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Empress Dowager Cixi — A Controversial Politician of 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 still greatly influenced many 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

The Beautiful Imperial Consort Cixi


Cixi, originally named 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 brilliant and quite good at calligraphy, which helped her gain her husband's love and trust and opportunities to get involved in politics and express her ideas.

Her husband, Xianfeng Emperor (1831 — 1861), an ambitious monarch with unfortunate encounters, was the 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.

The Reign of the Xianfeng Emperor


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, the Qing Empire successfully defeated the peasant rebels, mainly relying on the personal troops of Han ministers.


However, the Qing Dynasty still suffered defeat in the Second Opium War and was forced to sign additional unequal treaties.

Additionally, the British and French armies burnt the magnificent Old Summer Palace, and countless valuable treasures were robbed.

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 

Becoming the Powerful Empress Dowager Cixi


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

Before he departed, he gave the throne to his only living 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 intended 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 several battlefield failures, the ruling class finally recognized the extent to which the Qing Empire had fallen behind the Western world.

Therefore, as some powerful squirearchy ministers suggested, 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

Attaining Paramount Power and Living A Luxurious Life

Cixi returned the centralized power to her son when he was 18 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 in defeating 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 searching for peace by signing another treaty again, including ceding 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 tremendous 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 ruling class, including Empress Dowager Cixi.

However, this reform that included plenty of changes to the whole society was implemented by inexperienced, unqualified officials and at an unreasonable, rushy pace.

Then, Cixi initiated another coup, took all the power back, and imprisoned the 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 aimed at recovering the Ming Dynasty (1368 — 1644) and overthrowing the Qing; soon, they adjusted it to expel Western foreign invaders and assist the 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, 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 start to perish those boxers who aimed to support her governance while pursuing peace by signing more capitulation treaties with Western invaders.  


Taking the "Rebel" Nephew Emperor Away 

Cixi also devised a plan to introduce constitutional monarchy after observing that countries with such systems were more advanced. However, she passed away before the plan could be 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 Puyi, the nephew of her only son, then became the last emperor of the Qing Dynasty and 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 never to let women or eunuchs be involved in politics. 

Three years after she died in 1908, the Qing Dynasty finally ended.

Empress Dowager Cixi's Mausoleum the Ding Dong Ling.

Empress Dowager Cixi's Mausoleum the Ding Dong Ling

Empress Dowager Cixi: A Sly Politician and Custodian of the Aristocracy

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 complete control over the empire. 

However, she was still a monarch who 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 could not deal with the real threat nor bring the empire to the right path to adapt to the 19th century, full of unprecedented changes.

Another important thing she cared about was her luxurious life, including constructing substantial fancy palaces and celebrating important events like birthdays.


As for her daily diet, each meal 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)

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