Cixi (1835–1908)

views updated

Cixi (1835–1908)

Manchu empress-dowager of China who dominated politics for half a century until her death, just three years before the 2,000-year-old imperial system was overthrown by the Republican Revolution. Name variations: Tz'u-hsi, and its alternate spellings, Tse-Hi, Tsu-Hsi, Tze Hsi, Tzu Hsi, T'zu Hsi, Tsze Hsi An; XiaoqinXian Huanghou; Xi Taihou (empress-dowager of the Western Palace); Imperial Concubine Yi; Yehonala; Nala Taihou (empress-dowager Nala); Lao Fuoye (Old Buddha); Venerable Ancestor. Pronunciation: TSE-shee. Born Yehonala, or Yehe Nara, but first name at birth not confirmed, on November 29, 1835, in Taiyuan, Shanxi province, China; died on November 15, 1908, in Beijing; buried in the Qing imperial mausoleum; daughter of a Manchu official, Huizheng; married as lowly ranked concubine of Xianfeng emperor (r. 1851–1861) in 1851 (died 1861): children: one son, T'ung Chih, the Tongzhi emperor (1856–1875).

Ruled de facto three times as empress-dowager regent, as co-regent to her son, the Tongzhi emperor (1861–73), and twice as regent to her nephew, the Guangxu emperor (1875–89, 1898–1908); dominated politics for half a century during failed self-strengthening and reform measures to cope with China's critical decline in the backdrop of Western imperialism and internal rebellion; died one day after the death of the legitimate Guangxu emperor.

Cixi, best known as China's empress-dowager or Old Buddha, was the de facto ruler of China for half a century during a tumultuous period of internal and external crises that demanded social and political changes to Qing (Ch'ing) China (1644–1911). Her life spanned the glorious reign of Queen Victoria in the United Kingdom, but Cixi's appraisal in history and literature has been mainly negative and denunciatory. She has been portrayed as an ignorant, extravagant, murderous, and ultraconservative woman who epitomized the incompetence of the Chinese empire and exacerbated the difficulties of modernizing initiatives. Surprisingly, despite the enormous controversy surrounding Cixi's historical role and the appearance of numerous popular, unreliable biographies and novels both in Chinese and Western languages, a published academic and comprehensive study of her life has not yet appeared. Nevertheless recent scholars, including Luke Kwong and Sue Fawn Chung , have convincingly provided some balanced and positive views of Cixi's historical role in 1898–1900.

Cixi was preceded by two other powerful women in Chinese history who ruled as regents to their emperor sons: Empress Lü Hou (r. 195–180 bce) and Empress-Emperor Wu Zetian of the Tang (624–705). While condemning Lü and Wu for murderous plots and sexual scandals, historians have generally acknowledged the competence of their rulership. But whereas Lü and Wu ruled during a period of ascending dynastic fortunes, Cixi's life and times were characterized by the intrusive presence of foreign powers and the decline of Qing China through the Opium Wars, Taiping Rebellion, Sino-French War, Sino-Japanese War, and the Boxer Uprising.

Lü Hou (r. 195–180 bce)

Chinese empress and regent of China. Name variations: Empress Lu or Lü; Lu Hou of the Han. Reigned from 195 to 180 bce; murdered in 180 bce; married Gao Zu (Kao Tsu) who became the Han emperor Liu Pang (r. 220–195 bce); children: Hui Ti.

Following her marriage to the peasant Gao Zu, Lü Hou persuaded her husband to seek the throne, and he became the first Han emperor Liu Pang, reigning from 220 to 195 bce. It was Lü Hou who began the Chinese tradition that the mother of a son deemed heir apparent be recognized as an empress. Following the death of her husband in 195 bce, Empress Lü waited until her son Hui Ti was safely ensconced on the throne, then dismissed her husband's relatives who were in positions of power to make way for her own family. A few years later, when her son died, she expropriated even more power, choosing another child as his successor. Before long, the child balked under her authority. Lü Hou had him imprisoned and designated a third child as emperor of the Han. In 180 bce, her deceased husband's loyal ministers had Lü Hou put to death and massacred her entire family. They then installed Wen Ti, a son of Emperor Liu Pang's with another wife, on the throne of China. Though Empress Wu Zetian would later rule in name and in fact, Empress Lü ruled in fact but not name, as was the case of Cixi and many other empress-dowagers in Chinese and Korean history.

