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Who was Empress Dowager Cixi – one of the most powerful women in China’s history?

The Qing dynasty was the last imperial dynasty to rule China, collapsing in 1912 amid rising social and political instability. Ruling for almost three hundred years, the Qing dynasty was one of the largest empires in the world, trebling the amount of land under China’s control. After its fall, modern-day China was established by Sun Yat-sen. While Sun Yat-sen gets all of the credit for being the country’s founding father, most people tend to overlook the role of China’s royals in the country’s rise as an economic and military power.

Central to China’s modernisation is Empress Dowager Cixi. Cixi was the most important Chinese leader of the 19th century, ruling China behind-the-scenes for almost five decades. Some historians believe she is perhaps the most powerful woman in China’s history. But who was Cixi, and how did she come to rule China?

Source: Wikimedia Commons

Empress Dowager Cixi by Hubert Vos, 1905.

As an adolescent, she was chosen to be a concubine to the new Xianfeng Emperor, who ascended the throne in 1850 at 19-years-old. She rose through the ranks of the court’s concubine rank system after giving birth to the emperor’s first son. She then became the second highest-ranking woman in the emperor’s household (as Noble Consort) after her longtime friend the Empress Consort, Ci’an. Her ability to read and write Chinese, a rarity among the Manchu women of the emperor’s household, earned her favour with the emperor and helped her learn more about state affairs.

The Xianfeng Emperor’s health deteriorated in 1860 after Lord Elgin, the British High Commissioner to China, ordered the complete destruction of the emperor’s beloved Old Summer Palace after a Qing general killed several British and French prisoners. The emperor died a year later. The day before he died, the emperor summoned eight of his ministers and made them regents to aid the new child emperor, Zaichun. Cixi and Ci’an, with the help of powerful relatives of the late emperor and others, staged a coup soon after. The regents were neutralised; several were murdered while the remaining were imprisoned or forced to commit suicide. This paved the way for Cixi and Ci’an to rule as co-regents. While Ci’an technically outranked Cixi since she was the first wife of the emperor, it was really Cixi who made all of the major decisions.

After a series of humiliating military defeats, Cixi and her allies realised that China needed to modernise its agrarian economy and adopt Western ideas to revitalise China’s military. Through Cixi, China established a modern navy and its first foreign service. She also helped institute a customs service that permitted China to trade more easily with the rest of the world. Local government structures were reorganised, measures were put in place to decrease government corruption, and the education system was revamped. China would probably not be the global powerhouse it is today without Cixi’s reforms.

Empress Dowager Cixi with Sarah Conger, the wife of U.S. Ambassador Edwin H. Conger. Other wives of the U.S. legation are also present. Source: Wikimedia Commons

It is remarkable that Cixi managed to be China’s most influential voice for 47 years amid the strict imperial protocol that limited women’s roles at court. For example, when attending court meetings, she had to sit behind a curtain so ministers did not see her. She was also prevented from going into certain parts of the Forbidden City that only the emperor could enter. Her orders were carried out indirectly by her princely male allies or her trusted eunuchs. Yet despite her limitations, she managed to have an enormous effect on China’s internal and external affairs.

Modern opinion on Cixi remains divided. Many people still see her as an evil tyrant who ushered in the demise of the Qing dynasty. Others see her as a reformer and shrewd negotiator who helped propel China into the modern age. Some scholars argue that due to the secretive nature of Cixi’s role, where she effectively governs from the shadows of a highly complex and insidious court, it is difficult to portray a complete view of the empress dowager.

To this day, she is suspected of poisoning her nephew the Guangxu Emperor, since he would have most likely reversed her policies. One of his consorts, Zhen, died under mysterious circumstances, with some sources alleging Cixi ordered Zhen to be thrown into a well. No hard proof of her guilt exists in either of these cases.

In the absence of a definitive account of Cixi’s actions, rumours and exaggerations of her character have invariably taken place and have continued to grip the public imagination over one hundred years after her death.