Empress Dowager Cixi1 (Chinese: 慈禧太后; pinyin: Cíxǐ Tàihòu;
Manchu: Tsysi taiheo; 29 November 1835 – 15 November 1908), of the
Manchu Yehenara clan, was a Chinese empress dowager and regent who
effectively controlled the Chinese government in the late Qing dynasty
for 47 years from 1861 until her death in 1908.
Selected as an imperial concubine of the
Xianfeng Emperor in her
adolescence, she gave birth to a son, Zaichun, in 1856. After the
Xianfeng Emperor's death in 1861, the young boy became the Tongzhi
Emperor, and she became the Empress Dowager. Cixi ousted a group of
regents appointed by the late emperor and assumed regency, which she
Empress Dowager Ci'an. Cixi then consolidated control over
the dynasty when she installed her nephew as the
Guangxu Emperor at
the death of the
Tongzhi Emperor in 1875, contrary to the traditional
rules of succession of the
Qing dynasty that had ruled China since
1644. Although she refused to adopt Western models of government, she
supported technological and military reforms and the
Self-Strengthening Movement. Although she agreed with the principles
of the Hundred Days' Reforms of 1898, Cixi rejected their sudden
implementation, without bureaucratic support, as detrimental to
dynastic power. She placed the Guangxu Emperor, who had tried to
assassinate her, under virtual house arrest for supporting radical
reformers. She may have feared that any perceived weakness in the
Imperial Court would have been pounced upon by the Japanese. After the
Boxer Uprising led to the invasion of Allied armies, Cixi initially
supported the Boxer groups for supporting the dynasty and attacking
the foreigners. The ensuing Allied defeat of the Chinese forces was a
stunning humiliation. When Cixi returned to
Beijing from Xi'an, where
she had taken the emperor, she became friendly to foreigners in the
capital and began to implement fiscal and institutional reforms that
began to turn China into a constitutional monarchy. The death of both
Cixi and the
Guangxu Emperor in 1908 left the court in the hands of
Manchu conservatives, a child on the throne, and a restless,
Historians both in China and abroad have long portrayed her as a
despot responsible for the fall of the Qing dynasty. However, there is
a minority that excuse Cixi as being a victim to factors which were
beyond her control.
1 Early years
2 Death of the Xianfeng Emperor
3 Following the Death of Xianfeng Emperor
4 Xinyou Coup: Ousting Sushun
5 Ruling behind the curtain
5.1 New era
5.2 Cleaning up the bureaucracy
5.3 Taiping victory and Prince Gong
5.4 Foreign influence
5.5 The Tongzhi Emperor's marriage to the Jiashun Empress
5.6 The Tongzhi Emperor's deficiencies in ruling
6 Regency over the Guangxu Emperor
6.1 New challenges and illness
6.2 The Guangxu Emperor's accession
6.4 Hundred Days' Reform
6.5 Boxer Rebellion
6.6 Return to
Beijing and reforms
7 Death and final resting place
8.1 Siblings and their descendants
9 Names of
Empress Dowager Cixi
10 Historical opinions
12 In popular culture
13 See also
15 References and further reading
16 External links
An early portrait of the old Consort Dowager Kangci, foster mother of
the Xianfeng Emperor. She hosted the selection of the Xianfeng
Emperor's consorts in 1851, in which Cixi participated as a potential
The Pavilion of Beautiful Scenery, inside which Cixi gave birth to the
Cixi was born in the winter of 1835. Cixi was the daughter of
Huizheng, an ordinary official from the Manchu Yehenara clan. Palace
archives also show that Huizheng was a member of Bordered Blue Banner
Eight Banners and was working in
Beijing during the year of
Cixi's birth, an indication that she was born in Beijing. The file
records the location of Cixi's childhood home: Firewood Alley of West
In 1851, Cixi participated in the selection for consorts to the
Xianfeng Emperor alongside 60 other candidates. Cixi was one of the
few candidates chosen to stay. Placed in the sixth rank of consorts,
she was styled "Noble Lady Lan" (蘭貴人). Among the other chosen
candidates were Noble Lady Li of the Tatala clan (later Consort Li),
Concubine Yun of the Wugiya clan, and
Concubine Zhen of the Niohuru
clan (later the Xianfeng Emperor's empress consort).
In 1854, Cixi was elevated to the fifth rank of consorts and given the
Concubine Yi" (懿嬪). In 1855, Cixi became pregnant.
On 27 April 1856, she gave birth to Zaichun, the Xianfeng Emperor's
only surviving son. Soon afterward, she was elevated to the fourth
rank of consorts as "Consort Yi" (懿妃). In 1857, when her son
reached his first birthday, Cixi was elevated to the third rank of
consorts as "Noble Consort Yi" (懿貴妃). This rank placed her
second only to the Empress among the women within the Xianfeng
Unlike many of the other Manchu women in the imperial household, Cixi
was known for her ability to read and write Chinese. This skill
granted her numerous opportunities to help the ailing emperor in the
governing of the Chinese state on a daily basis. On various occasions,
Xianfeng Emperor had Cixi read palace memorials for him and leave
instructions on the memorials according to his will. As a result, Cixi
became well-informed about state affairs and the art of governing from
the ailing emperor.
Death of the Xianfeng Emperor
In September 1860, during the closing stages of the Second Opium War,
the British diplomatic envoy Harry Parkes was arrested along with
other hostages, who were tortured and executed. In retaliation,
British and French troops under the command of Lord Elgin attacked
Beijing, and by the following month they had burned the Old Summer
Palace to the ground. The
Xianfeng Emperor and his entourage,
including Cixi, fled
Rehe Province (around present-day
Chengde, Hebei). On hearing the news of the destruction of the Old
Summer Palace, the Xianfeng Emperor, who was already showing signs of
dementia, fell into a depression. He turned heavily to alcohol and
drugs and became seriously ill. He summoned eight of his most
prestigious ministers, headed by Sushun,
Zaiyuan and Duanhua, and
named them the "Eight
Regent Ministers" to direct and support the
future emperor. On 22 August 1861, the
Xianfeng Emperor died at the
Chengde Mountain Resort in Rehe Province.
Following the Death of Xianfeng Emperor
The Xianfeng Emperor's heir, the son of Noble Consort Yi (Empress
Dowager Cixi), was only five years old. It is commonly assumed that on
his deathbed, the
Xianfeng Emperor summoned his Empress and Noble
Consort Yi and gave each of them a stamp. He hoped that when his son
ascended the throne, the Empress and Noble Consort Yi would cooperate
in harmony and help the young emperor to grow and mature together.
This may also have been done as a check on the power of the eight
regents. There is no evidence for this incident, however, and it is
unlikely that the emperor ever would have intended Noble Consort Yi to
wield political power. It is possible that the seal, allegedly given
as a symbol for the child, was really just a present for Noble Consort
Yi herself. Informal seals numbered in the thousands and were not
considered political accouterments, rather objects of art commissioned
for pleasure by emperors to stamp on items such as paintings, or given
as presents to the concubines. Upon the death of the Xianfeng
Emperor, his Empress, aged 25, was promoted to the status of empress
dowager. Although her official title was "
Empress Dowager Ci'an", she
was popularly known as the "East Empress Dowager" because she lived in
the eastern Zhongcui Palace. Noble Consort Yi, aged 27, was also
promoted to the status of empress dowager under the title "Empress
Dowager Cixi". She was popularly known as the "West Empress Dowager"
(西太后) because she lived inside the western Chuxiu Palace.
Xinyou Coup: Ousting Sushun
Empress Dowager Ci'an
Empress Dowager Ci'an (co-regent with Cixi), with whom
Cixi staged the Xinyou Coup.
By the time of the death of the Xianfeng Emperor,
Empress Dowager Cixi
had become a shrewd political strategist. In Rehe Province, while
waiting for an astrologically favourable time to transport the
emperor's coffin back to Beijing, Cixi conspired with court officials
and imperial relatives to seize power. Cixi's position as the
lower-ranked empress dowager had no intrinsic political power attached
to it. In addition, her son, the young emperor, was not a political
force himself. As a result, it became necessary for her to ally
herself with other powerful figures, including the late emperor's
Empress Dowager Ci'an. Cixi suggested that they become
co-reigning empress dowagers, with powers exceeding the eight regents;
the two had long been close friends since Cixi first came to the
Tensions grew between the two Empresses Dowager and the eight regents,
who were led by Sushun. The regents did not appreciate Cixi's
interference in political affairs, and their frequent confrontations
with the Empresses Dowager left
Empress Dowager Ci'an
Empress Dowager Ci'an frustrated.
Ci'an often refused to come to court audiences, leaving Cixi to deal
with the ministers alone. Secretly, Cixi had begun gathering the
support of talented ministers, soldiers, and others who were
ostracized by the eight regents for personal or political reasons.
