Empress Dowager Cixi

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For the city which is at one end of the Hangzhou Bay Bridge, see Cixi (city).

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Empress Dowager Cixi

Empress Dowager Cixi (Template:Zh-cp; Wade-Giles: Tz'u-hsi) (November 29, 1835November 15, 1908), popularly known in China as the Western Empress Dowager (西太后), and officially known posthumously as Empress Xiaoqin Xian (孝欽顯皇后), was a powerful and charismatic figure who was the de facto ruler of the Manchu Qing Dynasty, ruling over China for most of the period from 1861 to her death in 1908

Historians consider that she probably did her best to cope with the difficulties of the era but her conservative attitudes did not serve her well and the Western powers continued to take advantage of the country's relatively low level of technological development.



Cixi had different names at different period of her life, which can be quite confusing. Moreover, most of her Western biographers, who in general do not read Chinese, frequently confuse these names, and biographies on Cixi written in English are flawed with errors. Here is an accurate account of all her names, as drawn from the most serious Chinese sources (i.e. the archives of the Forbidden City and several serious historical works in Chinese).

The original name of Cixi at her birth is still an unresolved issue (see Youth section below). At her entrance in the Forbidden City, she was recorded as "the Lady Yehenara, daughter of Huizheng (惠征)". Thus, she was called by her clan's name, the Yehe-Nara clan, as was customary for Manchu girls. Cixi was quite a secretive person, and she seldom talked about her childhood. While she was on the throne, the subject of her life before entering the Forbidden City was taboo, and people avoided talking about it. So it is no surprise that the record of her original name as well as the history of her youth were lost.

When she entered the Forbidden City in September 1851 (or June 1852, depending on sources), Cixi was made a concubine of the fifth rank (貴人), and she was given the name Lan (蘭 - meaning "orchid"). Her name was thus "Concubine of the fifth rank Lan" (蘭貴人). At the end of December 1854 or the beginning of January 1855, she was promoted to concubine of the fourth rank (嬪). Her name was changed, and the new name given to her was Yi (懿 - meaning "good", "exemplary", "virtuous"), so that her new name was "Concubine of the fourth rank Yi" (懿嬪). On April 27, 1856, she gave birth to a son, the only son of Emperor Xianfeng (the empress consort had been unsuccessful in producing an heir), and was immediately made "Concubine of the third rank Yi" (懿妃). Finally, in February 1857 she was again elevated and made "Concubine of the second rank Yi" (懿貴妃).

In the end of August 1861, following the death of Emperor Xianfeng, her 5-year-old son became the new emperor (known as Emperor Tongzhi starting in 1862). Cixi was officially made "Holy Mother ¹ Empress Dowager" (聖母皇太后), a high privilege considering that she had never been empress consort while Emperor Xianfeng was alive. She was privileged to become empress dowager only because she was the biological mother of the new emperor. She was also given a honorific name (徽號) which was Cixi (慈禧) — meaning "motherly and auspicious". As for the empress consort, she was made "Empress Mother Empress Dowager" (母后皇太后), a title giving her precedence over Cixi, and she was given the honorific name Ci'an (慈安) — meaning "motherly and calming". As she dwelled in the western part of the Forbidden City, Cixi became popularly known as the Western Empress Dowager (西太后), while Ci'an, who lived in the eastern part of the Forbidden City became known as the Eastern Empress Dowager (東太后).

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Portrait of Cixi. Hanging above her is a calligraphy showing her full official name at the end of her reign (from right to left).

On seven occasions after 1861, Cixi was given additional honorific names (two Chinese characters at a time), as was customary for emperors and empresses, until by the end of her reign her name was a long string of 16 characters starting with Cixi (as empress dowager she had the right to nine additions, giving a total of 20 characters, had she lived long enough for it). At the end of her reign, her official name was:


which reads:

"The Current Holy Mother Empress Dowager Cixi Duanyou Kangyi Zhaoyu Zhuangcheng Shougong Qinxian Chongxi ² of the Empire of the Great Qing".

The short form was:

"The Current Holy Mother Empress Dowager of the Empire of the Great Qing" (大清國當今聖母皇太后).

