. 170.「渠(李提摩太)之來也,擬聯合中國、日本、美國及英國為合邦,共選通達時務、曉暢各國掌故者百人,專理四國兵政稅則及一切外交等事。」
  61. ^ Correspondence Respecting the Affairs of China, Presented to Both Houses of Parliament by Command of Her Majesty (London, 1899.3), No. 401., p .303.
  62. ^ British Foreign Office files (F.O.) 17/1718, 26 September 1898.
  63. ^ Imperial Masquerade: The Legend of Princess Der Ling, by Grant Hayter-Menzies [ISBN 978-962-209-881-7], Hong Kong University Press, January 2008
  64. ^ http://www.thedailybeast.com/witw/articles/2013/10/30/empress-dowager-cixi-the-woman-who-made-china-modern.html
  65. ^ "In the Hornet's Nest," London Review of Books April 9, 2014
  66. ^ H. R. Trevor-Roper, Hermit of Peking: The Hidden Life of Sir Edmund Backhouse (New York: Knopf, 1977)
  67. ^ Royal Ark

Further reading[edit]

  • Chang, Jung. Empress Dowager Cixi: The Concubine Who Launched Modern China. (NY: Knopf, 2013). ISBN 9780307271600.
  • Chung, Sue Fawn (1979). "The Much Maligned Empress Dowager: A Revisionist Study of the Empress Dowager Tz'u-Hsi (1835–1908)". Modern Asian Studies 13 (2): 177–196. doi:10.1017/s0026749x00008283. 
  • Hummel, Arthur William, ed. (1943). Eminent Chinese of the Ch'ing Period (1644–1912). 2 vols. Washington: United States Government Printing Office. 
  • Warner, Marina (1972). The Dragon Empress: Life and Times of Tz'u-hsi 1835–1908. Weidenfeld & Nicolson. 
  • Hayter-Menzies, Grant (2008). Imperial Masquerade: The Legend of Princess Der Ling. Hong Kong University Press. 
  • Seagrave, Sterling (1993). Dragon Lady: The Life and Legend of the Last Empress of China. Vintage Books, a division of Random House, Inc. ISBN 0-679-73369-8. 
  • 雷家聖(Lei Chiasheng) (2004). 《力挽狂瀾-戊戌政變新探》 (Liwan kuanglan: Wuxu zhengbian xintan; Swimming against the tide: A reappraisal of the 1898 reforms). Taipei: Wanjuan. ISBN 957-739-507-4. 

External links[edit]

Chinese royalty
Preceded by
Empress Xiaojingcheng
Empress Dowager of China
concurrently with Empress Dowager Ci'an:
Succeeded by
Empress Dowager Longyu