The Last Empress Dowager

It is the year 1861 in the Western calendar while in China the Xianfeng Emperor lay dying.   He was the ninth Emperor of the Manchu Qing Dynasty and he was but thirty years old.  Each Emperor, upon ascending to the throne chose a name for his reign – Xianfeng meant Universal Prosperity but the motto did not reflect the situation.  His decade long reign was blighted by rebellion and war, including the Second Opium War (lost to the British and French) and the loss of Manchuria to Russia.

The Xianfeng Emperor who had ascended the throne at age 19 led a life of gross over-indulgence partaking freely of alcohol, opium and women as the Qing dynasty continued it’s decline, particularly after the Opium War.

Upon his ascendency to the throne some 60 young attractive women were brought in to be considered for the position of concubine – these would be the women, if chosen,  who would sleep with the young Emperor.

One of the women chosen to stay was Tsu Hsi, also written in the West as Cixi.  She would now be known as Noble Lady Lan at Court and placed in the sixth rank of consorts, the lowest rank.  Also selected was the concubine Zhen who would eventually be called Ci’an when she became the Xianfeng Emperor’s Empress Consort.

Cixi was born in the winter of 1835, the daughter of Huizheng, an ordinary official from the Manchu Yehenara clan.  He was a member of the Blue Banners (Manchu families were divided into 8 Banners which once served as armies during wartime); membership in the banners was hereditary and banner men were granted land and income.

In 1854, Cixi was elevated to the fifth rank of consorts and given the title “Imperial Concubine Yi”.  In 1855, Cixi became pregnant and on 27 April 1856, she gave birth to Zaichun, who would become the Xianfeng Emperor’s only surviving son. Soon afterward, she was elevated to the fourth rank of consorts as “Consort Yi”.    In 1857, when her son reached his first birthday, Cixi was elevated to “Noble Consort Yi”. This rank placed her second only to the Empress Ci’an among the women within the Xianfeng Emperor’s household.

And now the Emperor was on his death bed.  His successor, Cixi’s son Zaichun was only five years old.

Unlike many of the other Manchu women in the imperial household, Cixi was known for her ability to read and write Chinese.  This skill granted her numerous opportunities to help the ailing emperor in the governing of the Chinese state on a daily basis.  She was ready – her experience in assisting the Emperor standing her in good stead.    And she was healthy.  Manchu women were forbidden to practice foot binding which practically crippled half of the Han Chinese women.

Prior to his death the Emperor had appointed eight nobles to a “Council of the Regency” to rule during the minority of his son.  By the time of the death of the Xianfeng Emperor, Empress Dowager Cixi had become a shrewd political strategist.

Both Cixi and the Empress Consort Ci’an had been deemed Empress Dowagers, Cixi as the mother of the next Emperor and Ci’an as the Xianfeng Emperor’s Consort.

Cixi conspired with 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, Empress Dowager Ci’an. Cixi suggested that they become co-reigning empress dowagers, with powers exceeding the eight regents; the two had long been close friends since Cixi first came to the imperial household.

Prince Gong

Secretly, Cixi had begun gathering the support of talented ministers, soldiers, and others who were ostracized by the eight regents for personal or political reasons. Among them was Prince Gong, who had been excluded from power, yet harbored great ambitions, and Prince Chun, the sixth and seventh brothers of the Xianfeng Emperor, respectively.

With the support of the Princes, Cixi was successful in removing the Regents from power. History was rewritten: the regents were dismissed for having carried out incompetent negotiations with the “barbarians.”

In November 1861, a few days following the palace coup, Cixi was quick to reward Prince Gong for his help. He was appointed Prince-Regent and his eldest daughter was made a “Gulun Princess”, a title usually bestowed only on the Empress’s first-born daughter. However, Cixi avoided giving Prince Gong absolute political power.

She began cleaning up a corrupt bureaucracy requiring that senior administrators report to her personally; she had two of them executed to send a message to the others.  And after reviewing the decrepit state of the Manchu elites began appointing Han Chinese to high government posts.  She ruled “from behind the curtain” for her son, the Tongzhi Emperor – “Restoring Order Together.”

Prince Gong was eventually eliminated as Regent.  Prince Gong would never return to political prominence again, and neither would the liberal and pro-reform policies of his time. Prince Gong’s demotion revealed Cixi’s iron grip on politics, and her lack of willingness to give up absolute power to anyone – not even Prince Gong, her most important ally in the coup against the Eight Regents.

Tongzhi Emperor

While there had most likely been hopes that Cixi’s son,  the Tongzhi Emperor would become a capable leader , those hopes would soon come to naught, as the Tongzhi Emperor grew up to become an obstinate and dissolute young man.  He despised learning for the majority of his life and it is reported in the diary of one of his teachers that the emperor could not read a memorandum in full sentences by the age of 16.   He came to rule at age 18,some 4 years later than usual.  He immediately created a crisis.

