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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 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

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 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.

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 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 

Xianfeng passed away young the following 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 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 failings on the battlefields, the ruling class finally realized how much the Qing Empire had lagged 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

Gaining Paramount Power and Living 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.