Empress Dowager Cixi of the Qing Dynasty: History, Major Facts, Reforms, & Achievements

Dowager Empress Cixi is most known as the last empress of the Qing Dynasty. Beginning her ascent to power as one of the low-ranking concubines of the Xianfeng emperor, Cixi (also spelled as Tzu His) went on to be one of the most influential and controversial figures of the Qing Dynasty for over four decades.

The Empress Dowager, who was sometimes called the Dragon Lady of China, ended up being a much vilified figure in history. This was largely due to her strong appetite for eliminating anyone who stood in her way. Described as a cunning strategist, she was the brain behind a number of palace coups. But was there more to Cixi’s personality than just being a sex-crazed, ruthless and Machiavellian imperial ruler? Perhaps Cixi was a victim of the usual vilification that often gets thrown at powerful women in history.

Empress Dowager Cixi

Empress Dowager Cixi – Oil painting by Dutch painter Hubert Vos (1905)

In the article below, World History Edu takes an in-depth look at the life, personality, major reforms, and some notable achievements of Cixi, China’s last empress.

A tough childhood

It is generally stated that Cixi had a very troubling childhood before entering the imperial court of the Xianfeng emperor. Born on November 29,1835, she was said to have hailed from a noble Manchu family. It is unclear what her name at birth was. However, we do know that her father, Kuei Hsiang, was a member of the Manchu Yehenara clan. Just as Cixi’s birth name is unknown, so is her mother’s.

In another account, it’s been said that the young Cixi spent her days begging for food in the streets as there was no one to take care of her. It was alleged that her father’s life had be upended by a gambling and drinking habit that he could not shake off. It was thought at the time that the young child had a better chance serving in the royal palace as one of the emperor’s concubines.

Over the decades many rumors floated about the early life of Cixi. This was because the Qing dynasty had a policy of not revealing too much details about the girls that they took in to serve the emperor as concubines.

One of the Xianfeng Emperor’s concubines

Cixi is believed to have entered the Xianfeng emperor’s court as a low-ranking concubine when she was in her early teens. The teenager simply could not wait to make into the royal palace as she hoped to put behind her the years of misery and pain. She was one of over 50 young girls, mainly Mongol and Manchu girls, who were shortlisted. As fate would have it, she received a call up from the then-Empress Dowager to serve as a fourth-rank imperial concubine. During the orientation process, she filled her name as Lady Yehenara, the same name of her father’s clan.

The birth of her only son, Zaichun

Although not a favorite of the Xianfeng emperor, Cixi still received a reasonable amount of attention from the emperor, who had one empress, two consorts, and about eleven concubines in his harem.

Fate would smile again on Cixi as she became the mother of the Emperor’s only son, Zaichun, who was born on April 27, 1856. Her newfound status as the mother of the Emperor’s only son meant that she gradually became influential in the imperial court. That same year, the Second Opium War (1856-1860) broke out. The war, which saw Western troops lock horns with Chinese troops over trade disputes and access to China’s ports, had a huge strain on the Emperor whose Summer Palace was razed down by Western soldiers. As a result of the defeat and the loss of territories, Emperor Xianfeng fell into a severe depression, which in turn cut his life short at the age of 30.

Read More: 10 Greatest Emperors of China

Cixi becomes co-empress dowager

Before his death in 1861, the Xianfeng emperor failed to sort out his succession. As a result, Cixi fought tooth and nail to ensure that no one contested her infant son Zaichun’s claim to the throne. However, since Zaichun, who later became the Tongzhi Emperor, was just five years old, an 8-member regency council had to be set up to rule on his behalf. In this new arrangement, Cixi and Empress Ci’an (also known as Niuhuru or Zhen) became co-Empresses Dowager. The two women made it very obvious right from the start that they were the power behind the throne.

However, there were a few ministers on the regency council that tried to wrestle power from the Empresses Dowager. The greatest threat to Cixi at the time came from Su Shun, the minister of the treasury. Bent on ceasing Cixi’s imperial seal, Su Shun is said to have cut funds to Cixi as he hoped to force her to oust her from power. Cixi not only publicly denounced the treasury minister, but she also banded with her co-Empress Dowager to take down Su Shun and his accomplices, which included a few princes. The two women fought very hard and eventually had Su Shun arrested and later executed on the charge of subversion.