Among them was Prince Gong, who had been excluded from power, yet
harboured great ambitions, and Prince Chun, the sixth and seventh
brothers of the Xianfeng Emperor, respectively. While Cixi aligned
herself with the two princes, a memorial came from
Shandong asking for
her to "listen to politics behind the curtains," i.e., to assume power
as de facto ruler. The same memorial also asked
Prince Gong to enter
the political arena as a principal "aide to the Emperor".
When the Xianfeng Emperor's funeral procession left for Beijing, Cixi
took advantage of her alliances with Princes Gong and Chun. She and
the boy emperor returned to the capital before the rest of the party,
Zaiyuan and Duanhua, two of the eight regents, while Sushun
was left to accompany the deceased emperor's procession. Cixi's early
Beijing meant that she had more time to plan with Prince
Gong and ensure that the power base of the eight regents was divided
Sushun and his allies,
Zaiyuan and Duanhua. In order to remove
them from power, history was rewritten: the regents were dismissed for
having carried out incompetent negotiations with the "barbarians" that
had caused the
Xianfeng Emperor to flee to
Rehe Province "greatly
against his will", among other charges.
To display her high moral standards, Cixi executed only three of the
Prince Gong had suggested that
Sushun and others be
executed by the most painful method, known as slow slicing ("death by
a thousand cuts"), but Cixi declined the suggestion and ordered that
Sushun be beheaded, while the other two also marked for execution,
Zaiyuan and Duanhua, were given pieces of white silk for them to hang
themselves with. In addition, Cixi refused outright the idea of
executing the family members of the regents, as would be done in
accordance with imperial tradition of an alleged usurper. Ironically,
Qing imperial tradition also dictated that women and princes were
never to engage in politics. In breaking with tradition, Cixi became
the only empress dowager in the
Qing dynasty to rule from "behind the
curtains", a practice known as chuí lián tīng zhèng (垂簾聽政)
This coup is historically known as the Xinyou Coup (辛酉政變)
because it took place in the xinyou year, the name of the year 1861 in
the Chinese sexagenary cycle.
Ruling behind the curtain
In November 1861, a few days following the Xinyou Coup, Cixi was quick
Prince Gong for his help. He was appointed Prince-
his eldest daughter was made a "Gulun Princess", a title usually
bestowed only on the Empress's first-born daughter. However, Cixi
Prince Gong the absolute political power that princes
Dorgon exercised during the Shunzhi Emperor's reign. As one of
the first acts of "ruling behind the curtain", Cixi, nominally along
with Ci'an, issued two imperial edicts on behalf of the boy emperor.
The first stated that the two Empresses Dowager were to be the sole
decision-makers "without interference," and the second changed the
emperor's regnal title from Qixiang (祺祥; "auspicious") to Tongzhi
(同治; "collective stability").
Despite being the sole decision-makers, both Ci'an and Cixi were
forced to rely on the Grand Council and a complex series of procedures
in order to deal with affairs of state. When state documents came in,
they were to be first forwarded to the Empresses Dowager, then
referred back to
Prince Gong and the Grand Council. Having discussed
Prince Gong and his colleagues would seek the instruction
of the Empresses Dowager at audiences and imperial orders would be
drawn up accordingly, with drafts having to be approved by the
Empresses Dowager before edicts were issued. The most important role
of the Empresses Dowager during the regency was to apply their seals
to edicts, a merely mechanical role in a complex bureaucracy.
Cleaning up the bureaucracy
Cixi's ascendancy came at a time of internal chaos and foreign
challenges. The effects of the
Second Opium War
Second Opium War were still hovering
over the country, and the
Taiping Rebellion continued its seemingly
unstoppable advance through China's south, eating up the Qing Empire
bit by bit. Internally, both the national bureaucracy and regional
authorities were infested with corruption. 1861 happened to be the
year of official examinations, whereby officials of all levels
presented their political reports from the previous three years. Cixi
decided that the time was ripe for a bureaucratic overhaul, and she
personally sought audience with all officials above the level of
provincial governor, who had to report to her personally. Cixi thus
took on part of the role usually given to the Bureaucratic Affairs
Department (吏部). Cixi had two prominent officials executed to
serve as examples for others: Qingying, a military shilang who had
tried to bribe his way out of demotion, and He Guiqing, then Viceroy
of Liangjiang, who fled
Changzhou in the wake of an incoming Taiping
army instead of trying to defend the city.
Another significant challenge Cixi faced was the increasingly decrepit
state of the Manchu elites. Since the beginning of Qing rule over
China in 1644, most major positions at court had been held by Manchus.
Cixi, again in a reversal of imperial tradition, entrusted the
country's most powerful military unit against the Taiping rebels into
the hands of a Han Chinese, Zeng Guofan. Additionally, in the next
three years, Cixi appointed Han Chinese officials as governors in all
southern Chinese provinces, raising alarm bells in the court,
traditionally protective of Manchu dominance.
Taiping victory and Prince Gong
Photograph of Prince Gong, Cixi's crucial ally during the Xinyou Coup.
He was rewarded by Cixi for his help during her most difficult times,
but was eventually eliminated from office by Cixi for his ambition.
Photograph of Princess Rongshou (center seated), Prince Gong's
daughter. As a way to show gratitude to the prince, Cixi adopted his
daughter and elevated her to the rank of "Gulun Princess" (the highest
rank for imperial princesses).
Under the command of Zeng Guofan, the victorious
Xiang Army defeated
the Taiping rebel army in a hard-fought battle at Tianjing
(present-day Nanjing) in July 1864. Zeng was rewarded with the title
of "Marquess Yiyong, First Class", while his brother Zeng Guoquan,
along with Li Hongzhang,
Zuo Zongtang and other Han Chinese officers
who fought against the Taiping rebels, were rewarded with auspicious
decorations and titles. With the Taiping rebel threat receding, Cixi
focused her attention on new internal threats to her power. Of special
concern was the position of Prince Gong, who was Prince-
Regent in the
Prince Gong gathered under his command the support of
all outstanding Han Chinese armies. In addition, Prince Gong
controlled daily court affairs as the head of the Grand Council and
Zongli Yamen (the de facto foreign affairs ministry). With his
Prince Gong was considered a threat to Cixi and
Prince Gong was rewarded for his conduct and recommendation
Zeng Guofan before the Taiping rebels' defeat, Cixi was quick to
move after Cai Shouqi, a minor scribe-official, filed a memorial
Prince Gong of corruption and showing disrespect to the
emperor. Having built up a powerful base and a network of allies at
Prince Gong considered the accusations insignificant. Cixi,
however, took the memorial as a stepping stone to Prince Gong's
removal. In April 1865, under the pretext that
Prince Gong had
"improper court conduct before the two empresses," among a series of
other charges, the prince was dismissed from all his offices and
appointments, but was allowed to retain his status as a noble. The
dismissal surprised the nobility and court officials and brought about
numerous petitions for his return. Prince Gong's brothers, Prince Dun
and Prince Chun, both sought their brother's reinstatement. Prince
Gong himself, in an audience with the two empresses, burst into
tears. Bowing to popular pressure, Cixi allowed
Prince Gong to
return to his position as the head of the Zongli Yamen, but rid him of
his title of Prince-Regent.
Prince Gong would never return to
political prominence again, and neither would the liberal and
pro-reform policies of his time. Prince Gong's demotion revealed
Cixi's iron grip on politics, and her lack of willingness to give up
absolute power to anyone – not even Prince Gong, her most important
ally in the Xinyou Coup.
China's defeat in the
Second Opium War
Second Opium War of 1856–60 was a wake-up
call. Military strategies were outdated, both on land and sea and in
terms of weaponry. Sensing an immediate threat from foreigners and
realising that China's agricultural-based economy could not hope to
compete with the industrial prowess of the West, Cixi decided that for
the first time in Chinese history, China would learn from the Western
powers and import their knowledge and technology. At the time, three
prominent Han Chinese officials, Zeng Guofan,
Li Hongzhang and Zuo
Zongtang, had all begun industrial programs in the country's southern
regions. In supporting these programmes, Cixi also decreed the opening
Tongwen Guan in 1862, a school for foreign languages in
Tongwen Guan specialised in new-age topics such as
astronomy and mathematics, as well as the English, French and Russian
languages. Groups of young boys were also sent abroad to the United
States for studies.
China's "learn from foreigners" programme quickly met with
impediments. The Chinese military institutions were in desperate need
of reform. Cixi's solution, under the advice of officials at court,
was to purchase seven British warships. When the warships arrived in
China, however, they were staffed with British sailors, all under
British command. The Chinese were enraged at this "international
joke", negotiations broke down between the two parties, and China
returned the warships to Britain, where they were to be auctioned off.