He ordered the Summer Palace, which had been destroyed in the Opium Wars by the British completely rebuilt and began foraging funds from the nobility.  The Treasury was broke.

High officials wrote him to cease the construction whereupon the Emperor stripped them of their titles, reducing them to common folk.  This brought the two Dowagers to make an unprecedented appearance at court directly criticizing the emperor for his wrongful actions and asked him to withdraw the edict.  Feeling a grand sense of loss at court and unable to assert his authority, the Tongzhi Emperor returned to his former habits, sneaking off to the flesh pots and opium dens outside the Forbidden City walls.

It was rumored that he caught syphilis and became visibly ill. The physicians reported that the emperor had smallpox and proceeded to give medical treatment accordingly. Within a few weeks, on 13 January 1875, the emperor died.  Cixi was back onto the helm of imperial power.

The Tongzhi Emperor 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, and 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 the Tongzhi Emperor. After considerable disagreement between the two Empresses Dowager, Zaitian, the four-year-old firstborn son of Prince Chun and Cixi’s sister became the new emperor; 1875 was declared the first year of the Guangxu era: Glorious Succession.

She continued as Regent “behind the curtain” as her nephew grew up and took power.  Unfortunately his reign continued the downward slide of the Qing as foreign governments, particularly the French, British and Germans  knew of China’s weakness.  One crisis after another with foreigners demanding concessions caused the emperor to lose all respect, power, and privileges, including his freedom of movement. Most of his supporters, including his political mentors fled into exile.  Empress Dowager Ci’an died suddenly in April 1881, probably from a stroke, leaving Cixi alone with absolute power.

In 1900, the Boxer Rebellion (The Society of Harmonious Fists) broke out in northern China. Perhaps fearing further foreign intervention, Cixi threw her support to these anti-foreign bands by making an official announcement of her support for the movement and a formal declaration of war on the Western powers.

It was a disaster.  Foreign armies marched into Beijing to defend their besieged legations and the Imperial Court was forced to flee the Forbidden City and take refuge in Xian.  The allies offered peace to the Qing, including an article in the treaty pledging there would be no more foreign demands for additional territory.  Many in Court wanted to continue the fight but Cixi thought the terms acceptable.  There was a massive procession by the Court back to Beijing.  It was the first time common people were allowed to see the Emperor.

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.

In an attempt to woo foreigners, Cixi also 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 now rebuilt Summer Palace.  She had learned the world had changed.

Cixi died on November 15, 1908, only one day after the death of her nephew the Guangxu Emperor.  On her death bed she named the boy Pu-Yi as Emperor.  Tests on the body of the Guangxu Emperor indicated that he died of acute arsenic poisoning.  Maybe Cixi considered him unfit to rule alone. Who knows.

Her elaborate tomb was plundered by war lords and the immense pearl which had been placed in her mouth, a Chinese tradition is said to have wound up on shoes owned by Madame Chiang Kai Shek.  The tomb has been restored by the Chinese government.

Mao and Pu-Yi – the last Emperor

Pu-Yi was a grandson of Prince Chun and was to be the “Last Emperor.”,  He lived through his abdication and the coming of the Republic under Sun, the era of the warlords, civil war between Chiang and Mao, the war against the Japanese when he served as the puppet Emperor of Manchukuo, the renewal of civil war, ten years of incarceration and re-education as a war criminal under the communists.  He lived to quietly grow cabbages in his garden during the cultural revolution.  He died in 1967.

Cixi the concubine rose to be the second most powerful woman under one Emperor, and then saw her son take the throne.  On his death she installed her sister’s son on the throne and on her death bed hand picked Pu-Yi.

She ruled from behind the curtain for decades and wielded absolute power in one of the largest countries on earth.

Not bad for a concubine.


About toritto

I was born during year four of the reign of Emperor Tiberius Claudius on the outskirts of the empire in Brooklyn. I married my high school sweetheart, the girl I took to the prom and we were together for forty years until her passing in 2004. We had four kids together and buried two together. I had a successful career in Corporate America (never got rich but made a living) and traveled the world. I am currently retired in the Tampa Bay metro area and live alone. One of my daughters is close by and one within a morning’s drive. They call their pops everyday. I try to write poetry (not very well), and about family. Occasionally I will try a historical piece relating to politics. :-)
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4 Responses to The Last Empress Dowager

  1. beetleypete says:

    Nice history, Frank. China is a fascinating pace indeed.
    I remember the story of Pu-Yi from the Bertolucci film, ‘The Last Emperor’, That was a good one.
    Best wishes, Pete.

    Liked by 1 person

  2. cindy knoke says:

    Fascinating subject and woman.

    Liked by 1 person

  3. A very interesting woman. By coincidence, I’ve just started to read Jung Chang’s biography.

    Liked by 1 person

  4. Pingback: The Last Empress Dowager | toritto | First Night History

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