At the time, she was addressed as "Venerable Buddha" (老佛爺) — literally "Master ³ Old Buddha". This was not a term of address created or reserved for her, as is wrongly stated by her Western biographers. This was actually the official form of address used for all the emperors of the Qing Dynasty, who were devoted Buddhists. It reveals a lot about Cixi that she asked people to address her with a term of address reserved for men, and what is more for emperors. She liked to be treated like a man, and insisted on people using Chinese words reserved for men when addressing her. As the de facto power figure in China, having actual power over the Emperor himself, the phrase Long Live the Empress Dowager for ten thousand years (恭祝皇太后萬歲萬歲萬萬嵗), which is by convention, only used by Emperors, was used at official and ceremonial occasions. The convention for Empress Dowagers of imperial China was usually Long live for a thousand years (皇太后千歲千歲千千嵗).

At her death in 1908, she was given a posthumous name which combines the honorific names that she gained during her lifetime with new names added just after her death. This posthumous name is:


which reads:

"Empress Xiao 4 -qin 5 Cixi Duanyou Kangyi Zhaoyu Zhuangcheng Shougong Qinxian Chongxi 6 Peitian Xingsheng 7 Xian 8 ".

This long name is still the one that can be seen on Cixi's tomb today. The short form of her posthumous name is:

"Empress Xiaoqin Xian" (孝欽顯皇后).


1. i.e. mother of Tongzhi
2. these are her 16 honorific names
3. "master" as in master and servant
4. "filial"; during the Qing Dynasty this was always the first character at the beginning of empresses' posthumous names
5. "commending respect"; this character was chosen right after her death
6. these are the 16 honorific names that she received while alive
7. these 4 characters of praise were given to her right after her death
8. "the Clear", or "the Illustrious"; this is the posthumous name of Emperor Xianfeng; during the Qing Dynasty the last character of empresses' posthumous names was always the posthumous name of their emperor


Received biographies of Cixi usually state that she was the daughter of a low-ranking Manchu official, Huizheng (惠征), of the Yehe-Nara clan, serving in Shanxi province and then in Anhui province. Her mother, the principal wife of Huizheng, was the Lady Fuca, of the Manchu Fuca clan. Received biographies are unable to decide where exactly Cixi was born. She is supposed to have spent most of her early life in Anhui (after a brief period in Shanxi), and then moved to Beijing at an unknown age between her third and her fifteenth birthday. According to biographers, her father was sacked from civil service in 1853 (Cixi was already a concubine inside the Forbidden City at that time), allegedly for not resisting the Taiping Rebellion in Anhui province and deserting his post. Some biographers even state that her father was beheaded for his desertion.

However, in the last 20 years, with the opening-up of society inside China, new stories have emerged. Following claims by families of farmers living near the city of Changzhi (长治) in Shanxi province, a 10-year inquiry was conducted by a team led by Liu Qi (刘奇), the director of the Bureau of local chronicles for the City of Changzhi. The results of the inquiry were published in 1999 in a book in Chinese titled "Cracking the Mystery of Cixi's Youth" (《揭开慈禧童年之谜》). Backed by 38 pieces of evidence gathered from local farmer families as well as from historical documents, this work is an earthshaking contribution to the history of Cixi, and is disturbing many long-held postulates. Liu Qi's inquiry has nonetheless been accepted as accurate by a significant part of the Chinese historical community, and has received a prize from the Art Research Institute of the People's Republic of China in 1999.

According to Liu Qi's findings, Cixi was born in 1835 in the village of Xipo (西坡村), located inside the township of Beicheng (北呈乡), in Changzhi county (长治县), depending from the prefecture-level city of Changzhi (长治市), then called Lu'an prefecture (潞安府), Shanxi province. The village of Xipo lies approximately 20 km./12 miles from downtown Changzhi. Cixi was born in a family of Han Chinese farmers, the Wang family, and was given the name Xiaoqian. Her original name was thus Wang Xiaoqian (王小謙). Her mother died soon, and the family being extremely poor, 4-year-old Cixi was sold by her father to Song Siyuan (宋四元), a farmer from the neighboring village of Shangqin (上秦村), in Haojiazhuang township (郝家庄乡), Changzhi county. Selling of children was common in 19th century China in poor families. In the Song family, Cixi was given a new given name, Ling'e, so that her name was now Song Ling'e (宋齡娥). Cixi spent her pre-teenage years among the Song family. However, the Song family was soon met with hardship and found itself in dire needs. Consequently, 12-year-old Cixi was sold by her adopted father Song Siyuan to the prefect of Lu'an, a Manchu official called Huizheng who was mentioned previously. Cixi was purchased by Huizheng to become a servant maid for his house, but soon enough her beauty was such that she was adopted by Huizheng, and became part of the Yehe-Nara clan. She was given the name Yulan (玉蘭 - "Jade Orchid") by her new family, shortened to Lanr (蘭兒 - "Orchid") in everyday life. She became known as the Lady Yehenara in formal occasions.

