In the 19th century the Qing Dynasty was fraught with political unrest and economic problems. Confronted by western incursions and threats from an emerging Japan, the Chinese government was hanging by a thread. Presiding over this sinking ship of an empire was Empress Dowager Cixi. Misguided and marred by endless problems, Cixi’s rule is often cited as the driving force behind the empire’s untimely fall. For historians and western observers, the mention of Cixi conjures a grotesque image of a despot who clung to power and resisted change. Emerging revisionist views, however, argue that the regent had been scapegoated for the dynasty’s downfall. How did this “Dragon Lady” come to shape Chinese history, and why does she still divide opinion?
The Early Years: Empress Dowager Cixi’s Road to Power
Born in 1835 as Yehe Nara Xingzhen to one of the most influential Manchu families, the future Empress Dowager Cixi was said to be an intelligent and perceptive child despite her lack of formal education. At 16, the doors of the Forbidden City officially opened to her as she was chosen to be a concubine for the 21-year-old Emperor Xianfeng. Despite starting as a low-ranking concubine, she rose to prominence after giving birth to his eldest son, Zaichun—the future Emperor Tongzhi—in 1856. With the birth of a promising heir, the entire court basked in a festive mood with lavish parties and celebrations.
Outside the palace, however, the dynasty was overwhelmed by the ongoing Taiping Rebellion (1850 – 1864) and the Second Opium War (1856 – 1860). With China’s defeat in the latter, the government was forced to sign peace treaties which led to a loss of territories and crippling indemnity. Fearing for his safety, Emperor Xianfeng fled to Chengde, the imperial summer residence, with his family and left state affairs to his half-brother, Prince Gong. Distraught by the series of humiliating events, Emperor Xianfeng soon died a depressed man in 1861, passing on the throne to his 5-year-old son, Zaichun.
Ruling Behind the Curtain: Empress Dowager Cixi’s Regency
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Before he died, Emperor Xianfeng had arranged for eight state officials to guide the young Emperor Tongzhi until he came of age. Cixi, then known as Noble Consort Yi, launched the Xinyou Coup with the late emperor’s primary wife, Empress Zhen, and Prince Gong to assume power. The widows gained full control of the empire as co-regents, with Empress Zhen renamed Empress Dowager “Ci’an” (meaning “benevolent peace”), and Noble Consort Yi as Empress Dowager “Cixi” (meaning “benevolent joy”). Despite being the de facto rulers, the regents were not allowed to be seen during court sessions and had to give orders behind a curtain. Known as “ruling behind the curtain”, this system had been adopted by many female rulers or authoritative figures in Chinese history.
Where hierarchy was concerned, Ci’an preceded Cixi, but because the former was uninvested in politics, Cixi was, in reality, the one pulling the strings. Traditional interpretations of this balance of power, as well as the Xinyou coup, have painted Cixi in a negative light. Some historians used the coup to highlight Cixi’s cruel nature, emphasizing how she either drove the appointed regents to suicide or stripped them of authority. Others have also criticized Cixi for side-lining the more reserved Ci’an to consolidate power – a clear indication of her shrewd and manipulative nature.
Empress Dowager Cixi in the Self-Strengthening Movement
Despite the overwhelmingly negative views of Empress Dowager Cixi, her joint efforts with Prince Gong to modernize the nation in the mid-19th century should not go unnoticed. The Tongzhi Restoration, as part of the Self-Strengthening Movement, was launched by Cixi in 1861 to salvage the empire. Marking a brief period of revitalization, the Qing government managed to quell the Taiping Rebellion and other uprisings in the country. Several arsenals modeled after the west were also constructed, greatly boosting the military defense of China.
Concurrently, diplomacy with western powers was gradually improved, in a bid to reverse China’s image in the west as a barbaric nation. This saw the opening of the Zongli Yamen (Board of Ministers of Foreign Affairs) and the Tongwen Guan (the School of Combined Learning, which taught western languages). Within the government internally, reforms also reduced corruption and promoted capable officials – with or without Manchu ethnicity. Supported by Cixi, this was a pivotal departure from tradition in the imperial court.