The Qing, China's last dynasty, was founded by the non-Chinese Manchu minority, which constituted only one or two percent of China's population. In order to consolidate Manchu minority power, the conquerors represented themselves as defenders of Chinese culture but adopted a banner system of hereditary military establishment that favored the Manchu minority. As daughter of a minor official in the eminent Yehonala Manchu banner, Cixi was selected at the age of 16 to serve as a low-ranking concubine to the Xianfeng emperor (Hsien Feng, r. 1851–1861). From 1851 until her death in 1908, except for the flights to Jehol in 1860 and Xian in 1900, and excursions to the summer palaces, she resided in the imperial palaces known as the Forbidden City in Beijing. Her status and rank in the harem soared in 1856, when she gave birth to the Xianfeng emperor's only son, T'ung Chih, the future Tongzhi emperor. A

Manchu, Cixi had some proficiency in the Chinese language and first became involved in state affairs by classifying memorials for the Xianfeng emperor.

As a child of four, Cixi had lived through the first Opium War of 1839, when the British crushed the Chinese forces, acquired Hong Kong island, and opened China to Western trade. By 1860, the second Opium War, fought between China and a joint British-French force, had escalated into the occupation of Beijing and the burning of the summer palaces located in the outskirts of the city. Cixi fled north to Jehol, Manchuria, with her son, along with the Xianfeng emperor and his empress, Ci'an (1837–1881). Ci'an, a Manchu aristocrat, was two years younger than Cixi but as empress was senior in rank.

In August 1861, the Xianfeng emperor died in Jehol, leaving a regency of eight princes to take over the administration on behalf of Cixi's six-year-old son, the Tongzhi emperor. In collaboration with Prince Gong (1833–1898), the deceased emperor's brother and a key personality in the Qing government, Cixi returned to Beijing with Ci'an, the deceased emperor's empress. The regency of the eight princes was overthrown and replaced by Cixi and Ci'an as co-regents, ruling from behind the screen due to concern for propriety. The regency of the two empress-dowagers was set up despite the protest of the Qing court: although a normal procedure in the Chinese dynastic system, it violated Qing dynastic laws. Cixi was the biological mother of the Tongzhi emperor, but Ci'an, as Xianfeng's empress, was observed to be the official mother who made decisions over the Tongzhi emperor's upbringing, including the choice of empress.

During the Tongzhi regency of 1861–1873, Cixi, rather than Ci'an, played the dominant role in direct involvement with state affairs. The Taiping Rebellion, a pseudo-Christian revolt which devastated much of the Chinese empire, was suppressed in 1864. The regency then launched a "self-strengthening" movement to revitalize the dynasty by entrusting high-ranking officials with the modernization of the military and the navy. In 1873, the Tongzhi emperor, now at the age of majority, ended the regency but embarked on a life of debauchery. In early 1875, he died without heir from a sexually transmitted disease, which was officially recorded as smallpox; his pregnant empress Akute soon passed away as well.

I have 400 million people, all dependent on my judgment.


With both her husband and only son predeceasing her, Cixi then designated her four-year-old nephew (the son of her own sister and the half-brother of the Xianfeng emperor) as the Guangxu emperor (Kuang Hus, r. 1875–1908). This choice violated the Manchu generational rule and set the Qing court in an uproar, but Cixi achieved a compromise by promising that Guangxu's successor would continue the lines of both the Guangxu and Tongzhi emperors. Because the enthronement of the Guangxu emperor was entirely due to Cixi's designation, she was regarded as his official mother to whom the emperor's filial piety and obedience must be directed. As the Guangxu emperor was a minor, the co-regency of Cixi and Ci'an was in effect. The sudden death of Ci'an in 1881 left Cixi the sole regent to deal with the Sino-French War of 1884, which tore Vietnam away from China's sphere of influence.

To consolidate her authority over the Guangxu emperor, Cixi married him to her niece (her brother's daughter) in 1889, the same year that the Guangxu emperor terminated Cixi's regency by virtue of his adulthood. But Cixi still retained real power due to her firm control over high-ranking Manchu and Chinese officials. Officially, she had retired to the new summer palaces being constructed with funds earmarked for the navy. While the navy sorely needed more ships to deter foreign incursion, an immobile marble boat—now a prime tourist attraction—was built in the summer palaces. In 1895, the poorly financed Chinese navy was no match for the Japanese naval forces, and the Sino-Japanese war concluded with the disastrous loss of Taiwan and the huge reparations payable to Japan. To the chagrin of the Guangxu emperor and his court, other powers including Germany, encouraged by the gains of Japan, demanded more concessions from China.