Scholars sometimes attribute the failure of China's foreign programmes
to Cixi's conservative attitude and old methods of thinking, and
contend that Cixi would learn only so much from the foreigners,
provided it did not infringe upon her own power. Under the pretext
that a railway was too loud and would "disturb the emperors' tombs",
Cixi forbade its construction. When construction went ahead anyway in
1877 on Li Hongzhang's recommendation, Cixi asked that they be pulled
by horse-drawn carts. Cixi was especially alarmed at the liberal
thinking of people who had studied abroad, and saw that it posed a new
threat to her power. In 1881, Cixi put a halt to the policy of sending
children abroad to study and withdrew her formerly open attitude
The Tongzhi Emperor's marriage to the Jiashun Empress
Portrait of Empress Xiaozheyi, also known as the Jiashun Empress and
"Lady Alute", who had the approval of
Empress Dowager Ci'an
Empress Dowager Ci'an but never
Cixi's. It is widely speculated that the Empress was pregnant with the
Tongzhi Emperor's child and that Cixi orchestrated the empress's
Ceremonial headdress likely worn by Cixi. The small phoenixes emerging
from the surface represent the empress. The Walters Art Museum
In 1872, the
Tongzhi Emperor turned 17. Under the guidance of the
Empress Dowager Ci'an, he was married to the Jiashun Empress. The
empress's grandfather, Prince Zheng, was one of the eight regents
ousted from power in the Xinyou Coup of 1861. He had been Cixi's rival
during the coup and was ordered to commit suicide after Cixi's
victory. As a consequence, there were tensions between Cixi and the
empress, and this was often a source of irritation for Cixi. Moreover,
the empress's zodiac symbol of tiger was perceived as life-threatening
by the superstitious Cixi, whose own zodiac symbol was a goat.
According to Cixi's belief, it was a warning from the gods that she
would eventually fall prey to the empress.
As the principal consort of the Tongzhi Emperor, the Jiashun Empress
was well received by both the emperor and
Empress Dowager Ci'an. Her
personal consultants once warned her to be more agreeable and docile
to Cixi, as Cixi was truly the one in power. The empress replied, "I
am a principal consort, having been carried through the front gate
with pomp and circumstance, as mandated by our ancestors. Empress
Dowager Cixi was a concubine, and entered our household through a side
Since the very beginning of his marriage, the Tongzhi Emperor
proceeded to spend most of his time with his empress at the expense of
his four concubines, including the Imperial Noble Consort Shushen, who
was Cixi's preferred candidate for the Tongzhi Emperor's empress
consort. As hostility grew between Cixi and the Jiashun Empress, Cixi
suggested the couple spend more time on studies and spied on the
Tongzhi Emperor using palace eunuchs. After her warning was ignored,
Cixi ordered the couple to separate, and the Tongzhi Emperor
purportedly spent several months following Cixi's order in isolation
at Qianqing Palace.
The young emperor, who could no longer cope with his grief and
loneliness, grew more and more ill-tempered. He began to treat his
servants with cruelty and punished them physically for minor offences.
Under the joined influence of court eunuchs and Zaicheng, Prince
Gong's eldest son and the Tongzhi Emperor's best friend, the emperor
managed to escape the palace in search of pleasure in the unrestricted
parts of Beijing. For several evenings the emperor disguised himself
as a commoner and secretly spent the nights in the brothels of
Beijing. The emperor's sexual habits became common talk among court
officials and commoners, and there are many records of the emperor's
The Tongzhi Emperor's deficiencies in ruling
Portrait of the
Tongzhi Emperor doing his coursework. Cixi's high
expectations of him may have contributed to his strong distaste for
Tongzhi Emperor received a rigorous education from four famous
teachers of Cixi's own choosing: Li Hongzao, Qi Junzao, Weng Xincun,
and Woren. This group was later joined by Weng Xincun's son, Weng
Tonghe; the emperor's governor, also selected by Cixi, was Mianyu. The
imperial teachers instructed the emperor in the classics and various
old texts for which the emperor displayed little or no interest.
Despite, or perhaps because of, the pressure and stress put upon the
young emperor, he despised learning for the majority of his life.
According to Weng Tonghe's diary, the emperor could not read a
memorandum in full sentences by the age of 16. Worried about her son's
inability to learn, Cixi only pressured him more. When he was given
personal rule at the age of 18, in November 1873 (four years behind
the usual custom), the
Tongzhi Emperor proved to be an incompetent
Tongzhi Emperor made two important policy decisions during his
short stint of rule, which lasted from 1873 to 1875. First, he decreed
that the Summer Palace, destroyed by the English and French in the
Second Opium War, would be completely rebuilt under the pretext that
it was a gift to Cixi and Ci'an. Historians also suggest that it was
an attempt to drive Cixi from the
Forbidden City so that he could rule
without interference in policy or his private affairs.
The imperial treasury was almost depleted at the time from internal
strife and foreign wars, and as a result, the
Tongzhi Emperor asked
the Board of Finance to forage for the necessary funds. In addition,
he encouraged members of the nobility and high officials to donate
funds from their personal resources. Once construction began, the
emperor checked its progress on a monthly basis, and would often spend
days away from court, indulging himself in pleasures outside of the
Uneasy about the Tongzhi Emperor's neglect of national affairs, the
Prince Gong and Prince Chun, along with other senior
court officials, submitted a joint memorandum asking the emperor to
cease the construction of the Summer Palace, among other
recommendations. The Tongzhi Emperor, unwilling to submit to
criticism, issued an imperial edict in August 1874 to strip Prince
Gong off his princely title and demote him to the status of a
commoner. Two days later, Prince Dun, Prince Chun, Prince Fu,
Jingshou, Prince Qing, Wenxiang, Baojun, and Grand Councillors Shen
Li Hongzao were all to be stripped of their respective
titles and jobs.
Seeing the mayhem unfold from behind the scenes, Cixi and Ci'an made
an unprecedented appearance at court directly criticising the emperor
for his wrongful actions and asked him to withdraw the edict; Cixi
said that "without Prince Gong, the situation today would not exist
for you and me."
Feeling a grand sense of loss at court and unable to assert his
Tongzhi Emperor returned to his former habits. It was
rumoured that he caught syphilis and became visibly ill. The
physicians spread a rumour that the emperor had smallpox, and
proceeded to give medical treatment accordingly. Within a few weeks,
on 13 January 1875, the emperor died. The Jiashun Empress followed
suit in March. Judging from a modern medical perspective, the onset of
syphilis comes in stages, thus the emperor's quick death does not seem
to reflect its symptoms. Therefore, most historians maintain that the
Tongzhi Emperor did, in fact, die from smallpox. Regardless, by 1875,
Cixi was back onto the helm of imperial power.
Regency over the Guangxu Emperor
New challenges and illness
Empress Dowager Cixi (front middle) poses with her court attendants
and the Guangxu Emperor's empress (second from left), who was also her
Empress Dowager Cixi holds hands with the fourth daughter of Prince
Qing (to her left) and chief palace eunuch
Li Lianying (to her right).
The lady standing in the background is
Consort Jin (later Dowager
Tongzhi Emperor died without a male heir, a circumstance that
created an unprecedented succession crisis in the dynastic line.
Members of the generation above were considered unfit, as they could
not, by definition, be the successor of their nephew. Therefore, the
new emperor had to be from a generation below or the same generation
as the Tongzhi Emperor. After considerable disagreement between the
two Empresses Dowager, Zaitian, the four-year-old firstborn son of
Prince Chun and Cixi's sister, was to become the new emperor. 1875 was
declared the first year of the Guangxu era; Guangxu was the new
emperor's regnal name and it means "glorious succession". Zaitian was
taken from home and for the remainder of his life would be cut
completely off from his family. While addressing Ci'an conventionally
as huang e'niang ("Empress Mother"), Zaitian was forced to address
Cixi as qin baba ("Dear Father"), in order to enforce an image that
she was the fatherly figure in the household. The Guangxu Emperor
began his education when he was aged five, taught by the imperial
tutor Weng Tonghe, with whom he would develop a lasting bond.
Shortly after the accession of the Guangxu Emperor, Cixi fell severely
ill. This rendered her largely inaccessible to her young nephew
and had the result of leaving Ci'an to attend to most of the affairs
The sudden death of Ci'an in April 1881 brought Cixi a new challenge.
Ci'an had taken little interest in running state affairs, but was the
decision-maker in most family affairs. As the consort of the Xianfeng
Emperor, she took seniority over Cixi, despite being two years her
junior. Some believe that rumours began circulating at court to the
effect that Cixi had poisoned Ci'an, perhaps as a result of a possible
conflict between Cixi and Ci'an over the execution of the eunuch An
Dehai in 1869 or a possible will from the late
Xianfeng Emperor that
was issued exclusively to Ci'an. Because of a lack of evidence,
however, historians are reluctant to believe that Ci'an was poisoned
by Cixi, but instead choose to believe that the cause of death was a
sudden stroke, as validated by traditional Chinese medicine.[citation
In the years between 1881 and 1883, Cixi resorted to written
communication only with her ministers. The young Guangxu Emperor
reportedly was forced to conduct some audiences alone, without Cixi to
The once fierce and determined Prince Gong, frustrated by Cixi's iron
grip on power, did little to question Cixi on state affairs, and
supported Manchu involvement in the
Sino-French War of 1884-1885. Cixi
used China's loss in the war as a pretext for getting rid of Prince
Gong and other important decision-makers in the Grand Council in 1885.
Prince Gong to "advisor" and promoted the more easily
influenced Prince Chun. After being appointed President of the Navy,
Prince Chun, in a sign of unswerving loyalty to Cixi, but in reality a
move to protect his son, the new emperor, moved funds from the
military to reconstruct the
Summer Palace for Cixi's retirement.
Prince Chun did not want Cixi to interfere with the Guangxu Emperor's
affairs once he came of age. Cixi showed no opposition to the
construction of the Summer Palace.
The Guangxu Emperor's accession
Guangxu Emperor technically gained the right to rule at the age of
16 in 1887 after Cixi issued an edict to arrange a ceremony to mark
his accession. Because of her prestige and power, however, court
officials voiced their opposition to the Guangxu Emperor's personal
rule, citing the emperor's youth as the main reason. Prince Chun and
Weng Tonghe, each with a different motive, requested that the Guangxu
Emperor's accession be postponed until a later date. Cixi, with her
reputed reluctance, accepted the "advice" and legitimised her
continued rule through a new legal document that allowed her to "aid"
Guangxu Emperor in his rule indefinitely.
Guangxu Emperor slowly began to take on more responsibilities in
spite of Cixi's prolonged regency. In 1886, he attended his first
field plowing ceremony and began commenting on imperial state
documents. By 1887, he began to rule under Cixi's supervision.
Guangxu Emperor married and took up the reins of power in 1889. By
that year, the emperor was already 18, older than the conventional
marriage age for emperors. Prior to his wedding, a large fire engulfed
Gate of Supreme Harmony
Gate of Supreme Harmony at the Forbidden City. This event followed
a trend of recent natural disasters that were considered alarming by
many observers. According to traditional Chinese political theory,
such incidents were taken as a warning of the imminent loss of the
"Mandate of Heaven" by current rulers.
Consort Zhen, the Guangxu Emperor's most beloved consort, was
initially liked, but eventually hated by Cixi.
For his empress,
Empress Dowager Cixi chose the Guangxu Emperor's
cousin Jingfen, who would become Empress Longyu. Besides her close
relation to the emperor himself, she was also Cixi's niece. Cixi in
addition selected two concubines for the
Guangxu Emperor who were
sisters, Consorts Jin and Zhen. The
Guangxu Emperor eventually would
prefer to spend more time with Consort Zhen, neglecting his Empress,
much to Cixi's dismay. In 1894, Cixi degraded Consort Zhen, citing
intervention in political affairs as the main reason. According to
some reports, she even had her flogged.
Consort Jin had also been
implicated in Consort Zhen's reported influence peddling and also
apparently suffered a similar punishment. A cousin of theirs,
Zhirui, was banished from the capital to a military outpost.
On March 5, 1889, Cixi retired from her second regency, but
nonetheless served as the effective head of the imperial family.
Many officials felt and showed more loyalty to the empress dowager
than they did to the emperor, owing in part to her seniority and
in part to her personalised approach to cultivating court favourites,
many of whom would be given gifts of her artwork and invitations to
join her at the theater for opera and acrobatics.
In spite of her residence for a period of time at the Summer Palace,
which had been constructed with the official intention of providing
her a suitable place to live after retiring from political affairs,
Cixi continued to influence the decisions and actions of the Guangxu
Emperor even after he began his formal rule began at age 19. Along
with an entourage of court officials, the
Guangxu Emperor would pay
visits to her every second or third day at which major political
decisions would be made.
Weng Tonghe observed that while the emperor
dealt with day-to-day administration, the Grand Councillors gave their
advice in more complex cases, and in the most complex cases of all,
the advice of Cixi was sought.
In 1894, the
First Sino-Japanese War
First Sino-Japanese War broke out at the instigation of
Japan which used the war as a pretext to annex Taiwan from Qing China.
Of note, the Japanese annexation of Taiwan followed Japanese
annexation of the RyuKyu island Kingdom in 1874 and was followed by
Japanese annexation of Korea in 1910. During this period, Cixi was
continuously called upon to arbitrate policy-making, and the emperor
was sometimes even bypassed in decision-making processes. Cixi
eventually was given copies of the secret palace memorials as well, a
practice that was carried on until 1898, when it became
In November 1894, Cixi celebrated her 60th birthday. Borrowing from
the plans used for the celebrations of the 70th and 80th birthdays of
Empress Xiaoshengxian (the Qianlong Emperor's mother), plans included
a triumphal progress along the decorated road between the Forbidden
City and the Summer Palace, decorations for the
Beijing city gates and
monumental archways, free theatrical performances, remission of
punishments and the restoration of degraded officials. However,
the war between China and Japan forced the empress dowager to cancel
the lavish celebrations she had planned and settle for a much smaller
commemoration that was held in the Forbidden City.
Hundred Days' Reform
After coming to the throne, the
Guangxu Emperor became more
reform-minded. After a humiliating defeat in the First Sino-Japanese
War of 1894, during which the Chinese
Beiyang Fleet was virtually
destroyed by the Imperial Japanese Navy, the Qing government faced
unprecedented challenges internally and abroad, with its very
existence at stake. Under the influence of reformist-officials Kang
Youwei and Liang Qichao, the
Guangxu Emperor believed that by learning
from constitutional monarchies such as Japan and Germany, China would
become politically and economically powerful. In June 1898, the
Guangxu Emperor launched the
Hundred Days' Reform aimed at sweeping
political, legal and social changes and issued edicts for far-reaching
These abrupt reforms, however, came without building support either at
court or in the bureaucracy. Cixi, whether concerned that they would
check her power or fearful that they would lead to disorder, stepped
in to prevent them going further. Some government and military
officials warned Cixi that the ming-shi (reformation bureau) had been
geared toward conspiracy. Allegations of treason against the emperor,
as well as suspected Japanese influence within the reform movement,
led Cixi to resume the role of regent and resume control at the court.
The Manchu general
Ronglu on 21 September 1898, took the Emperor to
Ocean Terrace, a small palace on an island in the middle of
Zhongnanhai linked to the rest of the
Forbidden City only by a
controlled causeway. Cixi followed this action with an edict that
proclaimed the Guangxu Emperor's total disgrace and unfitness to be
emperor. The Guangxu Emperor's reign effectively came to an end.
According to research by Professor Lei Chia-sheng (雷家聖),
during the Hundred Days' Reform, former Japanese Prime Minister Itō
Hirobumi arrived in China on 11 September 1898. Almost at the same
time, British missionary
Timothy Richard was invited to
Beijing by the
reformist Kang Youwei. Richard suggested that China should hand over
some political power to Itō in order to help push the reforms
further. On 18 September, Richard convinced Kang to adopt a plan
by which China would join a federation composed of China, Japan, the
United States, and England. This suggestion did not reflect the
policies of the countries concerned. It was Richard's (and perhaps
Itō's) trick to convince China to hand over national rights. Kang
nonetheless asked fellow reformers Yang Shenxiu (楊深秀) and Song
Bolu (宋伯魯) to report this plan to the Guangxu Emperor. On 20
September, Yang sent a memorial to this effect to the emperor. In
another memorial written the next day, Song Bolu also advocated the
formation of a federation and the sharing of the diplomatic, fiscal,
and military powers of the four countries under a hundred-man
Still according to Lei's findings, on 13 October, British ambassador
Claude MacDonald reported to his government about the Chinese
situation, saying that Chinese reforms had been damaged by Kang Youwei
and his friends’ actions. British diplomat Frederick Bourne
claimed in his own report that Kang was a dreamer who had been seduced
by Timothy Richard's sweet words. Bourne thought Richard was a
plotter. The British and U.S. governments were unaware of the
"federation" plot, which seems to have been Richard's personal idea.
Because Richard's partner
Itō Hirobumi had been Prime Minister of
Japan, the Japanese government might have known about Richard's plan,
but there is no evidence to this effect.
A crisis over the issue of abdication emerged. Bowing to increasing
pressure from the West and general civil discontent, Cixi did not
forcibly remove the
Guangxu Emperor from the throne, although she
attempted to have Pujun, a boy of 14 who was from a close branch of
the imperial family, installed as crown prince. The Guangxu era
nominally continued until his death in 1908, but the emperor lost all
respect, power, and privileges, including his freedom of movement.
Most of his supporters, including his political mentor Kang Youwei,
fled into exile, and the six prominent reformers including Tan Sitong
and Kang's younger brother, were publicly beheaded. Kang continued to
work for a constitutional monarchy while in exile, remaining loyal to
Guangxu Emperor and hoping eventually to restore him to power. His
efforts would prove to be in vain.
Empress Dowager Cixi and the
Guangxu Emperor holding court. Drawing by
Empress Dowager Cixi and women of the American legation. Holding her
hand is Sarah Conger, the wife of U.S. Ambassador Edwin H. Conger.
In 1900, the
Boxer Rebellion broke out in northern China. Perhaps
fearing further foreign intervention, Cixi threw her support to these
anti-foreign bands by making an official announcement of her support
for the movement and a formal declaration of war on the Western
powers. The general
Ronglu deliberately sabotaged the performance of
the imperial army during the rebellion. Dong Fuxiang's Muslim troops
(the "Kansu Braves") were able and eager to destroy the foreign
military forces in the legations, but
Ronglu stopped them from doing
so. The Manchu prince
Zaiyi was xenophobic and friendly with Dong
Zaiyi wanted artillery for Dong's troops to destroy the
Ronglu blocked the transfer of artillery to
Zaiyi and Dong,
preventing them from destroying the legations. When artillery was
finally supplied to the imperial army and Boxers, it was only done so
in limited amounts;
Ronglu deliberately held back the rest of
them. The Chinese forces defeated the small 2,000 person Western
relief force at the Battle of Langfang, but lost several decisive
battles, including the Battle of Beicang, and the entire imperial
court was forced to retreat as the forces of the Eight-Nation Alliance
invaded Beijing. Due to the fact that moderates at the Qing imperial
court tried to appease the foreigners by moving the Muslim Kansu
Braves out of their way, the allied army was able to march into
Beijing and seize the capital.
During the war, Cixi displayed concern about China's situation and
foreign aggression, saying, "Perhaps their magic is not to be relied
upon; but can we not rely on the hearts and minds of the people? Today
China is extremely weak. We have only the people's hearts and minds to
depend upon. If we cast them aside and lose the people's hearts, what
can we use to sustain the country?" The Chinese people were almost
unanimous in their support for the Boxers due to the Western Allied
When Cixi received an ultimatum demanding that China surrender total
control over all its military and financial affairs to foreigners,
she defiantly stated before the Grand Council, "Now they [the Powers]
have started the aggression, and the extinction of our nation is
imminent. If we just fold our arms and yield to them, I would have no
face to see our ancestors after death. If we must perish, why not
fight to the death?" It was at this point that Cixi began to
blockade the legations with the armies of the
Beijing Field Force,
which began the siege.
Cixi stated that "I have always been of the opinion, that the allied
armies had been permitted to escape too easily in 1860. Only a united
effort was then necessary to have given China the victory. Today, at
last, the opportunity for revenge has come", and said that millions of
Chinese would join the cause of fighting the foreigners since the
Manchus had provided "great benefits" to China.
During the Battle of Beijing, the entire imperial court, including
Empress Dowager Cixi and the Guangxu Emperor, fled
Xi'an as the allied forced invaded the city. After the
fall of Beijing, the
Eight-Nation Alliance negotiated a treaty with
the Qing government, sending messengers to the empress dowager in
Xi'an. Included in the terms of the agreement was a guarantee that
China would not have to give up any further territories to foreign
powers. Many of Cixi's advisers in the imperial court insisted that
the war against the foreigners be continued. They recommended that
Dong Fuxiang be given responsibility to continue the war effort. Cixi
was practical, however, and decided that the terms were generous
enough for her to acquiesce and stop the war, at least after she was
assured of her continued reign when the war was concluded. The
Western powers needed a government strong enough to suppress further
anti-foreign movements, but too weak to act on its own; they supported
the continuation of the Qing dynasty, rather than allowing it to be
overthrown. Cixi turned once more to
Li Hongzhang to negotiate. Li
agreed to sign the Boxer Protocol, which stipulated the presence of an
international military force in
Beijing and the payment of
£67 million (almost $333 million) in war reparations. The
United States used its share of the war indemnity to fund the creation
of China's prestigious Tsinghua University. The
Guangxu Emperor and
Cixi did not return to
Xi'an until roughly 18 months
after their flight.
Beijing and reforms
In January 1902, Cixi, the Guangxu Emperor, the empress and the rest
of the court made a ceremonious return to Beijing. At the railhead at
Chengtingfu, Cixi and the court boarded a 21-car train to convey them
the rest of the way to the capital. In Beijing, many of the legation
women turned out to watch the procession from the
Station to the Forbidden City, and for the first time, commoners were
permitted to watch as well.
Once back in the palace, Cixi implemented sweeping political reforms.
High officials were dispatched to Japan and Europe to gather facts and
draw up plans for sweeping administrative reforms in law, education,
government structure, and social policy, many of which were modeled on
the reforms of the Meiji Restoration. The abolition of the examination
system in 1905 was only the most visible of these sweeping reforms.
Ironically, Cixi sponsored the implementation of the New Policies, a
reform program more radical than the one proposed by the reformers she
had beheaded in 1898.
In an attempt to woo foreigners, Cixi also invited the wives of the
diplomatic corps to a tea in the
Forbidden City soon after her return,
and in time, would hold summer garden parties for the foreign
community at the Summer Palace. In 1903, she acquiesced to the request
of Sarah Conger, wife of Edwin H. Conger, the U.S. Ambassador to
China, to have her portrait painted by American artist Katharine Carl
for the St. Louis World's Fair. Between 1903 and 1905, Cixi had a
Western-educated lady-in-waiting by the name of Yu Deling, along with
her sister and mother, serve at her court. Yu Deling, fluent in
English and French, as well as Chinese, often served as translator at
meetings with the wives of the diplomatic corps.
Empress Dowager Cixi, by Katharine Carl, 1904, was given to U.S.
President Theodore Roosevelt, who had it added to the Smithsonian
Museum of American Art collections
In 1903, Cixi allowed a young aristocratic photographer named Xunling,
a brother of Yu Deling, to take elaborately staged shots of her and
her court. They were designed to convey imperial authority, aesthetic
refinement, and religious piety. As the only photographic series taken
of Cixi – the supreme leader of China for more than 45 years – it
represents a unique convergence of Qing court pictorial traditions,
modern photographic techniques, and Western standards of artistic
portraiture. The rare glass plates have been blown up into full-size
images, included in the exhibition "The Empress Dowager" at the Arthur
M. Sackler Gallery, Smithsonian Institution, Washington, D.C.
Death and final resting place
Entrance to the burial chamber in Cixi's tomb
Memorial tower of the tomb of
Empress Dowager Cixi
Empress Dowager Cixi died in the Hall of Graceful Bird at the Middle
Sea (中海儀鸞殿) of Zhongnanhai, Beijing, on 15 November 1908,
after having installed
Puyi as the new emperor on 14 November. Her
death came only a day after the death of the Guangxu Emperor.
On 4 November 2008, forensic tests concluded that the Guangxu Emperor
died from acute arsenic poisoning.
China Daily quoted a historian, Dai
Yi, who speculated that Cixi may have known of her imminent death and
may have worried that the
Guangxu Emperor would continue his reforms
after her death.
CNN reported in November 2008 that the level of
arsenic in his remains was 2,000 times higher than that of ordinary
Empress Dowager Cixi was interred amidst the Eastern Qing tombs
(Chinese: 清東陵), 125 km (78 mi) east of Beijing, in the
Dongdingling (東定陵), along with
Empress Dowager Ci'an. More
Empress Dowager Ci'an
Empress Dowager Ci'an lies in the Puxiangyu Dingdongling
(普祥峪定東陵; lit. "Tomb East of the Dingling Tomb in the Broad
Valley of Good Omen"), while
Empress Dowager Cixi built herself the
much larger Putuoyu Dingdongling (菩陀峪定東陵; lit. "Tomb East
of the Dingling Tomb in the Putuo Valley"). The Dingling tomb (lit.
"Tomb of Quietude"), where the
Xianfeng Emperor is buried, is located
west of the Dingdongling. The Putuo Valley owes its name to Mount
Putuo, one of the Four Sacred Buddhist Mountains of China.
Empress Dowager Cixi, unsatisfied with her tomb, ordered its
destruction and reconstruction in 1895. The new tomb was a lavish
grandiose complex of temples, gates, and pavilions, covered with gold
leaf, and with gold and gilded-bronze ornaments hanging from the beams
and the eaves. In July 1928, Cixi's tomb was plundered by the warlord
Sun Dianying and his army as part of the looting of the Eastern
Mausoleum. They methodically stripped the complex of its precious
ornaments, then dynamited the entrance to the burial chamber, opened
Cixi's coffin, threw her corpse (said to have been found intact) on
the ground, and stole all the jewels contained in the coffin, as well
as the massive pearl that had been placed in the empress dowager's
mouth to protect her corpse from decomposing (in accordance with
Chinese tradition). Urban legend states that the large pearl on Cixi's
crown was offered by
Sun Dianying to
Chiang Kai-shek and ended up as
an ornament on the gala shoes of Chiang's wife, Soong Mei-ling, but
this is unconfirmed.
After 1949, the complex of
Empress Dowager Cixi's tomb was restored by
the Chinese government.
Paternal great-grandfather: Yehenara Jilang'a
Paternal grandfather: Yehenara Jingrui (葉赫那拉·景瑞)
Father: Yehenara Huizheng (葉赫那拉·惠徵) (1805–1853), Manchu
official of the Blue Bordered Banner, served in
Shanxi Province before
becoming Commissioner of
Mother: Lady Fuca (富察氏), Huizheng's primary wife, daughter of
Fuca Huixian (富察·惠顯)
Spouse: Xianfeng Emperor
Son: Tongzhi Emperor
Adopted daughter: Gulun Princess Rongshou, biologically Prince Gong's
Siblings and their descendants
Cixi's younger sister,
Yehenara Wanzhen (left), was the principal wife
of Prince Chun. She gave birth to the Guangxu Emperor.
1st younger sister:
Yehenara Wanzhen (葉赫那拉·婉貞) (13
September 1841 – 19 June 1896), married Yixuan (Prince Chun)
1st son: Zairong (載瀚) (1 February 1865 – 9 December 1866)
2nd son: Zaitian (載湉) (14 August 1871 – 14 November 1908),
became the Guangxu Emperor
3rd son: unnamed (13 February 1875 – 14 February 1875)
4th son: Zaiguang (載洸) (28 November 1880 – 18 May 1884)
2nd younger sister: Lady Yehenara (葉赫那拉氏), married Yixun
(奕勛) (second brother of Yikuang (Prince Qing))
1st younger brother: Yehenara Zhaoxiang (葉赫那拉·照祥)
Son: Yehenara Deshan (葉赫那拉·德善)
2nd younger brother: Yehenara Guixiang (葉赫那拉·桂祥)
1st daughter: Yehenara Jingrong (葉赫那拉·靜榮), married Zaize,
Duke of Zhen in 1894
2nd daughter: Yehenara Jingfen (葉赫那拉·靜芬) (1868 – 22
February 1913), married her first cousin, the
Guangxu Emperor on 26
February 1889 and became
Empress Dowager Longyu (known posthumously as
3rd daughter: Yehenara Jingfang (葉赫那拉·靜芳), married Zaiyi
Son: Pujun (溥儁) (1885–1942)
1st son: Yuwei (毓巍) (September 1908 – May 1998)
1st son: Henglu (恆祿)
2nd son: Hengyu (恆玉)
3rd son: Hengjun (恆均)
Son: Luowei (羅偉)
2nd son: Yuling (毓嶺)
1st son: Yehenara Deheng (葉赫那拉·德恒), courtesy name
1st daughter: Yehenara Shumin (葉赫那拉·淑敏)
2nd daughter: Yehenara Shuqin (葉赫那拉·淑琴)
Son: Yehenara Enxian (葉赫那拉·恩賢)
2nd son: Yehenara Deqi (葉赫那拉·德祺), courtesy name Shouzhi
1st daughter: Yehenara Xixian (葉赫那拉·希賢)
2nd daughter: Yehenara Xiyan (葉赫那拉·希嬿)
1st son: Yehenara Enyin (葉赫那拉·恩印)
2nd son: Yehenara Enxian (葉赫那拉·恩顯)
3rd son: Yehenara Enmin (葉赫那拉·恩民)
4th son: Yehenara Enzhi (葉赫那拉·恩植)
3rd younger brother: Yehenara Fuxiang (葉赫那拉·福祥)
Son: Yehenara Dekui (葉赫那拉·德奎), courtesy name Wenbo
1st daughter: Yehenara Enhua (葉赫那拉·恩華)
2nd daughter: Yehenara Enxiu (葉赫那拉·恩秀)
1st son: Yehenara Enquan (葉赫那拉·恩銓)
2nd son: Yehenara Enhui (葉赫那拉·恩輝)
3rd son: Yehenara Enyao (葉赫那拉·恩耀)
4th son: Yehenara Enguang (葉赫那拉·恩光)
Empress Dowager Cixi
See also: Ranks of imperial consorts in China § Qing
The plaque hanging above Cixi is inscribed with her title in full
Empress Dowager was a devoted Buddhist and seized every
opportunity to dress up as Avalokiteśvara (Guanyin), the goddess of
mercy. This photograph shows her sitting on a barge on Zhonghai. The
white smoke forms the character for longevity, and on top of the smoke
was her Buddhist name "Guangrenzi" (literally Universal Benevolence).
The name by which she is most frequently known and the name used in
most modern texts is simply "Cixi", transliterated as "Tz'u Hsi" in
Wade-Giles, which is neither her birth name nor family name. It is an
"honorific name" given to her in 1861 after her son ascended the
Empress Dowager Cixi's name at birth is not known, although a
recent book published by one of Cixi's brother's descendants seems to
suggest that it was Xingzhen (杏貞; Xìngzhēn). The first
occurrence of her name is at the time she entered the Forbidden City
in September 1851, where she was recorded as "the Lady Yehenara,
daughter of Huizheng". Thus, she was called by her clan's name, the
Yehenara clan, as was customary for Manchu girls. On entering the
Forbidden City, she was a xiù-nǚ (秀女; "preparative concubine").
After her sexual union with the Xianfeng Emperor, she was promoted to
the rank of guìrén (貴人; "Noble Lady"; a sixth-grade consort) and
given the name Lan (蘭). She was thus known as "Noble Lady Lan"
(蘭貴人). At the end of December 1854 or the beginning of January
1855, she was promoted to pín (嬪; "Imperial Concubine"; a
fifth-grade consort), hence she was known as "Imperial
On 27 April 1856, Lady Yehenara gave birth to a son, the only son of
the Xianfeng Emperor, and was immediately promoted to feī (妃;
"Consort"; a fourth-grade consort). In February 1857, she was further
elevated to the status of guìfeī (貴妃; "Noble Consort"; a
third-grade consort), hence she was referred to as "Noble Consort Yi"
Towards the end of August 1861, following the death of the Xianfeng
Emperor, her five-year-old son was installed on the throne as the
Tongzhi Emperor. Lady Yehenara, as the biological mother of the
emperor, was honoured as shèngmǔ huángtàihòu (聖母皇太后;
lit. "Divine Mother, Empress Dowager"). She was also given the
honorific name Cíxǐ (慈禧; "motherly and auspicious"), which
became the name she is best known by. On the other hand, the Xianfeng
Emperor's empress consort was honoured as mǔhòu huángtàihòu
(母后皇太后; lit. "Mother Empress, Empress Dowager") – a title
which gave her precedence over Cixi – and given the honorific name
Cí-ān (慈安; "motherly and calm"), hence she was known as Empress
On seven occasions after 1861, Cixi was given additional honorific
names (two Chinese characters at a time), as was customary for
emperors and empresses, until by the end of her reign her name was a
long string of 16 characters starting with Cixi. As empress dowager,
she had the right to nine additions, giving a total of 20 characters,
had she lived long enough for it. At the end of her life, her official
The Current Divine Mother
Empress Dowager Ci-Xi Duan-You Kang-Yi
Zhao-Yu Zhuang-Cheng Shou-Gong Qin-Xian Chong-Xi of the Great Qing
Dà qīng guó dāngjīn cíxǐ duān yòu kāngyízhāo yù zhuāng
chéngshòu gōng qīn xiàn chóng xī shèngmǔ huáng tàihòu)
The short form was The Current Divine Mother
Empress Dowager of the
Great Qing Empire (大清國當今聖母皇太后; Dà qīng guó
dāngjīn shèngmǔ huáng tàihòu)
At the time,
Empress Dowager Cixi was addressed as "Venerable Buddha"
(老佛爺; Lǎo Fóyé); lit. "Old Master Buddha", a term used for
Qing dynasty emperors. At official and ceremonial occasions,
the phrase "may the Divine Mother,
Empress Dowager of the Great Qing
Empire long live for 10,000 years"
(大清國當今聖母皇太后萬歲萬歲萬萬歲), which was
conventionally only used for emperors. The convention for empresses
dowager of imperial China was usually "long live for 1,000 years".
At her death in 1908,
Empress Dowager Cixi was given a posthumous
name, which combines the honorific names that she gained during her
lifetime with new names added just after her death. This is the name
that is usually used on official documents to refer to an empress.
This long form of the posthumous name is:
Xiào qīn cíxǐ duān yòu kāngyízhāo yù zhuāng chéngshòu
gōng qīn xiàn chóng xī pèi tiān xìng shèng xiǎn huáng
tàihòu), which reads: Empress Xiao-Qin Ci-Xi Duan-You Kang-Yi
Zhao-Yu Zhuang-Cheng Shou-Gong Qin-Xian Chong-Xi Pei-Tian Xing-Sheng
Xian. This long name is still the one that can be seen on Cixi's tomb
today. The short form of her posthumous name is Empress Xiaoqinxian
(孝欽顯皇后; Xiàoqīnxiǎn Huánghòu).
Oil painting by
Hubert Vos (1905)
For many years, the mainstream view of
Empress Dowager Cixi was that
she was a devious despot who contributed in no small part to China's
slide into corruption, anarchy, and revolution. Cixi used her power to
accumulate vast quantities of money, bullion, antiques and jewelry,
using the revenues of the state as her own. The long-time China
Jasper Becker recalled that "every visitor to the Summer
Palace is shown the beautiful lakeside pavilion in the shape of an
elegant marble pleasure boat and told how Cixi spent funds destined
for the imperial navy on such extravagant fripperies—which
ultimately led to Japan's victory over China in 1895 and the loss of
Yet even after the violent anti-foreign Boxer movement and equally
violent foreign reprisal, the initial foreign accounts of Cixi
emphasized her warmth and friendliness.
Katharine Carl oil portrait painted for exhibit at St. Louis World's
Fair of 1904
This was perhaps because Cixi took the initiative and invited several
women to spend time with her in the Forbidden City. Katharine Carl, an
American painter, was called to China in 1903 to paint Cixi's portrait
for the St. Louis Exposition. In her With the Empress Dowager. Carl
portrays Cixi as a kind and considerate woman for her station. Cixi,
though shrewd, had great presence, charm, and graceful movements
resulting in "an unusually attractive personality". Carl wrote of the
empress dowager's love of dogs and of flowers, as well as boating,
Chinese opera and her Chinese water pipes and European cigarettes.
Cixi also commissioned the well-known portraitist,
Hubert Vos to
produce a series of oil portraits.
The publication of China Under The
Empress Dowager (1910) by J. O. P.
Bland and Edmund Backhouse did much to spoil Cixi's reputation with
its back-door gossip, much of which came from palace eunuchs.
Their portrait included contradictory elements, writes one recent
study, "on the one hand... imperious, manipulative, and lascivious"
and on the other "ingenuous, politically shrewd, and
conscientious..." Backhouse and Bland told their readers that "to
summarize her essence simply, she a woman and an Oriental".
Backhouse was later found to have forged some of the source materials
used in this work. The vivid writing and lascivious details of
their account provided material for many of the books over the
following decades, including Chinese fiction and histories that drew
on a 1914 translation.
In the People's Republic after 1949, the image of the Manchu Empress
was debated and changed several times. She was sometimes praised for
her anti-imperialist role in the Boxer Uprising and sometimes she was
reviled as a member of the "feudalist regime". When Mao Zedong's wife,
Jiang Qing was arrested in 1976 for abuse of power, an exhibit at the
Palace Museum put Cixi's luxurious goods on display to show that a
female ruler weakened the nation.
By the mid-1970s, views among scholars began to change. Sue Fawn
Chung's doctoral dissertation at University of California, Berkeley
was the first study in English to use court documents rather than
popular histories and hearsay. Her influential 1979 article titled
"The Much Maligned Empress Dowager" opened with the sentence "Clio,
the Muse of History, has not been kind" to Cixi. Traditional
historians in China, Chung continued, "always have been prejudiced
against feminine influence in court", and historians have long taken
the word of Kang Youwei, Liang Qichao, and other Chinese, who opposed
the Empress Dowager. Luke Kwong, in his analysis of the Hundred
Days' Reform, argued that many of the allegations of Empress Dowager
Cixi being power-hungry and immoral could not be verified. He
portrays her as a relatively insecure woman, concerned about her
legitimacy and haunted by her relatively humble origins in the
In recent decades, says Pamela Kyle Crossley, an historian of the
dynasty, historians in the West developed what had become "truisms" in
the representation of Cixi: "that she has been obscured by misogyny
and orientalist stereotyping, as well as the anti-Manchu sentiment
running through Chinese nationalist narratives". Crossley felt that
Cixi appealed to feminists as a powerful leader and to Chinese
patriots as a defender of China. In the 1960s and 1970s, Cixi was one
of "a small collection of 'powerful' women newly discovered" and now
"she appears in the vanguard of stubborn Chinese opposition to foreign
arrogance and encroachment".
Several widely read popular biographies appeared. Stirling Seagrave's
Dragon Lady: The Life and Legend of the Last Empress of China portrays
Cixi as a woman stuck between the xenophobic faction of Manchu
nobility and more moderate influences. The empress dowager, Seagrave
argues, did not crave power but simply acted to balance these
influences and protect the
Qing dynasty as best she could.
In 2013, Jung Chang's biography,
Empress Dowager Cixi: The Concubine
Who Launched Modern China, portrays Cixi as the most capable ruler and
administrator that China could have had at the time. Pamela Kyle
Crossley said in the
London Review of Books
London Review of Books that Chang's claims "seem
to be minted from her own musings, and have little to do with what we
know was actually going in China". Although Crossley was sympathetic
to restoring women's place in Chinese history, she found "rewriting
Cixi as Catherine the Great or Margaret Thatcher is a poor bargain:
the gain of an illusory icon at the expense of historical sense".
Empress Dowager Cixi
Her Imperial Majesty
Your Imperial Majesty
Dame Grand Cordon of the
Order of the Precious Crown
Order of the Precious Crown (Empire of
In popular culture
Der Ling's story The True Story of the
Empress Dowager (originally
published as Old Buddha) gives a portrayal of the history behind the
character of the Empress-Dowager Cixi—not as the monster of
depravity depicted in the popular press, but an aging woman who loved
beautiful things and had many regrets about the past. (Soul Care
Pearl S. Buck's novel
Imperial Woman chronicles the life of the
Empress Dowager from the time of her selection as a concubine until
near to her death.
Bette Bao Lord's novel Spring Moon starts in the days of Cixi, and
includes the involvement of the Imperial Court in the Boxer Rebellion.
Empress Orchid (2004) and The Last Empress (2007), by
Anchee Min portray the life of
Empress Dowager Cixi from a
Concubine Yi is featured in George McDonald Fraser's novel,
Flashman and the Dragon
Flashman and the Dragon (1985).
The 1968 novel Wij Tz'e Hsi Keizerin Van China ("We, Tz'e Hsi, Empress
of China") by Dutch author
Johan Fabricius is a fictional diary of the
Cixi is portrayed by British actress
Flora Robson in the 1963 film 55
Days At Peking.
In the 1970s, she was portrayed by
Lisa Lu in two Hong Kong-made
Empress Dowager (set during the Sino-Japanese War), and its
The Last Tempest (set during the "Hundred Days of Reform").
Lu reprised her role as Cixi in the 1987 film The Last Emperor,
depicting the dowager on her deathbed.
In the 1980s, she was portrayed by Liu Xiaoqing, in Burning of
Imperial Palace (depicting her rise to power in the 1850s, and the
burning of the
Old Summer Palace
Old Summer Palace by French and British troops in
1860), in Reign Behind a Curtain (depicting the Xinyou Coup of 1861),
Empress Dowager (set during the latter part of the reign of
Tongzhi), and in Li Lianying, the Imperial Eunuch.
In the Lover of the Last Empress, she was portrayed by Chingmy Yau.
China Central Television
China Central Television production
Towards the Republic portrayed
Empress Dowager Cixi as a capable ruler, the first time that Mainland
Chinese television had shown her in this light. The portrayal was not
entirely positive, as it also clearly depicted her political views as
She is portrayed in the novel The Ginger Tree, by Oswald Wynd (1977).
The novel The Pleiades, by Japanese author Asada Jiro, focuses on
Empress Cixi's relationship with a court eunuch named Chun'er, and
depicted Cixi as a ruthless and calculating leader. It was adapted
into a 2010 Japanese television series, that was also broadcast in
China, and starred Japanese actress
Yūko Tanaka as Cixi.
Cixi is a major character in the novel Mandarin, by American author
Robert Elegant. The novel is set in the 1850s through the 1870s.
Earth Queen Hou-Ting in
The Legend of Korra
The Legend of Korra is clearly based upon Cixi
and the state of the Earth Kingdom during her reign mirrors the
decline of Imperial China in the late 19th century.
History of Imperial China portal
Ranks of Imperial Consorts in China#Qing
Qing Dynasty nobility
Imperial Decree of declaration of war against foreign powers
Imperial Decree on events leading to the signing of Boxer Protocol
^ Chung (1979), pp. 177-196.
^ Information listed on a red sheet (
File No. 1247) in the
"Miscellaneous Pieces of the Palace" (a
Qing dynasty documentation
package retrieved from the First Historical Archives of China),
^ Laidler, Keith (2003), "The Last Empress" (p. 58), John Wiley &
Sons Inc., ISBN 0-470-84881-2.
^ 56.com Archived 15 December 2013 at the Wayback Machine.
^ Immanual Hsu (1985), The Rise of Modern China (pg. 215).
^ Edward Behr, The Last Emperor, 1987, p. 44
^ [Sui Lijuan: Carrying out the Coup. CCTV-10 Series on Cixi, Ep. 4]
^ a b Edward Behr, The Last Emperor, 1987, p. 45
^ Kwong (1984), pp. 21-22.
^ [Professor Sui Lijuang: Lecture Room Series on Cixi, Episode 9]
^ "Ceremonial Headdress". The Walters Art Museum.
^ "光绪皇帝为什么叫慈禧太后亲爸爸？ Why does the
Guangxu Emperor call the
Empress Dowager Cixi "Qin Baba"?". Lishi
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^ Edward Behr, The Last Emperor, 1987, p. 49
^ Kwong, pg. 25
^ a b Kwong, pg. 54
^ a b Kwong, pg. 60
^ Kwong, pg. 61
^ a b Kwong, pg. 29
^ Kwong, pg. 38
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^ Kwong, pg. 26-27
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^ Kwong, pg. 27-28
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力挽狂瀾：戊戌政變新探 [Containing the furious waves: a new
view of the 1898 coup], Taipei: Wanjuan lou 萬卷樓, 2004.
