(Sketch of Empress Cixi as an Imperial concubine, by Noble Consort Yi c. mid-1800s, [Public Domain] via Creative Commons)
Until recent times, men have held the highest offices of the land more often than women. Though countries and empires were historically ruled by emperors and kings, a few women rose to the top of society to be empresses and queens. Castile had Queen Isabella, Russia had Queen Catherine, England had Queen Elizabeth, and Austria had Queen Maria Theresa, among others. Though all of the queens mentioned had respectable and admirable rules, few of their life stories were as interesting, dramatic and odd as that of the last empress of China—Empress Dowager Cixi (1835-1908).
Despite the distractions of open rebellion, Emperor Xianfeng made time to enjoy the comfort of his harem of concubines. Cixi, a great beauty, quickly captured the attention of the emperor. She soon became his favorite concubine and bore him his only heir between 1855 and 1856. As mother of the heir, who was named Tongzhi, Cixi officially became an empress. This began the long, odd relationship between Cixi and power in China.
Empress Dowager Cixi
In 1861, the Emperor Xianfeng suddenly died at 30 years of age, leaving Cixi’s son, Tongzhi, as the new emperor. There was a problem, however—Tongzhi was only 5 or 6 at the time. Cixi, as the emperor’s mother, became regent of China until Tongzhi’s 17th birthday. Cixi was now called the Empress Dowager (empress of a deceased emperor).
In her years of regency before Tongzhi took sole rule of China, Cixi was not idle. Remember those rebellions mentioned before? Cixi worked with powerful Han warlords to stamp out those rebels. The Taiping Rebellion ended in 1864, and the Nian Rebellion was defeated four years later. Both rebellions were crushed after 7 years of Cixi being in power.
A Shift in the Power Structure
Cixi’s son was fast becoming a man, and his time for rule was approaching. Cixi seemed willing to step down from her seat of power and let her son take over, but fate did not agree—in 1875, just as Tongzhi reached 17 years of age, he, like his father, suddenly died. An illness or disease was the culprit; some historians suspect drugs and brothels to be the cause.
The death of the young emperor caused a succession crisis in China. Surely, the death of Tongzhi would strip Cixi of power. Tongzhi had an unborn heir developing in the womb of a concubine, after all—power should rightly fall to the infant.
The succession did not work out that way. Suspiciously, the late Tongzhi’s concubine and unborn son mysteriously died, leaving China truly without an heir. That was when Cixi swooped in to save the day. She presented to the court her nephew (whom she later adopted) named Guanxu. He was quickly accepted as the next emperor and the succession crisis was solved. Guanxu, however, was only about three years old! He, like Tongzhi, was too young to rule. Once again, Cixi became regent, tasked to rule China until her adopted son became 17 years of age.
While Guanxu was maturing, Cixi led China against a changing world. During her second regency, the French began colonizing southern Asia. China disapproved of the French colonial ambitions, and sent military aid to Vietnam in an attempt to force France out of the region. The Chinese expedition did not work and the troops were called back—the French soundly defeated the Chinese in 1884, humiliating China. Both the Chinese and the French went about their ways, not acknowledging the event.
In Mainland China, around 1889, Guanxu was finally old enough to rule. Cixi stepped down, retired from power and conceded the rule of China to her adopted son. His reign had a rough start. All throughout the 1890s European nations greedily grabbed at Chinese lands, creating spheres of influence. Russia and France made railroads through China leading into Vietnam (France) and Siberia (Russia). Britain and Germany gained concessions and immunities in ports and cities in China. Only the United States remained out of the mess, instead turning its sights on the Philippines. Guanxu’s worst blunder, however, was the Sino-Japanese War (1894-1895) where a fully modernized Japan easily bested the Chinese military and seized Manchuria—which was the homeland of the Qing Dynasty.
With the accumulating list of problems, Guanxu knew that China needed to be reformed and improved to survive in the modern world. In 1898, he implemented a grand modernization program labeled the “Hundred Days of Reform.” With this program, Guanxu could improve China, and thereby improve his own diminished standing.
Unfortunately, many members of Chinese nobility (including Cixi) were not enthusiastic about modernization. In 1898, shortly after announcing his modernization program, one of his generals betrayed him, leading to a coup d’état that returned Cixi to power and left the emperor under house arrest. He would remain restrained (in a luxurious palace) until his death.
Empress Dowager Cixi’s Final Reign
With the Europeans dividing the wealth of China among themselves like slices of a delicious cake, Cixi was understandably angry with the West. Her anger, however, caused her to make mistakes. She supported a wave of anti-western sentiment in China that culminated in the Boxer Rebellion, which climaxed in 1900. The Boxer rebels killed a number of westerners, causing a massive backlash—a coalition of all the Europeans with dealings in China worked together to invade Beijing, causing Cixi to flee. The situation eventually settled down, but in the aftermath, Europeans gained even more power in their respective spheres of influence.
Cixi, like Guanxu, finally realized after the Boxer Rebellion disaster that modernization was truly needed, and she slowly put China on the path toward improvement. By 1908, Cixi was aging and Guanxu remained under house arrest. Her health steadily in decline, Cixi died on November 15, 1908. With Cixi no longer in power, Guanxu could have finally been released from house arrest—this, tragically, did not happen, for Guanxu met his own death a single day before Cixi; He died suspiciously of arsenic poisoning.
- Ranbir Vohra. China’s Path To Modernization: A Historical Review from 1800 to the Present (Third Edition). New Jersey: Prentice Hall. 2000.