Empress Dowager Cixi — 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 Cixi (1835 — 1908) was in actual charge of power for almost half a century.

From a beautiful teenager 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 Qing plenty of losses in population, resources, and money, tried and implemented some reforms to strengthen the empire, but was ended only three years after Empress Dowager 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 to 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

Cixi, whose family 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 gained her husband’s love, 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 the Xianfeng Emperor ascending to the throne, the biggest peasant uprising war in the Qing Dynasty, the Taiping Rebellion (1851 — 1864) outburst and almost overthrown his empire.

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 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 army, 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 Emperor passed away young, in the next year after the Second Opium War was ended. 

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

Xianfeng Emperor also nominated Eight Regents to assist the new monarch, together with his queen Cian 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 Cian and her late husband’s brother, 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 Palace, Where Empress Dowager Cixi Listen and Deal With State Political Affairs. 

Implementing of 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, suggested by some powerful squirearchy ministers, Empress Dowager Cixi agreed on 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, who 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 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 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 that Eight Regents before; afterward, Cixi gained absolute centralized power of the Empire. 

A few years later, Cixi spent large amounts of money to construct a new Summer Palace, most of which should 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 Constructed Under Empress Dowager Cixi's Command

Then, the First Sino-Japanese War happened, which was the official Li Hongzhang’s  (1823 — 1901) 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, 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), achieved some power after he grew up, and tried to implement reform on the systematic level instead of the technical level, even 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 the 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, Empress Dowager Cixi initiated another coup, took all the power back, and imprisoned her nephew 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

Cixi's Capricious, Selfish Policy, and the Boxer Movement

Later, the Boxer Movement (1899 — 1900) in the history of China happened.

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 to assist Qing. 

With the assistance of those boxers, Cixi then 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 Palace, the Well that Guangxu Emperor's beloved Woman was Pushed in under Commanded of Empress Dowager Cixi

Her unpleasant and uncomfortable escaping journey made her 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 those countries with this system were much 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 Cixi’s 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 that never let women or eunuchs be involved in politics. 

Three years later, 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

Cixi as 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; their legitimacy of the reign of China was the only priority, while sovereignty, dignity, or large numbers of civilians' lives seemed less important.

Another important thing she cared about was her luxurious life, including constructions 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. 

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 Empress Dowager Cixi Met Her Husband the Xianfeng Emperor for the First Time.

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