These findings are properly earthshaking, because if true they would mean that Cixi was not of Manchu ethnicity, as has always been assumed, but was Han Chinese. The Qing Imperial House itself would then have been fooled into thinking that the young Lady Yehenara was Manchu when she was admitted inside the Forbidden City. It was always assumed that the reason why Cixi had no bound feet was because she was Manchu (Manchu girls, unlike their Han Chinese counterparts, did not undergo the traumatic binding of feet), but after Liu Qi's findings it appears that the probable reason is because her Han Chinese family was too low in the social ladder to be concerned with the binding of her feet (usually, the poorest Han Chinese families did not bind the feet of girls, no prospect of a marriage with a higher status family being possible whatsoever).

Although Liu Qi's findings still need the test of time before being taken for granted, they would certainly explain a lot of what appeared before as oddities, such as the fact that Cixi did not speak a word of Manchu (although this was not totally unusual in 19th century Manchu elites), or the fact that she knew so well the folk songs of Shanxi province, or the numerous gifts that she gave to the inhabitants of Lu'an prefecture after she had become the absolute master of China.

Road to Success

The young Lady Yehenara was registered by her parents with the Imperial Court, as was required for all the Manchu girls of the empire, in order to keep track of potential concubines for the emperor. In September 1851 (or June 1852, depending on sources), she was summoned to the Forbidden City with other Manchu girls to undergo a selection process, in order to provide concubines for the new emperor Xianfeng, under the supervision of Concubine Dowager Kangci (康慈皇貴太妃) (1812-1855). Lady Yehenara was one of the few girls selected by Concubine Dowager Kangci on that occasion. Concubine Dowager Kangci was the highest ranking surviving concubine of the late emperor Daoguang, and so she was the woman with the highest status inside the Forbidden City. She was the de facto mother of Emperor Xianfeng, although not his biological mother. In 1840, at the death of Xianfeng's mother, Empress Xiaoquan Cheng (孝全成皇后), the then concubine of the first rank Jing (靜皇貴妃) had raised the 8-year-old boy, and when he had become Emperor Xianfeng in 1850 at the death of Emperor Daoguang, she had been made Concubine Dowager Kangci. She was thus in charge of selecting the empress and the concubines of Emperor Xianfeng. Concubine Dowager Kangci was also the biological mother of Prince Gong (恭親王), who would play an important role in the years to come.

On April 27, 1856, Lady Yehenara, then Concubine of the fourth rank Yi, gave birth to a son, the only son of Emperor Xianfeng, to be named heir, and later Tongzhi Emperor. Her status inside the Forbidden City thus dramatically changed, and she became the second highest ranking woman in the palace, just behind the empress consort (later known as Empress Dowager Ci'an).

On August 22, 1861, in the wake of the Second Opium War, Emperor Xianfeng died at the Rehe Traveling Palace (熱河行宫), 230 km./140 miles northeast of Beijing, where the imperial court had fled. His heir, the son of the concubine Yi, was only 5-year-old. As a consequence, the imperial family was shaken by a struggle over who would assume the regency. Eventually, in November 1861, the concubine Yi, with the help of Prince Gong, staged a palace coup known as the Xinyou Coup (辛酉政變), had the opposing princes commit suicide and their leader the Manchu official Sushun (肅順) beheaded, and succeeded in securing the power into her hands and those of the empress consort. She would now be known in History as Empress Dowager Cixi. Cixi became co-regent along with the less politically involved Empress Dowager Ci'an, ruling behind the curtain (a court official required that the two co-regents, both women, attend imperial audiences behind a curtain). Cixi then ruled China for most of the period from 1861 until her death in 1908.

