Empress Dowager Cixi

James Weatherly

Empress Dowager Cixi was born on the 29th of November 1835 and was called Xiaoqin

Empress Dowager Cixi born to a minor Manchu, noble family. Being part of a family of lesser Qing nobility, she was eligible to become a concubine the Harem system. In 1851 when she was 16, she participated in the concubine selection system which resulted in her becoming Noble Lady Lan in 1852, a rank that was low but not the lowest. After she became Noble Lady Lan, the Emperor paid little attention to he as she started to form a close relationship with Empress Ci’an, the Emperor Xianfeng was forced to acknowledge her more. Her situation continued to improve, as on the 27th April 1857, she gave birth she gave birth to the Emperor’s only son and thus the heir to the throne – Zaichun. Empress Dowager During the second Opium War, Beijing was ransacked by foreign powers when the Qing royalty were in exile. The Emperor refused to return to Beijing and honour his position as Emperor, dying a year later from substance abuses. Following his death, Cixi and the Empress quickly gathered support, launching a coup against the 8 appointed officials. Officials were charged with fraudulent claims, which allowed Cixi and Empress Dowager Ci’an (the former emperor’s wife) to take overpower of ruling as regents for the young emperor. In addition, the Qing government code had to be significantly rewritten in parts in order to allow both Cixi and Ci’an to rule as it did not allow female rulers. Zaichun became Emperor Tongzhi after the death of his father. The relationship between Tongzhi and his mother, Cixi, was not without conflict. When he was 16 years old, he refused the concubine Cixi had selected to be his wife. However, he mostly obeyed her according to Confucian values as in 1873 when Cixi stepped down, she still had unofficial powers. However, this did not last long as in 1874 Tongzhi got ill and soon died which led to the regent taking over again. Succession was an issue as Tongzhi died without a son. To solve this Cixi suggested that there should be a child emperor, which enabled Cixi to remain in power even longer. Cixi played a significant role in her nephew, Zaitian, becoming emperor. In 1881 Cixi’s fortunes were improved as Empress Dowager Zhen died of a brain haemorrhage, leaving her as the sole leader of the Qing Empire. In 1884, Cixi began to consolidate her power through firing Yixin, a former ally turned rival. This allowed the position of Head of the Grand Council and Zongli Yamen (the Chinese Foreign affairs department) to be filled with her allies, such as Yixuan Prince Chun, who was the father of Zaitian.
Empress Dowager Cixi
Empress Dowager Cixi

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Cixi was aware that her rule could not last forever

Cixi was aware that her rule could not last forever, so she began to build a palace for herself where she would retire to. It became financial burden and demanded lots of money for maintenance and running costs, as well as being very expensive to build. In 1887 she was meant to retire when Emperor Guangxu became old enough to rule on his own but still remained in power in an unofficial way as many top officials she hired encouraged her to do so. Due to China losing the First Sino-Japanese War in 1895, she came back from retirement to be involved in politics again as she was dissatisfied with how Emperor Guangxu ruled. Dissatisfaction with Emperor Guangxu reached a head in 1898 when she participated in the Wuxu coup to overthrow the Emperor and his reforms. The coup was successful for Cixi as she gained power again. However, this was not successful in the long term as the reforms could have changed the Qing dynasty’s fortunes for the better. In 1900, the Boxer Rebellion started where people rebelled against both the Qing Empire and foreign powers in the area. Cixi decided to back this rebellion against the foreign powers, which was not successful as the Eight Nation alliance not only managed to quell the rebellion but ended up raiding Beijing as well. This is significant as not only did it deplete the Qing dynasty of yet more resources but meant that the Qing dynasty lost popularity. The Boxer rebellion was significant as Cixi decided to be more cautious and peaceful after the calamitous defeat. For example, in 1905 she did not get involved in the Russo-Japanese War despite it being fought over Manchuria, an area that used to be part of China. In 1908, Emperor Guangxu died after being poisoned. It has been speculated that Cixi was responsible, as she would be the sole ruler of China as a result. However, these powers did not last long as she died a day after him.
Ancestry UK
Empress Dowager Cixi

James Weatherly

James wrote for Edition 2, Forgotten Women of History
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