Empress Dowager Cixi began her ascent to rule when she was only 16, during a time where female names were too insignificant to be recorded; she was known as ‘the woman of the Nala family’. She was taken in as a concubine by the Xianfeng Emperor in 1852, during a routine selection.
Cixi went down in history to some as a ruthless killer; a woman who was selfish, strict and cunning. Traits which, had they been describing a man, would not be given a second thought. Cixi was, however, a clever woman with an array of talents and who ruled the Qing Dynasty when her husband died.
Cixi had no formal education, and was unable to speak or write Manchu, which was the main language during the Qing Dynasty. She did, however learn Chinese (which later proved an asset to the Emperor), and also learned to draw, to play chess and to embroider and make dresses.
Upon losing the first Opium War, China had to pay a large sum in reparations to the British. Cixi’s family felt the consequences of this; her grandfather was imprisoned for not paying a family fine, and could only be freed if his son – Cixi’s father – paid the rest of the debt. Cixi took up numerous sewing jobs to help pay for this, and made suggestions on what to sell and who to approach for loans. Her father deemed her ‘more like a son’ due to this, which would have been an enormous compliment to a woman in China. These events presumably contributed to her eventual rising to Empress Dowager and her successes there.
Cixi, then known as Lan, rose through the ranks of Imperial consorts and bore the Emperor a son during this time. She became second only to Empress Ci’an, the Emperor’s number one concubine. Around this time, Cixi was called to the Emperor’s aid as she was the only woman in the household who could read and write Chinese. She helped him daily with tasks as great as reading palace memorials and even governing China.
This advice was sometimes unwanted, however, and the Emperor feared she would continue to interfere after his death. He ordered eight regents to rule China when he died in 1861 until his son was old enough. Cixi began a coup against them, and accused them of fraternising with the British invaders, which put herself and Ci’an into power. She became Empress Dowager, the title given to an emperor’s mother – but it meant she could rule de facto. The deceased emperor’s half brother urged Cixi to execute all the regents and their families but she refused. She was a strong, patient yet merciless woman during her rise to Empress Dowager, but showed mercy and kindness when the need called.
Cixi soon became the absolute power in China, overtaking Ci’an. She did this even during stormy times, as an army from Taiping approached. She showed her leadership abilities and decision making skills through her actions, giving power to the Han people, the Manchu people’s enemy, to defeat the Taiping army – which they did!
Her son, Emperor Tongzhi eventually grew up and married, threatening Cixi’s power. However, in 1875, both husband and wife died of syphilis, putting Cixi back into full power, as Tongzhi had no male heir. Cixi’s nephew, Emperor Guangxu, was to be next to rule. She was his advisor, still ruling de facto, until the tensions became too great between them and she retired in 1889 to build a ‘pleasure ground’ on the outskirts of Beijing.
She came out of retirement five years later to help with the effects of a defeat in a war against Japan, and started planning her next coup for power. Her nephew launched a reform that meant she had less say in political affairs, but, strong-willed and clever, she outsmarted him and eventually had him imprisoned. She executed his co-reformers, which is why she is seen as a ruthless murderer, but she is said to have killed only those who turned against her.
She did make some mistakes towards her rule, such as encouraging the Boxer Rebellion, an uprising in Northern China which caused thousands to be killed in bloody massacres. She showed resolve and strength as a leader, however, she admitted to China that it was indeed a mistake. During her final years, she implemented forward-thinking reforms that would have a positive impact on education, law, structure of government and social policy. She held parties in the Forbidden City in Beijing for foreign diplomats to improve China’s international relations.
Soon after installing Emperor Puyi as the new ruler of the Qing dynasty, she died in 1908. Cixi was buried alongside Ci’an in the Eastern Qing Tombs. Her tomb was broken into and robbed in 1928, but was restored in 1949 by the people’s Republic of China, and is said to be one of the most impressive tombs in China.
Even though Cixi seemed to be rather carefree in who she killed in order to retain power, she made these decisions with the execution of a true leader, and also showed kindness and mercy to those she thought deserved it. She used all her might to rise up through the ranks, often showing more courage and intelligence than the men around her. Jung Chang, author of Empress Dowager Cixi: The Concubine Who Launched Modern China, states, “had [Cixi] lived longer, China might have become a stable constitutional monarchy”.
Cixi showed incredible amounts of resolve and cunning during her reign – in a country where girls were tortured into having small feet, and sometimes killed for not having been born male – which cements her status as a Chinese heroine.
Written for Sheroes of History by Ciera Littleford
Find out more…
See a collection of photos of Empress Dowager Cixi online at The Smithsonian Institute here.
The book Empress Dowager Cixi: The Concubine Who Launched Modern China gives a complete indepth history of Empress Cixi’s life.
This video tells you a bit more about Cixi’s life: