The Woman Who Modernized China

Empress Dowager Cixi, 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.

Her name, Cixi, translates to “Compassionate Joy”. This woman, who sat on the Dragon Throne was neither “compassionate” nor full of “joy”. She was a megalomaniac and she couldn’t keep her knickers on.

Cixi was unscrupulous, lecherous, and got rid of her political opponents with poison.  That is at least how Times correspondent George Morrison described her in a dispatch sent from the Peking in the 1890s.

Empress Dowager Cixi

Cixi was born in 1835 and her birth name is unknown. She was chosen for the Xianfeng Emperor’s harem at the age of 16. A Chinese Emperor’s harem in the 19 century consisted of an empress, two consorts, eleven sub-consorts, and numerous concubines. During that time, being selected to the emperor’s harem is a dream job back in those days.

In April 1856, Cixi gave birth to Tongzhi who would later become Emperor. He was sired by the Xianfeng Emperor and that reproductive duty well-performed repelled Cixi up the palace hierarchy to the very top level. After a long illness, the Xianfeng Emperor died in 1860. In his last breaths, he dictated that his son, Tongzhi should be his successor. Influential advisers in the court wanted to prevent this as the sassy Cixi was so self-confident that she gave the willies. Tongzhi was far too young to be entrusted with ruling the empire so Cixi took all the decisions on his behalf. The thing is she didn’t stop when Tongzhi took over the management in 1873. During audiences with the emperor, she sat behind a curtain and kept knows of goings-on a practice that became known as “behind the curtain rule”.

It’s not unusual to think of women holding that much power. Cixi’s thirst for power was a scandal back then when women were to be seen not heard. At the age of 20, Emperor Tongzhi died of syphilis in 1875. Cixi became a regent again, this time for her three-year-old nephew Guangxu.

In 1898, the emperor Guangxu launched the Hundred Days Reform, a well-intentioned but poorly implemented attempt to modernize many aspects of Chinese society that nearly caused a civil war. Emperor Guangxu died of arsenic poisoning on November 14, 1908 and Cixi ultimately regained the regency with support from conservatives who opposed the reforms.

She stayed in power until her death in 1908 a day after Emperor Guangxu died in November 15 of that year, but her reputation was tarnished by slanderous rumors spread by the leader of the failed reform, Kang Yu-Wei.

Puyi (Xuantong Emperor), the last Emperor of Qing Dynasty (November 14, 1908 – February 12, 1912)

Her last defiant act was playing her old game again by putting a child on a throne. The new child was Emperor Guangxu’s nephew, was just 2 years old. He is Puyi, also known as the Xuantong Emperor and he will be Qing China’s last emperor.


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