Outing Opposition: Empress Dowager Cixi’s Tight Grip of Power
While Empress Dowager Cixi acknowledged talents in the imperial court, she was also known to act on her paranoia when these talents became too powerful. This was evident from her efforts to undermine Prince Gong – with whom she worked to stabilize the nation after Emperor Xianfeng’s sudden death. As Prince-Regent, Prince Gong was instrumental in suppressing the Taiping Rebellion in 1864 and wielded significant influence in the Zongli Yamen and the Grand Council. Fearing that her former ally might have become too powerful, Cixi publicly accused him of being arrogant and stripped him of all authority in 1865. Although Prince Gong later recovered his power, the same could not be said of his increasingly acrimonious relationship with his half-sister-in-law, Cixi.
From Tongzhi to Guangxu: Empress Dowager Cixi’s Political Machinations
In 1873, the two co-regents, Empress Dowager Cixi and Empress Dowager Ci’an were forced to return power to the 16-year-old Emperor Tongzhi. However, the young emperor’s ill experience with state management would prove to be a stepping stone for Cixi to resume regency. His premature death in 1875 soon left the throne in peril with no heirs – a situation unprecedented in Chinese history.
An opportune moment for Cixi to intervene to steer the empire in her desired direction, she pushed for her nephew, 3-year-old Zaitian to take over the throne by proclaiming him as her adoptive son. This violated the Qing code since the heir should not be from the same generation as the preceding ruler. Yet, Cixi’s decision went unchallenged in the court. The toddler was installed as Emperor Guangxu in 1875, consequently reinstating the co-regency, with Cixi wielding full influence behind the curtain.
With Cixi’s masterful manipulation, the succession crisis was diffused and allowed the second phase of the Self-Strengthening Movement to continue smoothly. During this period, China boosted its sectors of commerce, agriculture, and industry under the leadership of Cixi’s trusted aide, Li Hongzhang. A skilled general and diplomat, Li was instrumental in strengthening China’s military and modernizing the navy to counter the rapidly expanding Japanese empire.
From Reformist to Archconservative: Empress Dowager Cixi’s Disastrous Policy U-Turn
While China appeared to be well on track towards modernization in the Self-Strengthening Movement, Empress Dowager Cixi grew increasingly suspicious of the accelerated westernization. Her co-regent Ci’an’s unexpected death in 1881 pushed Cixi to tighten her grip, as she set out to undermine the pro-west reformists in the court. One of them was her arch-nemesis, Prince Gong. In 1884, Cixi accused Prince Gong of being incompetent after he had failed to stop French incursions in Tonkin, Vietnam – a region under China’s suzerainty. She then took the chance to remove him from power in the Grand Council and Zongli Yamen, installing subjects loyal to her in his place.
In 1889, Cixi ended her second regency and ceded power to Emperor Guangxu who had come of age. Though “retired”, she remained a key figure in the imperial court as officials often sought her advice on state affairs, sometimes even bypassing the emperor. After China’s crushing defeat in the First Sino-Japanese War (1894 – 1895), its technological and military backwardness was further exposed. Western imperial powers also jumped at the chance to demand concessions from the Qing government.
Emperor Guangxu, realizing the need for change, kickstarted the Hundred Days’ Reform in 1898 with the support of reformists like Kang Youwei and Liang Qichao. In the spirit of reform, Emperor Guangxu hatched a plan to oust the politically conservative Cixi. Infuriated, Cixi launched a coup to overthrow Emperor Guangxu and ended Hundred Days’ Reform. Many historians believed that by reversing the planned reforms, Cixi’s conservatism had effectively eliminated China’s last chance to effect peaceful change, hastening the dynasty’s downfall.