Deaths of the Tongzhi Emperor and Empress Dowager Ci’an

The 1860s came with enormous challenges that tested the resolve of the two Empresses Dowager. Not only was China having financial diffiuclties as it tried to pay indemnities for the Second Opium War, but the country also had to contend with the Taiping Rebellion (1850-1864) that had reached boiling proportions in the south. Cixi and Ci’an deployed very skilled Han Chinese generals to handle the crisis in the south.

A year after his marriage to Lady Alute, the Tongzhi Emperor was made emperor regent in 1872. Still Cixi and Ci’an maintained their strong grip on power.

In 1875, Tongzhi died of smallpox. He was just 18. Tongzhi, like his father, did not sort out his succession before his death. The decision was therefore made by the Cixi and Ci’an. Zaitian (later the Guangxu Emperor), the four-year-old nephew of Cixi, was chosen to succeed Tongzhi to the throne.

In April, 1881, Cixi’s co-Empress Dowager Ci’an died of a stroke. It was rumored that Cixi had a hand in Ci’an’s death. However, that was unlikely as Cixi herself was plagued by a severe liver illness around that same time. In any case, with Ci’an dead, Cixi became the sole Empress Dowager.

Cixi set about making sure then-Emperor Guaungxu marched to her tune. In 1889, she arranged for a marriage between her niece Jingfen and Guaungxu.

Cixi throws her weight behind the Boxer groups during the Boxer Rebellion (1899-1901)

After his ascension was postponed for a couple of years, Guaungxu was crowned Emperor at the age of 19. The young emperor had big ambitions for his country’s army as well as other administrative reforms. Cixi, on the other hand, was opposed to some of Guaungxu’s reforms. However, she did not try to impede her nephew’s reforms.

Towards the end of the 19th century, a social uprising, known as the Boxer Rebellion, rocked China. The uprising began after villagers and ordinary people started getting frustrated by the increasing influence foreign Christian missionaries and diplomats wielded. Seen as an affront to their culture, ordinary Chinese, known as “Boxers”, responded in a violent manner towards what they saw as a Western invasion. The Boxers blamed the Qing government for allowing Westerners to overrun the country. Empress Dowager Cixi rallied the Qing government to support the Boxers as she believed the Westerners posed a far greater threat to the dynasty’s future.

As the death toll and attacks on foreigners, Christian missionaries and converts in China mounted, a Western coalition force, which included Japanese forces, marched on Beijing, where the Boxers had imposed a siege on many foreign diplomatic areas. Eventually, the Chinese imperial forces were defeated and the siege ends in August 1900, and Empress Dowager Cixi and the Emperor disguised themselves as peasants and snuck out of the city on August 15, 1900. Cixi and her imperial officers took refuge in Xi’an in the west.

Following a peace deal between the Western Alliance and the Chinese imperial government, Cixi was able to return to Peking in January 1902.

Later reforms

Having been handed an overwhelming defeat by foreign forces during the Boxer Rebellion, Cixi was convinced that she and her government had to be less antagonistic towards the West and its allies. She is said to have received a number of foreigners, including officials from foreign trade offices and their wives, to her royal residence.

Cixi’s goal was to adapt institutional and fiscal reforms similar to the ones instituted by Meiji Japan. She showered the foreign dignitaries with host of gifts as a sign of her commitment to improving ties with the outside world. Painstaking as they were, those reforms introduced by Cixi went a long way in making China more open. Some of her most notable reforms were in the education system and the legal code.

About six years into Cixi’s reforms, the Guangxu Emperor died (on November 14, 1908). The cause of death was said to be an acute arsenic poisoning. There are some accounts that hold her responsible for killing the emperor, whom she believed was taking soft stance towards Imperial Japan.

On November 14, 1908, Cixi pushed for installation of a 2-year-old Puyi, the deceased Emperor’s nephew, as the new Xuantong Emperor.

Death and the end of the Qing Dynasty

Memorial tower of the tomb of Empress Dowager Cixi of the Qing Dynasty

Just a day after Puyi was installed the Xuantong Emperor, the long-serving Dowager Empress Cixi died at the age of 72. Three years after her death, China’s last imperial dynasty ended. The Qing dynasty, which had ruled China since the 17th century, was overthrown in the Chinese Revolution in 1912. Emperor Puyi (1906-1967), who reigned for just three years, thus became the last emperor of China.

