The Dowager Empress Cixi – David Rosier

Ruling from behind the yellow silk screen

By David Rosier  (12th April 2022)

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Cixi is one of the most important women in Chinese Imperial history, although through the early 20th Century she was much maligned, being portrayed as cruel and self-indulgent. In 1976, post Mao, the Imperial Archives were opened-up and further evidence emerged that Cixi was a woman with exceptional political and practical skills and a passion for fashion and the natural world, who shaped modern China.

Cixi began her adulthood as a 16-year-old imperial concubine in 1852, who then rose to hold supreme power for the best part of 40 years at a time when China’s emperors were weak, indolent and corrupt.

Born in 1835 into a family of Manchu government officials, Cixi entered the Forbidden City as a concubine to the emperor Xianfeng. Although graded third rank, her standing in court was elevated when in 1856 she bore the emperor his only son.

The young emperor Xianfeng was facing enormous problems: the Taiping rebellion was to last 10 years and take millions of lives, bring his treasury to the brink of bankruptcy whilst foreign powers were on the offensive. Cixi began to offer the emperor unwanted advice, causing him to fear that she might interfere in state affairs after his death. To keep her under control, on his deathbed he set up an eight-man regency to run China.

Formally, Cixi had no power, but before Xianfeng was buried, she succeeded in mounting a coup against the regents with Empress Zhen, the late emperor's principal wife. Cixi accused the regents of forging the emperor's will and they were sentenced for Treason. Her son was crowned Emperor Tongzhi, and Cixi's extraordinary political career began.

Since she could never sit on the throne herself, Cixi’s power depended on the emperor being a child.  Her own son died in 1875 as a result of smallpox when aged 19 and she orchestrated that another child, her three-year-old nephew, succeeded as Emperor Guangxu. Cixi promptly adopted him. The death of the former empress Zhen in 1881, left Cixi in sole charge and her power from behind the yellow silk screen was supreme. Whilst she held power, international trade was opened up, the Chinese navy was expanded and foreign influences were embraced in a drive to modernise China. 

 

When Emperor Guangxu reached adulthood Cixi reluctantly retired and devoted herself to building the new Summer Palace on the outskirts of Beijing where she indulged her passion for the painting, embroidery, fashion and the natural world. 

In 1894 she was recalled to help with the trauma of a lost war against Japan, after which she retained an active role in state affairs, a position that left her well placed for her next coup.

In 1898, Guangxu, who had good reason to dislike the Dowager Empress launched a radical reform programme under the guidance of two former imperial scholars, Kang Youwei and Liang Qichao, and against the resistance of the more conservative elements at court. Kang persuaded the emperor that Cixi was an obstacle that had to be neutralised. Cixi moved first and by September 1898, she had deposed and imprisoned Guangxu and taken the reins again herself. Those reformers who did not escape were executed.

The last few years of Cixi's career were no less dramatic and mirror the contradictions in her record. Her biggest mistake was to encourage the disastrous Boxer rebellion, a violent anti-foreign and anti-Christian movement that culminated in a bloody siege of the foreign legations in Beijing. This ended in a punitive foreign rescue and huge indemnities to the countries concerned. China, and Cixi, paid a heavy price for what she later admitted was a mistake. She herself had to flee the capital, pausing only to order the killing of Guangxu's favourite concubine. When she returned to the capital she was chastened, and set about making friends with the wives of the resident diplomats, in a belated effort to restore her reputation in the world. She launched her own reform programme within two years, using the exiled Kang Youwei's blueprint.

Cixi died in 1908, having poisoned Guangxu with arsenic the day before, to prevent the reversal of her policies. The final vacancy on the Dragon throne was filled by the child Pu Yi - the last emperor of China. In 1911 the empire fell and Pu Yi abdicated the following year.

Kate Faulkner

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