The Start of the End: The Boxer Rebellion
Amid power struggles in the imperial court, the Chinese society grew increasingly divided. Frustrated by the political instability and widespread socio-economic unrest, many peasants blamed the onslaught of western incursions for China’s decline. In 1899, rebels called “Boxers” by the west, led uprisings against foreigners in northern China, destroying property and attacking western missionaries and Chinese Christians. By June 1900, as the violence had spread to Beijing where foreign legations were destroyed, the Qing court could no longer turn a blind eye. Issuing a decree ordering all armies to attack the foreigners, Empress Dowager Cixi’s support for the Boxers would unleash the full wrath of the foreign powers far beyond her imagination.
In August, an Eight-Nation Alliance, consisting of troops from Germany, Japan, Russia, Britain, France, the United States, Italy, and Austria-Hungary stormed Beijing. While relieving the foreigners and Chinese Christians, the forces looted the capital, forcing Cixi to flee southeast to Xi’an. The decisive allied victory led to the signing of the controversial Boxer Protocol in September 1901, where harsh, punitive terms further crippled China. Cixi and the empire paid a heavy price, having incurred over $330 million in reparations debt, plus a two-year prohibition of arms import.
Too Little Too Late: Empress Dowager Cixi’s Last Struggle
The Boxer Rebellion was widely regarded as the point of no return where the Qing empire stood powerless against foreign incursions and explosive public discontent. After openly blaming herself for causing the empire to face insufferable consequences, Empress Dowager Cixi embarked on a decade-long campaign to rebuild China’s reputation and regain foreign favor.
From the early 1900s, she began developing the New Policies reforms to improve education, public administration, the military, and constitutional government. Cixi sought to learn from the empire’s painful military defeats, setting reform directions and paving the way towards a constitutional monarchy. The ancient imperial examinations system was abolished in favor of western-style education, and military academies sprouted across the nation. Socially, Cixi also fought for many reforms unprecedented in Chinese history, like permitting Han-Manchu marriages and abolishing foot-binding.
Despite the good intentions, Cixi’s reforms were not significant enough to reverse the empire’s decline and instead sparked more public discontent. Amid the rise of anti-imperial radicals and revolutionaries like Sun Yat Sen, the empire was plunged into chaos once again. In 1908, Emperor Guangxu died at the age of 37 – an event widely believed to be engineered by Cixi to keep him out of power. Before the mighty Empress Dowager Cixi’s death a day later, she installed an heir to the throne – her infant great-nephew Pu Yi, the last Qing emperor. After the death of the “Dragon Lady”, a new, troubling chapter of China’s transition into a modern republic would soon begin as the dynasty inched towards its inevitable end following the 1911 Xinhai Revolution.
The Divisive Figure of Chinese History: Empress Dowager Cixi’s Legacy
As the highest authority, it was ultimately Empress Dowager Cixi’s misguided decisions that wreaked havoc in the empire. Most notably, her suspicions of the west and the mismanagement of diplomatic relations culminated in her regrettable support for the Boxers. Her unbridled spending habits—evident from her opulent Inner Court—also earned her a corrupted name. Cixi’s vanity, her love for the camera, and elaborate details about her luxurious lifestyle continue to capture popular imagination today. With her political shrewdness clear as day, Cixi has undoubtedly earned her place in Chinese history as a manipulative ruler intolerant of any opposition.
Revisionists, however, have argued that Cixi had become a scapegoat for conservatism, much like Marie Antoinette in the French Revolution. Given the extent of western incursions and internal strife, Cixi was also a victim of circumstance. With Ci’an and Prince Gong, her contributions to the Self-Strengthening Movement did modernize the empire after the Second Opium War. More significantly, her reforms during the New Policies period laid the foundations for profound social and institutional change after 1911.
We all love a dramatic story of a historical figure’s rise to power and fall from grace. But to say that Cixi had single-handedly ended the Qing dynasty would be a gross exaggeration at best. More than a century has passed since Cixi’s death in 1908, yet her impact on Chinese history remains to be debated. Perhaps, with more nuanced interpretations, it would not take another century for history to view this enigmatic empress dowager in a newer and more forgiving lens.
Updated 07.21.2022: Podcast episode with Ching Yee Lin and Bamboo History.