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Empress Dowager Cixi — A Controversial Female Politician in the Late Qing Dynasty

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

From a beautiful teenage imperial concubine to the most powerful sovereign of the Qing Empire, she was indeed a strong, intelligent, and decisive politician and a qualified protector of the benefits of the nomadic noble class.

Under her reign, the Qing Dynasty experienced many wars against western invaders, signed a series of pacts that caused the Qing plenty of losses in population, resources, and money, and tried and implemented some reforms to strengthen the empire, but was ended only three years after Cixi’s death. 

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 on large numbers of people’s fates.

Painting of Empress Dowager Cixi, By Hubert Vos in 1905

Painting of Empress Dowager Cixi, By Hubert Vos in 1905 — Summer Palace

From Beautiful Concubine to Powerful Empress Dowager

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

Meanwhile, she was also very smart and quite good at calligraphy, which helped her gain her husband’s love and trust, as well as opportunities to get involved in politics and express her ideas.

Her husband Xianfeng Emperor (1831 — 1861), an ambitious monarch with unlucky encounters, was a son of the Daoguang Emperor.

In the first year of Xianfeng's ascend to the throne, the biggest peasant uprising war in the Qing Dynasty, the Taiping Rebellion (1851 — 1864) outburst and almost overthrown his empire.

Porcelain of "Da Ya Zhai" Serie of Empress Dowager Cixi.

Porcelain of "Da Ya Zhai" Serie. Da Ya Zhai was A Place in the Old Summer Palace, Where Cixi Met Her Husband the Xianfeng Emperor for the First Time.

Emperor Xianfeng started to give power to many Han officials, and for the first time in the Qing Dynasty, allowed them to build private troops.


At the same time, he rectified and improved the administration system, and was determined to fight against foreign invaders. 

In the end, Qing Empire successfully defeated the peasant rebel, mainly relying on the 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 the British and French armies, and countless valuable treasures were robbed away.

Part of Court Painting "Forty Scenes of the Old Summer Palace" (Yuan Ming Yuan Si Shi Jing Tu Yong), by Artist Tang Dai and Shen Yuan in the Year 1744 — Bibliothèque Nationale de France 

Xianfeng passed away young, the next year after the Second Opium War ended. 

Before he departed, he gave the throne to his only alive son, the Tongzhi Emperor Zaichun (1856 — 1875). 

Emperor Xianfeng also nominated Eight Regents to assist the new monarch, together with his queen Ci'an and Tongzhi’s birth mother Cixi. 

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

Seeing that these eight regents were intending to exclude her from power, three months after her husband’s death, Cixi allied Ci'an and her late husband’s brother and initiated a coup that eliminated those eight regents and obtained authority. 

Afterward, Empress Dowager Cixi became the actual monarch of the Qing Empire.

Yang Xin Dian of the Forbidden Palace, Where Empress Dowager Cixi Listen and Deal With State Political Affairs.

Yang Xin Dian of the Forbidden City, Where Empress Dowager Cixi Listen and Deal With State Political Affairs. 

Implementing the Self-Strengthening Movement

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

Therefore, as suggested by some powerful squirearchy ministers, Cixi agreed to The Self-Strengthening Movement (1861 — 1895).

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 and contributed remarkably to the maintenance of the Qing Empire.

Ironclad Warship Dingyuan Constructed During the Self-Strengthening Movement of the Qing Dynasty

Ironclad Warship Dingyuan Constructed During the Self-Strengthening Movement

Gaining Paramount Power and Living Luxurious Life

Cixi returned the centralized power to her son when he was 18 years old, and started her retired life.


However, only one year later, the new emperor, her only son, passed away without an heir.

Then, 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 the Eight Regents before; afterward, she gained supreme centralized power in the Empire. 

A few years later, she spent large amounts of money to construct a new Summer Palace, most of which was supposed to be used to update weapons and train Qing’s navy.

Part View of the new Summer Palace in Beijing Constructed Under Empress Dowager Cixi's Command

Part View of the new Summer Palace in Beijing

Then, the First Sino-Japanese War outburst, which was the minister Li Hongzhang’s  (1823 — 1901) personal navy troop, whose updating and training money took away to build her 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, plenty of reparations, and many other unequal clauses. 

Enamel Blusher Case of Empress Dowager Cixi

Enamel Blusher Case of Empress Dowager Cixi — Palace Museum

Initiating Another Coup and Imprisoning the Emperor

Soon, her nephew Zai Tian, now the Guangxu Emperor (1871 — 1908), obtained some authority after he grew up, and tried to implement reform on the systematic level instead of the technical level, even though that meant he would lose huge power.

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

This reform that included plenty of changes to the whole society, however, was implemented by many inexperienced, unqualified officials, and with an unreasonable, rushy pace.

Then, Cixi initiated another coup, took all the power back, and imprisoned Guangxu Emperor. 

This Wuxu Reform, also named Hundred-Day Reform, was abolished at the same time. 

Guangxu Emperor, By Court Painter of the Qing Dynasty

Guangxu Emperor, By Court Painter of the Qing Dynasty

Capricious, Selfish Policy, and the Boxer Movement

Later, the Boxer Movement (1899 — 1900) outburst.

In the beginning, those boxers were aimed at recovering the Ming Dynasty (1368 — 1644) and overthrowing Qing; soon, they adjusted it to expel western foreign invaders and assist Qing. 

With the assistance of those boxers, Cixi declared war against the 11 most advanced countries at that time and planned to fight back.

Soon, the Eight-Nation Alliance occupied Beijing.


After Cixi murdered her nephew emperor’s beloved woman Zhen, a girl who frequently displeased her, and took him to escape westward.

Zhenfei Jing in the Forbidden Palace, the Well that Guangxu Emperor's beloved Woman was Pushed in under Commanded of Empress Dowager Cixi.

Zhenfei Jing in the Forbidden City, the Well that Guangxu Emperor's beloved Woman Zhen was Pushed in Under Commanded of Cixi

Her unpleasant and uncomfortable escaping journey made her change 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 the "Rebel" Nephew Emperor Away 

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

Before she passed away, she poisoned her mature, rebellious nephew, the Guangxu Emperor to death, and gave the throne to a three-year-old child. 

This child Pu Yi, the nephew of her only son, 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, Empress Dowager Cixi's last will was to never let women or eunuchs be involved in politics. 

Three years after her death in 1908, the Qing Dynasty finally reached its end.

Empress Dowager Cixi's Mausoleum the Ding Dong Ling.

Empress Dowager Cixi's Mausoleum the Ding Dong Ling

A Sly Politician and An Aristocracy Maintainer

Empress Dowager Cixi was a truly smart, decisive, and fine politician in the history of China, who could select, nominate, and manipulate talented officials, and implement nationwide reforms.  

She was also an expert in initiating imperial coups, through which she gained full control over the empire. 

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

Leshou Tang in Summer Palace, Bedchamber of Empress Dowager Cixi

Leshou Tang in Summer Palace, Bedchamber of Empress Dowager Cixi, Photo by Aisheyingde Dayanzi. 

The backward system and her vision constrained her into a sly and capable politician, who had extended Qing’s reign period but was not able to deal with the real threat, nor bring the empire to the right path to adapt to the 19th century that with full of unprecedented changes.

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


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

Meanwhile, she is also quite famous for her cosmetic and skin care formulas, some of which were spread out of the palace to civilians.

Golden Box of the Qing Dynasty Decorated with Gems

Golden Box of Qing Decorated with Gems — Palace Museum (Photo by Dongmaiying)