Ci'an (1837–1881)

Chinese queen and regent. Name variations: Tz'u-an, Cian. Born in 1837; died in 1881.

Ci'an, a Manchu aristocrat, was two years younger than Cixi, but as senior consort to the Xianfeng (Hsien-feng) emperor she was much higher in rank. Until Ci'an's death in 1881, she served as regent with Cixi, though Cixi had usurped her power long before. It is said that while Ci'an had the virtues, Cixi had the talent in reading and writing.

By 1898, the Guangxu emperor had been exposed to Western ideas and foreign languages and had come under the influence of several progressive advisors and reform-minded intellectuals, including Kang Youwei (1858–1927) and Liang Qichao (1873–1929). From June to September 1898—known as the Hundred Day Reform—the Guangxu emperor proclaimed sweeping political and social reforms to transform China into a modern nation-state. As the decrees became more radical and an anti-Cixi plot leaked out, Cixi and the conservatives in the government became alarmed. In September 1898, she returned to Beijing from the summer palaces, placed the Guangxu emperor under house arrest, and secured his signature to approve her regency on his behalf. For the remainder of his reign to 1908, although he remained emperor in name, he was rendered powerless. Cixi immediately revoked the reforms, purged the reformers, and executed six prominent intellectuals without trial. Kang Youwei and Liang Qichao escaped and founded societies to protect the Guangxu emperor. Their influential writings portrayed Cixi as a domineering, corrupt, selfish, and incompetent woman who thwarted the reforms that could have molded China into a respectable member of the global community of equal nation-states. Recent appraisals of this event now show that Cixi was not against the general idea of reform but that her hostility was due to the conspiracy to remove her and her clansman Ronglu (Jung Lu, 1836–1903), a powerful military figure.

After stripping power from the Guangxu emperor, Cixi's desperation with the demanding Western authorities drove the Qing court to a bizarre episode in 1900—the Boxer Uprising. In her half-a-century of residence in the imperial places, Cixi had witnessed the opium trade's burden on the Chinese economy, the outflow of foreign currency, and the continued scramble for concessions by the foreign powers. Natural disasters such as droughts, floods, and epidemics exacerbated the unprecedented population increase as peasant refugees flooded the cities or became involved in banditry and secret societies, one of which was the anti-foreign and anti-Christian Boxer movement. In May 1900, the Boxers started to kill foreigners, missionaries, and Chinese converts, murdering the German ambassador in the chaos. Relying on poor advice from Manchu officials, Cixi joined the Boxers' fanaticism by declaring war on the foreign governments. The foreign powers responded with an allied expeditionary column that overpowered the Boxer forces, sacked Beijing, and looted the imperial palaces. Accompanied by the Guangxu emperor, Cixi took refuge in the ancient Chinese capital of Xian—her second flight out of Beijing. In January 1902, Cixi and her entourage returned to Beijing, after signing a humiliating settlement with the allied forces.

In 1901, Cixi and the Qing government finally launched a drastic modernization program, reminiscent of the political and social reforms that the Guangxu emperor had wanted to implement in 1898. The civil-service examination system was abolished in 1905 and replaced with a national school system and a modern syllabus. Cixi endorsed the concept of a constitutional monarchy and supported the nine-year plan to prepare for constitutional government. She adopted a more open attitude to foreign governments and entertained diplomats and missionaries

in the imperial palaces. Her portrait was painted by Western artists, who were among the authors of the earliest Cixi biographies that were based on these brief, personal encounters. One memoir of Cixi's court life was authored by Cixi's Western-educated lady-inwaiting, Derling .

On November 15, 1908, shortly after appointing Henry Puyi (Xuantong emperor, r. 1908–1911) to succeed both the Guangxu and Tongzhi emperors, Cixi died from amoebic dysentery, within a day after the death of the Guangxu emperor. The grand scale of Cixi's funerary rituals—unprecedented for an empress or empress-dowager—rivaled that reserved for emperors, and 39 representatives from 14 countries offered condolences. The rituals continued for a full year before the actual burial in the Eastern Mausoleum. In 1928, her tomb was looted and her skeleton strewn about, but the tomb was restored in 1949 as well as in 1979 by the current government.