^ Timothy Richard, Forty-five years in China, Ch. 12.
Kang Youwei 康有為, Kang Nanhai ziding nianpu
康南海自訂年譜 [Chronicle of Kang Youwei's Life, by Kang
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Shandong dao jiancha yushi Yang Shenxiu zhe"
山東道監察御史楊深秀摺 [Palace memorial by Yang Shenxiu,
Investigating Censor of
Shandong Circuit], in Wuxu bianfa dang'an
shiliao 戊戌變法檔案史料 [Archival sources on the history of
the 1898 reforms], Beijing: Zhonghua shuju, 1959, p.
^ Song Bolu, "Zhang
Shandong dao jiancha yushi Song Bolu zhe"
掌山東道監察御史宋伯魯摺 [Palace memorial by Song Bolu,
Investigating Censor in charge of the
Shandong Circuit], in Wuxu
bianfa dang'an shiliao, p.
^ Correspondence Respecting the Affairs of China, Presented to Both
Houses of Parliament by Command of Her Majesty (London, 1899.3), No.
401., p .303.
^ British Foreign Office files (F.O.) 17/1718, 26 September 1898.
^ Paul A. Cohen (1997). Story in Three Keys: The Boxers as Event,
Experience, and Myth. Columbia University Press. p. 54.
^ X. L. Woo (2002).
Empress Dowager Cixi: China's Last
Dynasty and the
Long Reign of a Formidable Concubine: Legends and Lives During the
Declining Days of the Qing Dynasty. Algora Publishing. p. 216.
Stephen G. Haw (2007). Beijing: A Concise History. Taylor &
Francis. p. 94. ISBN 0-415-39906-8.
^ Seagrave (1992), p. 311.
^ Joseph Esherick (1988). The Origins of the Boxer Uprising.
University of California Press. p. 289.
^ Keith Laidler (2003). The Last Empress: The She-Dragon of China.
John Wiley & Sons. p. 221.
^ Keith Laidler (2003). The Last Empress: The She-Dragon of China.
John Wiley & Sons. p. 221. ISBN 0-470-86426-5.
^ Chester C. Tan (1967). The Boxer Catastrophe (reprint ed.). Octagon
Books. p. 73. ISBN 0-374-97752-6.
^ Marilyn Blatt Young (1969). The rhetoric of empire: American China
policy, 1895–1901. Harvard University Press. p. 147.
^ Nat Brandt (1994). Massacre in Shansi. Syracuse University Press.
p. 181. ISBN 0-8156-0282-0.
^ Richard O'Connor (1973). The spirit soldiers: a historical narrative
Boxer Rebellion (illustrated ed.). Putnam. p. 85.
^ Diana Preston (2000). The boxer rebellion: the dramatic story of
China's war on foreigners that shook the world in the summer of 1900.
Bloomsbury Publishing USA. p. 312. ISBN 0-8027-1361-0.
^ Jaques Gernet, A History of Chinese Civilization (Cambridge:
Cambridge University Press, second edition 1982): 604.
^ Seagrave (1992), p. 404-405.
^ Douglas Reynolds, China, 1898–1912: The Xinzheng Revolution and
Japan (Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press, 1993).
ISBN 0-674-11660-7 passim.
Empress Dowager Cixi. Smithsonian Museum of American Art. Retrieved
March 18, 2014.
^ "PowerPlay: China's Empress Dowager". Arthur M. Sackler Gallery.
Smithsonian Institution. Retrieved January 20, 2015.
^ "Arsenic killed Chinese emperor, reports say - CNN.com". CNN. 4
November 2008. Retrieved 2 May 2010.
^ a b Wang (2012), pp. 161-162.
^ Edward Behr, The Last Emperor, 1987, p. 51
^ Jasper Becker, "The
Empress Dowager was a Moderniser, Not a Minx.
But Does China Care?, The Spectator, October 12, 2013
^ LiZurndorfer (2012), p. 6-7.
^ Wang (2012), p. 164-165.
^ Chung (1979), p. 178,181.
^ a b LiZurndorfer (2012), p. 8-9.
^ BlandBackhouse (1910), p. 476.
^ H. R. Trevor-Roper, Hermit of Peking: The Hidden Life of Sir Edmund
Backhouse (New York: Knopf, 1977)
^ LiZurndorfer (2012), p. 9-10.
^ LiZurndorfer (2012), p. 11.
^ Chung (1979), p. 177.
^ Kwong pg. 31-32
^ Crossley (2014), p. 1.
^ Crossley (2014), p. 7-8.
^ Royal Ark Archived 16 June 2014 at the Wayback Machine.
References and further reading
Aldridge, A. Owen (2001). "The
Empress Dowager Ci-Xi In Western
Fiction: A Stereotype for The Far East?". Revue de littérature
comparée (1). p. 113–122.
Bland, J. O. P.; Backhouse, Edmund (1910). China under the Empress
Dowager: Being the History of the Life and Times of Tz*U Hsi, Compiled
from State Papers and the Private Diary of the Comptroller of Her
Household. London: W. Heinemann. . Long the standard source until
the so-called "Diary of Ching Shan" was exposed as a forgery and
Backhouse as a well-informed fraud. Still, much colorful detail and
atmosphere. Free online Googlebook here.
Lei Chia-sheng 雷家聖 (2004). Liwan kuanglan: Wuxu zhengbian xintan
力挽狂瀾：戊戌政變新探 [Containing the furious waves: a new
view of the 1898 coup]. Taipei: Wanjuan lou 萬卷樓.
Empress Dowager Cixi: The
Concubine Who Launched Modern
China. (NY: Knopf, 2013). ISBN 9780307271600.
Chung, Sue Fawn (1976), "The Image of the
Empress Dowager Tz'u-hsi",
in Cohen, Paul A.; Schrecker, ed., John E., Reform in
Nineteenth-Century China, Harvard University Press,
pp. 101–10 CS1 maint: Extra text: editors list (link)
Draws from the author's never published doctoral dissertation at
University of California, Berkeley.
Chung, Sue Fawn (1979). "The Much Maligned Empress Dowager: A
Revisionist Study of the
Empress Dowager Tz'u-Hsi (1835–1908)".
Modern Asian Studies. 13 (2): 177–196.
doi:10.1017/s0026749x00008283. Draws from the author's never
published doctoral dissertation at University of California, Berkeley.
Crossley, Pamela (2014). "In the Hornet's Nest". London Review of
Books. 36 (8). Free access copy here.
Hayter-Menzies, Grant (2008). Imperial Masquerade: The Legend of
Princess Der Ling. Hong Kong University Press.
Hogge, David (2011), The
Empress Dowager and the Camera: Photographing
Cixi, 1903-1904, MIT Visualizing Culture Online resource.
Kwong, Luke S. K. (1984). A Mosaic of the Hundred Days: Personalities,
Politics, and Ideas of 1898. Cambridge, MA: Council on East Asian
Studies Distributed by Harvard University Press.
Li, Yuhang; Zurndorfer, Harriet T. (2012). "Rethinking Empress Dowager
Cixi through the Production of Art". NAN NÜ. Brill. 14 (1): 1–20.
Seagrave, Sterling (1992). Dragon Lady: The Life and Legend of the
Last Empress of China. Vintage Books. ISBN 0-679-73369-8.
Popular biography using English language sources.
Warner, Marina (1972). The Dragon Empress: Life and Times of Tz'u-hsi
1835–1908. Weidenfeld & Nicolson.
Wang, Cheng-hua (2012). ""Going Public": Portraits of the Empress
Dowager Cixi, Circa 1904". NAN NÜ. 14 (1): 119–176.
Wikisource has original text related to this article:
Imperial Decree on Day Nineteen of May(lunar calendar)
Wikimedia Commons has media related to
Empress Dowager Cixi.
Wikiquote has quotations related to:
Empress Dowager Cixi
Empress Dowager of China, 1835-1908, Photographs, Freer Gallery
of Art and
Arthur M. Sackler Gallery
Arthur M. Sackler Gallery Archives, Smithsonian
Institution, Washington DC.
IMDb List of films in which she is a character.
Jone Johnson Lewis,Empress Cixi About.com Women's History.
Cixi – Biography of Dowager Empress of China Cixi or Tz'u-hsi at
Isaac Taylor Headland, Court Life in China: The Capital, Its Officials
and People, (New York, F.H. Revell, c1909).
Amanda Bensen, "Cixi: The Woman Behind the Throne", Smithsonian.com
(March 1, 2008). Describes the rethinking of Cixi, with further links.
Empress Dowager of China
Empress Dowager Ci'an:
Empress Dowager Longyu
Imperial regents during the
Qing dynasty (1644–1912)
List of emperors of the Qing dynasty
Yixin (Prince Gong)
Asterisk (*) denotes that regent was part of a regency council.
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