History : Nov-Dec 2016
6 NOVEMBER/DECEMBER 2016 PROFILES Empress Dowager Cixi: A Firm Grip on Power Ruthless and brilliant, the empress dowager Cixi challenged foes—both foreign and domestic, including her adopted son, Emperor Guangxu—to bring China into the modern age. A BRONZE COIN FROM THE REIGN OF EMPER0R XIANFENG Cixi presided over meetings from behind a screen, as her ministers were not supposed to see her. B orn in 1835, the girl who would gain fame as the Empress Dow- ager Cixi showed no obvious signs of future greatness. This girl, both through good fortune and unyielding determination, would rise to power in China, becoming the Dowager Empress, ruling as the queen regent from 1861 until her death in 1908, one of the most turbulent periods in China’s history. With her iron will and shrewd mind, she helped transform Chi- na from a medieval society to a modern power on the global stage. Few concrete records remain of Cixi’s life before age 16. She was Manchu, the ethnic minority in power since the 1600s, and her heritage kept her feet from being bound, a tradition of China’s ethnic majority, the Han. Her family were most likely government employ- ees. She probably could read, write, draw, and sew. Some historians say her father sought her advice and valued her opinion as highly as he would a son’s. A respected position in her birth fam- ily would not win Cixi respect in the out- side world. Because she was born female, her opinions meant little to men. Like other teenage girls at that time, 16-year-old Cixi had to be presented by her family to be considered as a concubine to the newly crowned Chinese emperor, Xianfeng. Se- lected as a low-ranking consort, Cixi left her family to live in the Forbidden City with the other women in the emperor’s harem. Xianfeng’s chief consort was Empress Zhen. The highest ranking of his wives, she became friends with Cixi. The rela- tionship served them both well, especial- ly after Cixi gave birth to the emperor’s only surviving son in 1856, an event that raised her status and provided her with the keys to power. The Widows’ Coup Early in his reign, Xianfeng faced colossal problems on both domestic and foreign fronts. He came to power at age 18 in 1850, the same year that widespread fam- ine caused the Taiping Rebellion, a mas- sive peasant uprising in the southern provinces. This insurrection would con- tinue unabated and leave a third of China under rebel control. Six years later, France and Britain invaded China, begin- ning the second Opium War and putting an enormous strain on the country’s re- sources. This conflict also stirred up heated debates between pro- and anti-Western factions within China. From Concubine to Queen 1852 Cixi leaves her family to live in the Forbidden City as a concubine of Emperor Xianfeng. She gives birth to his heir Tongzhi in 1856. 1861 Cixi and Zhen, the emperor’s widows, seize power in a coup after Xianfeng dies. Tongzhi inherits the throne. 1898 Cixi uncovers a plot to kill her orchestrated by courtiers and Guangxu, whom she places under house arrest. 1908 Cixi poisons Guangxu, fearing he is too weak- willed to rule. Cixi dies a day later, having named Puyi as heir. ALBUM 1875 After Tongzhi dies, Cixi appoints her adopted three-year-old son, Guangxu, as emperor and serves as regent.