As a Manchu minority and a woman ruling a vast country of 400 million for half a century, during a lengthy and critical period of Chinese and world history, Cixi's achievements were extraordinary. No other Manchu woman in history had acquired and exercised political power, not to mention breaking dynastic laws by her own regency and the appointment of three emperors (Tongzhi, Guangxu, Puyi). Meticulous in her attire and hairstyle, she was a woman who, despite a limited education, appreciated and promoted traditional music, theater, opera, and calligraphy.

Historical and literary sources in both Chinese and Western languages disagree among themselves about Cixi's capabilities and intelligence. Her eventful life and attributes have been tarnished by accusations of her extreme brutality and scandalous sexuality. With little documentation, traditional historians have implicated Cixi in no less than five murders committed, they say, to fulfill her thirst for power: her own son Tongzhi and his empress Akute (1875), the co-regent Ci'an (1881), and the Guangxu emperor (1908) and his favorite concubine Zhenfei (1900). This cruelty extended to some eunuchs and maids, whom she reportedly flogged to death. At the same time, she supposedly favored several powerful and abusive eunuchs who served as her spies and executors in the palaces. Again without conclusive evidence, traditional sources have represented Cixi as a sexually promiscuous woman who had a pregnancy and a lifelong affair with her clansman and powerful military figure, Ronglu. Rumors of Cixi's sexual excesses included sexual trysts with her eunuchs.

These depictions of cruelty and promiscuity lack substantiation and are typical of the portrayal of powerful women rulers in Chinese history. A revisionist reassessment of Cixi and the legacy of her rule is long overdue and will likely focus on newly opened archives that may indicate the exact nature of her political role and relationship with the high-ranking officials. With so many factors involved in China's history during Cixi's lifetime, it may be a futile exercise to speculate what might have otherwise been China's experience in the 19th century had there been a different ruler, or a male sovereign, in control.


Chung, Sue Fawn. "The Much Maligned Empress Dowager: A Revisionist Study of the Empress Dowager Tz'u-hsi (1835–1908)," in Modern Asian Studies. Vol. 13, no. 2, 1979, pp. 177–96.

Cohen, Paul, and John E. Schrecker, eds. Reform in Nineteenth-Century China. Cambridge: East Asian Research Center, Harvard University, 1976.

Griessler, Margareta T.J. "The Last Dynastic Funeral: Ritual Sequence at the Demise of the Empress Dowager Cixi," in Oriens Extremus. Vol. 34, no. 1/2, pp. 7–35.

Hummel, Arthur W. Eminent Chinese of the Ch'ing Period (1644–1912). Washington: Government Printing Office, 1943.

Kwong, Luke S.K. A Mosaic of the Hundred Days: Personalities, Politics, and Ideas of 1898. Cambridge: Council on East Asian Studies, Harvard University, 1984.

Tang, Zhijun, and Benjamin Elman. "The 1898 Reforms Revisited," also Rejoinder by Luke S.K. Kwong, in Late Imperial China. Vol. 8, no. 1, 1987, pp. 205–219.

Zhao Ersun, et al. Qingshi gao (Draft History of the Qing Dynasty). Beijing: Zhonghua shuju, 1977.

suggested reading:

Bland, J.O.P., and E. Backhouse. China Under the Empress Dowager. Boston: Houghton Mifflin, 1914.

Der Ling. Two Years in the Forbidden City. NY: Dodd, Mead, 1931.

Haldane, Charlotte. The Last Great Empress of China. Indianapolis: Bobbs-Merrill, 1965.

Hussy, Harry. Venerable Ancestor: The Life and Times of Tz'u-Hsi, 1835–1908. Westport, CT: Greenwood Press, 1949.

Seagrave, Sterling. Dragon Lady: The Life and Legend of the Last Empress of China. NY: Vintage Books, 1992.

Warner, Marina. Dragon Empress: Life and Times of Tz'u-hsi 1835–1908 Empress Dowager of China. London: Weidenfeld and Nicolson, 1972.

Jennifer W. Jay , Associate Professor of History and Classics, University of Alberta, Edmonton, Canada