Few people in history have been as thoroughly vilified as the Empress Dowager Cixi (sometimes spelled Tzu Hsi), one of the last empresses of China's Qing Dynasty. Depicted in writings by English contemporaries in the foreign service as cunning, treacherous and sex-crazed, Cixi was painted as a caricature of a woman, and a symbol of Europeans' beliefs about "the Orient" in general.
She is not the only female ruler to suffer this indignity. Scurrilous rumors abound about women from Cleopatra to Catherine the Great. Still, Cixi received some of the worst press in history. After a century of defamation, her life and reputation finally are being re-examined.
Cixi's Early Life
The Empress Dowager's early life is shrouded in mystery. We do know that she was born November 29, 1835, to a noble Manchu family in China, but even her birth-name is not recorded. Her father's name was Kuei Hsiang of the Yehenara clan; her mother's name is not known.
A number of other stories - that the girl was a beggar who sang in the streets for money, that her father was addicted to opium and gambling, and that the child was sold to the emperor as a sex-slave - seem to be pure European embroidery. In truth, Qing imperial policy forbade the publication of personal details, so foreign observers simply made up stories to fill in the gaps.
Cixi the Concubine
In 1849, when the girl was fourteen, she was one of 60 nominees for the position of an imperial concubine. She was probably eager to be chosen, since she once said, "I have had a very hard life ever since I was a young girl. I was not a bit happy when with my parents… My sisters had everything they wanted, while I was, to a great extent, ignored altogether." (Seagrave, 25)
Fortunately, after a two-year preparation period, the then-Empress Dowager selected her as an imperial concubine from among the large pool of Manchu and Mongol girls. Qing emperors were forbidden from taking Han Chinese wives or concubines. She would serve Emperor Xianfeng as a fourth-rank concubine. Her name was recorded simply as "Lady Yehenara" after her father's clan.
A Birth and a Death
Xianfeng had one empress (Niuhuru), two consorts, and eleven concubines. This was a small assortment, relative to earlier emperors; as the budget was tight. His favorite was a consort, who bore him a daughter, but while she was pregnant, he spent time with Cixi.
Cixi also soon became pregnant and gave birth to a boy on April 27, 1856. Little Zaichun was Xianfeng's only son, so his birth greatly improved his mother's standing in court.
During the Second Opium War (1856-1860), Western troops looted and burned the lovely Summer Palace. On top of existing health problems, this shock is said to have killed the 30-year-old Xianfeng.
On his death-bed, Xianfeng made contradictory statements about the succession, which was not guaranteed to Zaichun. He did not formally name an heir before he died on August 22, 1861. Still, Cixi made sure that her 5-year-old son became the Tongzhi Emperor.
A regency council of four ministers and four nobles assisted the child emperor, while the Empress Niuhuru and Cixi were named co-Empresses Dowager. The Empresses each controlled a royal seal, meant to be a mere formality, but which could be used as a form of veto. When the ladies opposed a decree they refused to stamp it, converting the protocol into real power.
The Xinyou Palace Coup
One of the ministers on the regency council, Su Shun, was intent on becoming the sole power behind the throne or perhaps even wresting the crown away from the child emperor. Though Emperor Xianfeng had named both Empresses Dowager as regents, Su Shun tried to cut out Cixi and take her imperial seal.
Cixi publicly denounced Su Shun and allied herself with Empress Niuhuru and three imperial princes against him. Su Shun, who controlled the treasury, cut off food and other household items for the Empresses, but they would not give in.
When the royal household returned to Beijing for the funeral, Su Shun was arrested and charged with subversion. Despite his high post, he was beheaded in the public vegetable market. Two princely co-conspirators were allowed to die by suicide.
Two Young Emperors
The new regents faced a difficult period in China's history. The country struggled to pay indemnities for the Second Opium War, and the Taiping Rebellion (1850-1864) was in full swing in the south. Breaking with Manchu tradition, the Empresses Dowager appointed competent Han Chinese generals and officials to high office in order to deal with these problems.
In 1872, the 17-year-old Tongzhi Emperor married Lady Alute. The following year he was made emperor regnant, although some historians charge that he was functionally illiterate and often neglecting matters of state. On January 13, 1875, he died of smallpox at just 18.
The Tongzhi Emperor did not leave an heir, so the Empresses Dowager had to select an appropriate replacement. By Manchu custom, the new emperor should have been from the next generation after Tongzhi, but no such boy existed. They settled instead on Cixi's sister's 4-year-old son, Zaitian, who became the Guangxu Emperor.