Legacy and achievements

For many decades, Dowager Empress Cixi was generally described as a very wicked tyrant who filled her imperial court with fake eunuchs to meet her crazed sexual appetite. She was also seen as a power-hungry ruler who did everything in possible to consolidate her hold over the imperial dynasty, including executing anyone that opposed her. Such was her thirst for power that she even stooped so low and poisoned many of her family members. Unfortunately the historians who painted her in the above manner couldn’t have been further from the truth. The above account of the Dowager Empress were written by people who did not even know her in the first place. Their accounts contributed a lot in making the Cixi become one of the most hated female figures in the history of imperial China. Those historians are quick to state that her reactionary policies were to blame for the ultimate demise of the Qing Dynasty in 1911.

On the other hand, contemporary scholars and historians portray her in a different light. She was definitely not the saintly and benevolent empress as she had to sometimes act in an immoral and outright Machiavellian way in order to handle the severe political and socio-economic problems that faced China. She’s been described as a very astute politician who steered the affairs of the imperial dynasty in a very a difficult and challenging time. It’s worth mentioning the fact that she accomplished all of that even though she did not receive formal education as a child.

During the reign of the Tongzhi Emperor, she initiated a number of reforms (i.e. the Tongzhi Restoration) that were aimed at modernizing not just the Qing dynasty but also China as a whole. Those reforms were needed as China was still reeling from the Opium War and the Taiping Rebellion. Some historians credit those modernization efforts by Cixi as arresting the decline of the Qing dynasty. Others say that they simply delayed the dynasty’s decline, considering how it all collapsed about four decades later.

It’s often the case that history does not look too fondly at the reign of Cixi, describing her as megalomaniac reactionary; however, the truth of the matter is that she was a great modernizer who tried her best to put China on a level footing with imperial powers of the day. She’s been praised for outlawing barbaric punishments as well as forbidding the practice of foot-binding.

She also played a leading role in quelling the Taiping Rebellion (1850-1864). The rebellion, which was exacerbated by a famine in Guangxi Province, was part of a brewing feud between the ruling Qing Dynasty, which was ethnically Manchu, and the Han Chinese. She went against tradition and brought in very astute Han Chinese military minds to help her in bringing the crisis in southern China to an end once and for all.

Dowager Empress Cixi’s most notable achievement stems from the fact that she was able to keep the Qing Dynasty from going under as it faced mounting threats from not just its powerful neighbor Imperial Japan, but from many Western nations. Contemporary historians and revisionists claim that she was undoubtedly scapegoated for the demise of the Qing Dynasty.

Prior to her death in 1908, she started introducing measures that were aimed at transforming China into a constitutional monarchy. She believed this system of government would help move China, which was far behind imperial powers of the era, into one that is open to new ideas and technology.

Quick Facts about Empress Dowager Cixi of the Qing Dynasty

Dowager Empress Cixi of the Qing Dynasty

Empress Dowager Cixi was a low-ranking concubine who became the de facto ruler of the Chinese Qing dynasty for more than four decades. | Empress Dowager Cixi – history, facts and accomplishments

Born: Yehe Nara Xingzhen

Date of birth: November 29, 1835

Place of birth: Beijing, China

Died: November 15, 1908

Place of death: Beijing, China

Burial place: Ding Mausoleum, Eastern Qing tombs

Dynasty: Qing dynasty

Concubine of: the Xianfeng Emperor (r. 1850-1861)

Son: The Tongzhi Emperor

More on Cixi

  • She was known for her opulent attire. A devout Buddhist, she sometimes dressed up as Avalokiteśvara (Guanyin), a female deity of mercy.
  • As a lower-ranking concubine, she was called Noble Consort Yi. Upon becoming empress dowager, she came to be known as “Cixi”, which means “benevolent joy”.
  • Having been brought up in a very tough environment, she did not get the opportunity to go to school or receive the traditional Confucian education that nobles received in imperial China. Hence, Cixi was an illiterate.
  • Empresses Dowagers Ci’an (also known as Zhen) and Cixi were in effect the de facto rulers of China. They were the power behind the throne, or in other words, the power behind the curtain. Their orders were carried out even though they did not take part in imperial court sessions.

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