Empress Dowager Cixi
(1835 – 1909)

Empress Dowager Cixi

Empress Dowager Cixi - Bio

  • 1835: Born
  • 1851: Began her life in the Forbidden City
  • 1861: Started ruling China behind the curtain
  • 1909: Dead
  • 1911: Qing Dynasty collapsed

Young Widow in the Forbidden City

Empress Dowager Cixi was one of the most powerful women ever in Chinese history. She was the de facto ruler of the Qing Dynasty, ruling over China (behind the curtain) from 1861 to her death in 1909.

Cixi’s maiden name was Lan (orchid). At the age of 16, she was selected "Honorable Person Lan," the basic level of an imperial concubine to Emperor Xianfeng. Her life was critically changed by giving birth to Xianfeng’s only son. Since then, she was promoted to “Royal Concubine Yi” – the highest ranked woman just second to the imperial consort. She became a widow at the age of 26.

The Emperor died in 1861 leaving his son, only five years old, as heir to his throne.

On his deathbed, Emperor Xianfeng was in a serious dilemma.

Qing Dynasty’s Court system was so bound by strict rules. The emperor had to assign Su Shun and his 8-person chamber to be the regents of his young successor. However he was sure that Su Shun will bully his five-year old and wasn’t loyal to the Qing Empire. On the other hand, Royal Concubine Yi had shown ambition in politics which was a death sentence in the laws of Qing. Women were strictly forbidden from political matters.

Having understood that Yi was the only person who had the ability to suppress Su Shun and bought time for his five-year old, Xianfeng made a painful decision. He wrote a secret will and left it with his imperial consort Cian, authorizing her to execute Yi in case she didn’t behave. Unfortunately the kind decent Cian was not able to fulfill her mission. She was believed to be murdered by Cixi.

Power Struggle

Emperor Xianfeng died at the Rehe Resort Palace in 1861. The power struggle went on between Royal Concubine Yi and Su Shun. With the support of Xianfeng’s brother Prince Gong, Yi was able to capture Su Shun and his party into prison. And when the body of the Emperor was transferred back to Beijing, she announced that it was the Emperor’s decree to have her being the biological mother of the new emperor and the imperial consort to be the co-regents of the young emperor. The young emperor’s title was hence given as Tongzhi, meaning ‘ruling together’.

The royal title Cixi and the imperial consort’s title Cian were used since they became co-regents in 1861.

Ruling Behind the Curtain

Both Empresses Dowager Cixi and Cian became regents and co-ruled China since 1861. However Cian was totally not interested and not good at politics. Hence Empress Dowager Cixi was the only effective ruler.

Young Emperor Tongzhi died at the age of 19. Cixi violated the normal succession rule and had her three-year-old nephew (Guangxu) named the new heir*. The two Dowager Empresses continued as regents until the death of Cian in 1881. Empress Dowager Cixi became the sole de facto ruler of China till 1909 when she died at the age of 74.

Throughout the period, she had been ruling China behind the curtain. You’ll find her ‘throne’ at Yang Xin Dian in the Forbidden City.

* Normal succession rule required a successor from the next generation of the late emperor. However by doing so, Cixi would become grandmother of the emperor and her power as a regent will be withdrawn.

Ordered to Re-construct the Summer Palace

Though Empress Dowager Cixi was somewhat educated, she was ignorant of the world at large. She was extremely good at politics and seizing for power, however she knew nothing about ruling a country. Her 50-year reign was extremely conservative and refused to modernize to catch up with the ever changing world.

Ever since the first Opium War in 1842, China was continuously subjected to foreign invasions and kept signing unfair treaties. The government had been paying immense amount of money out. By the time Empress Dowager Cixi wanted to re-construct the Summer Palace in 1888, the national treasury was close to broke.

In order to finance the project as to build a summer resort and a pleasure garden for the Empress Dowager, Cixi decided to embezzle the fund reserved for building a navy fleet.

Legend from Ancestors of Qing Empire

There was a legend in the Empire of Qing. The ancestors of Ai Xin Jue Luo family and Ye He Na La family were enemies. When Ai Xin Jue Luo defeated Ye He Na La, its tribe leader cursed that even Ye He Na La had only one woman left, she will revenge on Ai Xin Jue Luo. Hence when Ai Xin Jue Luo later established the Qing Empire, emperors never allow Ye He Na La woman to become an imperial consort.

Unfortunately, no one could stop Empress Dowager Cixi to take charge of the Qing Empire. She’s from the Ye He Na La family.

Anna’s Notes

The life of Empress Dowager Cixi critically changed due to the birth of her son. This is a typical example in Chinese culture that "a mother's future depends on her son". If she had not given birth to Emperor Xianfeng's only son, she had completely no chance in any power struggle, no matter how good she was at politics.

Go to Summer Palace built by Empress Dowager Cixi