At this time, Cixi was often bed-ridden with a liver ailment. In April of 1881, Empress Dowager Niuhuru suddenly died at the age of 44, possibly of a stroke. Naturally, rumors quickly spread through the foreign legations that Cixi had poisoned her, although Cixi was herself probably too ill to have had any part in a plot. She would not recover her own health until 1883.
Guangxu Emperor's Reign
In 1887, the timid Emperor Guaungxu came of age at 16, but the court postponed his accession ceremony. Two years later, he married Cixi's niece Jingfen (although he reportedly did not find her long face very attractive). At that time, a fire broke out in the Forbidden City, which caused some observers to worry that the Emperor and Cixi had lost the Mandate of Heaven.
When he took power in his own name at 19, Guangxu wanted to modernize the army and bureaucracy, but Cixi was wary of his reforms. She moved to the new Summer Palace to be out of his way, nonetheless.
In 1898, Guangxu's reformers in court were tricked into agreeing to cede sovereignty to Ito Hirobumi, Japan's former Prime Minister. Just as the Emperor was about to formalize the move, troops controlled by Cixi stopped the ceremony. Guangxu was disgraced and retired to an island in the Forbidden City.
The Boxer Rebellion
In 1900, Chinese discontent with foreign demands and aggression erupted into the anti-foreign Boxer Rebellion, also called the Righteous Harmony Society Movement. Initially, the Boxers included the Manchu Qing rulers among the foreigners they opposed, but in June 1900, Cixi threw her support behind them, and they became allies.
The Boxers executed Christian missionaries and converts all over the country, tore down churches, and laid siege to the foreign trade legations in Peking for 55 days. Inside the Legation Quarter, men, women and children from the UK, Germany, Italy, Austria, France, Russia and Japan were huddled, along with Chinese Christian refugees.
In the fall of 1900, the Eight-Nation Alliance (the European powers plus the US and Japan) sent an expeditionary force of 20,000 to raise the siege on the Legations. The force went up-river and captured Beijing. The final death toll from the rebellion is estimated at almost 19,000 civilians, 2,500 foreign troops and about 20,000 Boxers and Qing troops.
Flight from Peking
With the foreign forces approaching Peking, on August 15, 1900, Cixi dressed in peasant garb and fled from the Forbidden City in an ox cart, along with Emperor Guangxu and their retainers. The Imperial Party made its way far to the west, to the ancient capital of Xi'an (formerly Chang'an).
The Empress Dowager called their flight a "tour of inspection," and in fact, she did become more aware of the conditions for ordinary Chinese people during their travels.
After some time, the Allied Powers sent a conciliatory message to Cixi in Xi'an, offering to make peace. The Allies would allow Cixi to continue her rule, and would not demand any land from the Qing. Cixi agreed to their terms, and she and the Emperor returned to Peking in January of 1902.
The End of Cixi's Life
After her return to the Forbidden City, Cixi set out to learn all she could from the foreigners. She invited Legation wives to tea and instituted reforms modeled on those in Meiji Japan. She also distributed prize Pekingese dogs (previously kept only in the Forbidden City) to her European and American guests.
On November 14, 1908, the Guangxu Emperor died of acute arsenic poisoning. Although she was quite ill herself, Cixi installed the late Emperor's nephew, the 2-year-old Puyi, as the new Xuantong Emperor. Cixi died the following day.
The Empress Dowager in History
For decades, the Empress Dowager Cixi was described as a devious and depraved tyrant, based largely on the writings of people who did not even know her, including J.O.P. Bland and Edmund Backhouse.
However, contemporary accounts by Der Ling and Katherine Carl, as well as later scholarship by Hugh Trevor-Roper and Sterling Seagrave, paint a very different picture. Rather than a power-mad harridan with a harem of faux eunuchs, or a woman who poisoned most of her own family, Cixi comes across as an intelligent survivor who learned to navigate Qing politics and rode the wave of very troubled times for 50 years.
Seagrave, Sterling. Dragon Lady: The Life and Legend of the Last Empress of China, New York: Knopf, 1992.
Trevor-Roper, Hugh. Hermit of Peking: The Hidden Life of Sir Edmund Backhouse, New York: Knopf, 1977.
Warner, Marina. The Dragon Empress: The Life and Times of Tz'u-Hsi, Empress Dowager of China 1835-1908, New York: Macmillan, 1972.