A Woman to Know: Empress Dowager Cixi

Although I have heard much about Queen Victoria, I don't think her life was half so interesting and eventful as mine. — Empress Cixi

Although I have heard much about Queen Victoria, I don't think her life was half so interesting and eventful as mine. — Empress Cixi

(image via Wikimedia Commons)

In 1861, Cixi turned 25, her son ascended to the throne and she decided to change her life for forever.

For the last nine years, she’d served as a concubine to the Chinese emperor. When he passed away, their illegitimate son — then only five years old — became the new ruler. Cixi saw her opportunity and immediately organized a coup, ousting her son’s regents from power and setting herself up as her young son’s adviser (and the true ruler). As Dowager Empress, she wielded considerable control over China, and she whispered her orders from behind a silk screen that separated her from male officials who wished her harm. This way, she quelled rebellions, built schools and created the Chinese foreign service program — all reforms that strengthened her position on the throne as well as China’s in the global scheme.

In 1875, her son fell ill and died, leaving behind no heirs — just one pregnant concubine who died under mysterious circumstances. At the time, rumors swirled that Cixi had ordered her murdered; the Dowager Empress insisted the concubine had committed suicide in her grief.

As historian Sterling Seagrave wrote, Cixi’s salacious reputation belies much of the powers at play:

Under those layers of historical graffiti was a spirited and beautiful young woman trapped in a losing proposition: A figurehead empress who lost three emperors to conspiracy; a frightened matriarch whose reputation was destroyed as she presided over the decline of a bankrupt dynasty.

In the midst of the rumors, Cixi selected one of her toddler nephews, Guangxu, to take the throne, disrupting the traditional order of succession that had dictated Chinese rulers for centuries. With Guangxu in line to rule, Cixi raised her ambitions and launched technological and military reforms to boost China’s worldwide profile.

In 1889, Guangxu reached the right age to take control of the throne and announced an ambition program: The Hundred Days Reform. Conservative politicians asked Cixi to assume control of the throne and stop the heir’s progress lest it create a civil war; in the midst of this political turmoil and the growing threat of the Boxer Rebellion, Cixi managed to wrest control and again install herself as the country’s shadow ruler. She retained the title of Dowager Empress and took it upon herself to staunch his own ideas for reform and expansion.

Her reputation and long period of power earned her many comparisons to England’s Queen Victoria, but Cixi was less than impressed:

I have often thought that I am the most clever woman that ever lived, and others cannot compare with me. Although I have heard much about Queen Victoria, I don't think her life was half so interesting and eventful as mine. She had really nothing to say about the policy of the country. Now look at me. I have 400,000,000 people dependent on my judgement.

The Dowager Empress maintained control until her death in 1908. Just one day before she died, the government announced Guangxu’s death. Historians questioned whether Cixi had ordered him murdered or whether gossipmongers tainted the record of Cixi’s reign, deliberately trying to discredit her. In 2008, researchers discovered that on the night of Guangxu’s death, someone had intentionally poisoned him with arsenic.

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