Fun Facts about Chinese Culture and History

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Empress Dowager Ci Xi -- A Controversial Female Politician in the History of China

As the most powerful person in the late Qing Dynasty in the history of China, Empress Dowager Ci Xi (1835 -- 1908) was in actual charge of power for almost half a century.


She was indeed a strong and sly politician, and a powerful protector of the benefits of the nomadic noble class.


A dynasty’s ending was based on various reasons and should never let one or few people take the responsibility; however, in a feudal empire with centralized power, a monarch was still of great influence to large numbers of people’s fates. 


From Beautiful Concubine to Powerful Empress Dowager Cixi

Cixi was chosen to be an imperial concubine when she was 17 years old, and got promoted quickly because of her beauty.


She also gained her husband’s trust and started to express political opinions. 


Her husband Yi Zhu, an ambitious monarch with unlucky encounters, was a son of Emperor Min Ning.


The first year of Yi Zhu ascending to the throne, the biggest peasant uprising war in the Qing Dynasty was initiated and almost overthrown his empire.


Yi Zhu started to give power to many Han ministers, for the first time in the Qing Dynasty, and allowed them to build private troops. At the same time, he rectified and improved administration system and determined to fight against foreign invaders. ​

In the end, Qing Empire successfully defeated the peasant rebel, mainly relying on those personal troops of Han ministers; however, Qing still lost in the Second Opium War and ended up signing more unequal treaties. 


Additionally, the magnificent Old Summer Palace was burnt down by British and French army, and countless valuable treasures were robbed away.

Emperor Yi Zhu passed away very young and gave the throne to him and Cixi’s son, and nominated eight regents to assist the new emperor.


At that time, Cixi was 26 years old and her son was only 5.


Soon, Cixi allied another empress dowager and her late husband’s brother, initiated a coup which eliminated those eight regents and achieved all the power. 


Implementing of the Self-Strengthening Movement

After a series of failings in the battlefields, the ruling class finally realized how much the Qing Empire had lagged behind.


Therefore, suggested by some powerful squirearchy ministers, Empress Dowager Cixi agreed The Self-Strengthening Movement.


Qing’s ruling class, then, started to import advanced technology and send students abroad to learn advanced western knowledge; soon, many modernized industries and a strong navy were constructed.


They also innovated new education systems, of which many new schools were established, including female schools.


During that period, many capable and intelligent officials were trusted with great power, who contributed remarkably to the maintenance of the Qing Empire. 

Gaining of Paramount Power and Living of Luxurious Life

Empress Dowager Cixi returned the centralized power to her son when he was 18 years old and started her retire life. However, only one year later, the new emperor, her only son, passed away with no heir.


Then, the Empress Dowager Cixi supported her husband’s 4-year-old nephew Zai Tian as the new emperor, and herself to be the regent again. 

Soon, she initiated another coup and expelled her husband’s brother, who had assisted her to defeat those eight regents before; afterwards, Cixi gained absolute centralized power. 


Few years later, Cixi spent large amounts of money to construct the Summer Palace, most of which should be used to update weapons and train Qing’s navy.

Then the First Sino-Japanese War happened, which was in fact the minister Li Hongzhang’s personal navy troop, whose updating and training money all took away to build Cixi’s Summer Palace, fighting against the much more advanced Japanese navy.


The Qing Empire failed, so Cixi supported to search for peace by signing another treaty again, including the ceding of territory, a great deal of reparations and many other unequal clauses. 

Initiating Another Coup and Imprisoning Aspiring Emperor

Soon, her nephew Zai Tian, now the Guang Xu Emperor, achieved some power after he grew up, and tried to implement a reform on the systematic level instead of technical level, even that meant he would lose huge power.


But this reform, the one for the first time put the benefit of the entire country before Qing’s Manchu nobles’, jeopardized and displeased the entire ruling class, including the Empress Dowager Cixi.


So she initiated another coup and took all the power back and imprisoned her nephew emperor. 

Cixi's Capricious, Selfish Policy and the Boxer Movement


Later the Boxer Movement in the history of China happened.


In the beginning, they were aimed at recovering the Ming Dynasty and overthrowing Qing; soon, they adjusted it to expel foreign invaders and assist Qing. 


With assistances of the Boxer’s, Cixi then declared war against 11 most advanced countries at that time, and planned to fight back.


Soon, the Eight Power Allied Force occupied Beijing, after Cixi murdered her nephew emperor’s beloved woman and took him to escape westward.


Her unpleasant escaping journey made she changed her mind, and started to perish those Boxers, who were aimed at supporting her governance, while trying to pursue peace by signing more capitulation treaties with western invaders.  


Taking Her "Rebel" Nephew Emperor to Leave With Her 

Cixi also made a plan trying to apply the Constitutional Monarchy, after seeing countries applying this system were much advanced at that time; but she passed away before the plan was actually implemented.


One day before she passed away, she poisoned her mature, rebel nephew emperor to death, and gave the throne to a three-year-old child. This child Pu Yi, Cixi’s son’s nephew, then became the last emperor of the Qing Dynasty, also the last monarch of the feudal system in the history of China.


Ironically, as a famous and powerful female politician, Cixi's last will was that never let women or eunuchs to be in charge of power. 


Three years later, the Qing Dynasty finally reached to its end.


Sly Politician and Absolute Aristocracy Maintainer Cixi

Cixi was truly a smart and manipulative politician in the history of China, who had the ability to select and nominate and control talented ministers and apply reforms. She was also an expert in imperial coups, through which she gained full control over the empire. 


However, she was still a monarch who put Qing’s Manchu nobles’ interest before everything; their legitimacy of reign of China was the only priority, while sovereignty, dignity or large numbers of civilians' lives seemed less important.


Therefore, when her nephew emperor tried to change the system fundamentally, he was suppressed and imprisoned.


Another important thing she cared was her luxurious life, including construction of huge fancy palaces and celebrating important events like her birthday.


As for her daily diet, each of her meals included dozens, sometimes even over a hundred dishes, while many soldiers died because of lack of money and backward weapons. 


The backward system and her vision constrained her to be a sly and capable politician, who might have extended Qing’s ruling, but were not able to deal with the real threaten or bring the empire to the right path.