Chinese history

The Life of Empress Cixi

Chinese history

Tony Sit reviews the life and influence of one of China's most controversial figures (from China Now magazine 2001).
The rise to power of Empress Cixi and her rule was a cause of the decline of the Qing Dynasty and the rise of the Republican Movement.

The life of China's last Emperor, Pu Yi is well known. Those who have watched the film 'The Last Emperor' will at least be familiar with his struggles. However, the life of Empress Cixi, a woman, who really ruled over China for around half a century, is little known. Cixi had sharp political sense and implemented decisively; but under her rule the Qing Dynasty grew more and more corrupt and its power began to dwindle.

Empress Dowager Cixi's Early Life

Empress CiXi

Dowager Cixi was born on the 29th November 1835, the daughter of an ordinary official. Her Manchu name was Yehonala, which originated from the combined name of two tribes, Yeho and Nala. [Editor's note It is now thought that this is not correct. Manchu names have two elements the clan and tribe names. Yehe was her clan name. Nala (aka Nara) was her tribe name. Hence Yehenara] Her father died when she was very young. As the eldest child, she felt mistreated, neglected and unloved. She once said 'Ever since I was a young girl, I had a very hard life. I was not happy with my parents, as I was not a favourite. My sisters had everything they wanted, while I was, to a great extent, ignored altogether.' At the age of fourteen, she was nominated as a candidate-concubine. It was both an honour for her, and also a chance to escape from the misery she felt at her family home. At sixteen, she was chosen to be one of the concubines to Emperor Xianfeng, and on turning eighteen, she completed the ritual preparations necessary to become a royal concubine. Even during her early years, Cixi proved to be strong-willed. Her unhappy and competitive childhood inspired her determination to rise above her peers and head towards her dream of prowess.

Cixi's Rise to Royalty

Emperor Xianfeng had many wives and concubines, but it was only Cixi who bore a son. After his birth she was soon raised in rank from a third-level concubine to a first-level one. When her son turned one, Cixi became a secondary consort - one of the emperor's wives. Cixi was now called the Empress of the Western Palace. And the emperor trusted her judgement and consulted her constantly on affairs of state.

However, Emperor Xianfeng died in 1861 at the age of 30. His primary wife, Cixi's cousin Ci An, had a daughter, but no sons. Therefore Cixi's five year old son Tongzhi became the emperor. From then her greed for power became insatiable and finally in 1865 she seized the throne, removing another faction from the helm of politics. She was a strong ruler and put down the rebellions which endlessly threatened her. During her years in power, the Western nations gained great influence in China. Many people thought that the best way to stop the outsiders from taking over completely was to strengthen China with modern inventions like trains and telegraphs. However, Empress Cixi and her advisors were conservative and resisted these changes.

Corruption and Competition

The empress usually put her own interests ahead of the nation's. She squandered money on banquets, jewels, and other luxuries. She liked, for example, to be served 150 different dishes at a single banquet. She drank from a jade cup and ate with golden chopsticks. She used Navy funds to build herself a lavish summer palace. At the end of her life, her personal jewellery vault held 3,000 ebony boxes of jewels. She also let financial corruption run rampant in the Forbidden City.

Her son, Tongzhi, by the age of 15 was drinking heavily and consorting with female prostitutes. At the age of 16, he married Alute (Xiao Che), the daughter of a Manchu nobleman. Cixi is said to have been fearful that Alute would undermine her authority over Tongzhi. In order to prevent this and to keep Tongzhi busy so that she could continue to rule in his son's name, she allegedly encouraged her son to keep concubines. Eventually the young emperor contracted smallpox. After a seeming recovery, he suddenly died - possibly from venereal disease. Soon after her husband's death, Alute committed suicide by swallowing opium. It was rumoured that Cixi had driven her to it. Whatever the reason, Tongzhi had died and left no child to inherit the throne. Determined to maintain her power, Empress Cixi chose the new emperor - her own nephew - Guangxu, aged three years old, and who was not in direct line of succession to the throne. Soon after he became emperor, his mother - Cixi's sister, died. And in 1881 Cixi's co-regent, Xiao Chen, the other dowager empress also died.

Political Divisions and Struggles for Power

The new emperor, Guangxu, was skinny, sickly, and terrified of the dowager empress. When he turned 17 in 1889, Cixi surrendered her power to him, in theory. She retired to her summer palace, six miles away from the Forbidden City. From there she spread rumours that the emperor was childlike and incompetent. However, the young emperor did have a mind of his own. And he started listening to people who, unlike Cixi, were in favour of westernizing China. In 1889, he initiated his famous 'Hundred Days of Reform'. He issued decrees ordering the building of railroads; the modernisation of the military; reform of the legal system, and so forth. He also dismissed hundreds of Manchu officials who opposed his reforms. Cixi was outraged by these changes; she cleverly bided her time and allowed the emperor to make enemies among the Manchu elite.

Empress Cixi

As it happened, a friend of Cixi's old boyfriend, Jung Lu commanded Guangxu's troops. This man told Jung Lu of the emperor's plan to strip Cixi of power. So Cixi arranged for the emperor's palace guard to be replaced by Jung Lu's men. As the result, Empress Cixi returned to the Forbidden City.

Supposedly the emperor was so terrified by the sight of her that he threw himself on the ground and said, 'I am unworthy to rule. Punish me, as I deserve.'

There was an artificial lake in the Forbidden City called the Winter Palace Lake. In the middle of the lake was an island, Ying Tai or 'Ocean Terrace'. Cixi locked the Emperor up in a palace on the Ocean Terrace. In there, he was totally isolated from the rest of the court and his servants were either put to death or banished. He saw no one except for four guards and his wife, who was spying for Cixi. Occasionally, he was allowed out for the ceremonial occasions. But Cixi was in charge and she put an end to his policies for modernisation.

The Decline of The Qing Dynasty

Finally, Empress Dowager Cixi caused the decline of the Qing Dynasty because she was greedy for power and would use unscrupulous means to seize it. In 1898, Cixi staged another coup against Guangxu and imprisoned him again when she found that he was introducing reforms without her approval. She began to rule the country behind the curtain. Cixi was conservative and opposed to any reforms. She showed little concern towards the Self-Strengthening Movement. Her use of Naval funds to build her summer palace affected China's naval strength and helped to cause her defeat in the Sino-Japanese War (1894-95). However, Cixi herself declared reforms after the Boxer Rebellion (1900). But her purpose was to strengthen the Manchu regime in the face of growing discontent and an approaching revolution rather than from any ideological intentions to modernise China. Because of her ignorant and blindly anti-foreign persuasions, she believed in the magic power of the Boxers and encouraged their anti-foreign activities. This led to the Eight Power Expedition (1900) to Beijing and the harsh terms of the subsequent Boxer Protocol. As a result many people joined the revolutionary movement themselves and took part in the republican uprisings.

The importance of Empress Cixi's life should not be underestimated, as it was she who effectively ruled China during the half century form the birth of her son until her death at the age of seventy three (15th November 1908). As mentioned above she had a great political ability; in her strategies and in practice.

Unfortunately, Cixi did not use her strength to help China; however, because of her hubris, her conservative outlook, her ignorant and blindly anti-foreign policies, and her poor administration her rule was a large factor causing the decline of the Qing Dynasty and the revolution in 1911.

© Copyright Society for Anglo-Chinese Understanding (SACU) 2001 : an extract from SACU's magazine China in Focus 10, Page 18

The views expressed in this article are those of the author and do not necessarily represent the view of SACU.
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