Regency under Tongzhi

Cixi and the West

Securing Absolute Power

Crisis with Guangxu

The Last Regency

Overview of Politics

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Cixi, absolute master of China

While seeking China's "self-strengthening" through strictly-controlled industrial and military growth, she opposed attempts at political modernization, staging a coup d'etat (September 21, 1898) against the political influence of the Guangxu Emperor to end the Hundred Days' Reform.

In 1900 her tolerance of Boxer armed action against foreigners in northern China contributed to western invasion and China's humiliating defeat. She died the day after the Guangxu Emperor, who some say was poisoned by her.

Cixi died on November 15, 1908, after having installed Puyi as the new emperor of the Qing Dynasty on November 14.


Cixi was interred amidst the Eastern Qing Tombs (清東陵), 125 kilometers/75 miles east of Beijing, in the Dingdongling (定東陵) tomb complex (literally: the "Tombs east of the Dingling tomb"), along with Empress Dowager Ci'an. More precisely, Ci'an lies in the Puxiangyu Dingdonling (普祥峪定東陵) (literally: the "Tomb east of the Dingling tomb in the Vale of wide good omen"), while Cixi built herself the much larger Putuoyu Dingdongling (菩陀峪定東陵) (literally: the "Tomb east of the Dingling tomb in the Vale of Putuo"). The Dingling tomb (literally: the "Tomb of quietude") is the tomb of Emperor Xianfeng, the emperor of Ci'an and Cixi, which is located indeed west of the Dingdongling. The Vale of Putuo owes its name to Mt Putuo (literally: the "Mountain of the Dharani of the Site of the Buddha's Enlightenment"), at the foot of which the Dingdongling is located.

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The Dingdongling
(Puxiangyu Dingdongling on the left, Putuoyu Dingdongling on the right)

Cixi, unsatisfied with her tomb, ordered its destruction and reconstruction in 1895. The new tomb was a lavish grandiose complex of temples, gates, and pavilions, covered with gold leaves, and with gold and gilded-bronze ornaments hanging from the beams and the eaves. In July 1928, Cixi's tomb was occupied by warlord and Kuomintang general Sun Dianying (孫殿英) and his army who methodically stripped the complex of its precious ornaments, then dynamited the entrance to the burial chamber, opened Cixi's coffin, threw her corpse (said to have been found intact) on the floor, and stole all the jewels contained in the coffin, as well as the massive pearl that had been placed in Cixi's mouth to protect her corpse from decomposing (in accordance with Chinese tradition). The large pearl on Cixi's crown was offered by Sun Dianying to Kuomintang leader Chiang Kai-shek and ended up as an ornament on the gala shoes of Chiang's wife, the famous Soong May-ling.

After 1949, the complex of Cixi's tomb was restored by the People's Republic of China, and it is still today one of the most impressive imperial tombs of China.

Historical Opinion

The traditional view is that Cixi was a devious despot who maintained a deathgrip on what little power she had until that power faded out completely. Three years after her death, the Imperial dynasty was itself overthrown in the Xinhai Revolution. However, some authors, such as Sterling Seagrave in his biography The Dragon Lady maintain a far more positive view of Cixi, arguing that she has been unfairly maligned and when seen more closely, her actions were reasonable responses to the difficulties that China faced. Another sympathetic account can be found in Anchee Min's historical novel Empress Orchid (2004).

Kathernine A. Carl, a painter who spent some ten months with the Empress Dowager Cixi in 1903 to paint Cixi's portrait for the St. Louis Exposition, wrote a book about her experience, With the Empress Dowager, published in 1905. In the book's introduction, Carl says she wrote the book because "After I returned to America, I was constantly seeing in the newspapers (and hearing of) statements ascribed to me which I never made."

In her book, Carl describes the Empress Dowager Cixi as a kind and considerate woman for her station. Cixi, though shrewd, had great presence, charm, and graceful movements resulting in "an unusually attractive personality." Cixi loved dogs and had a kennel maintained by eunuchs at the Summer Palace where she had "some magnificent specimens of Pekingese pugs and of a sort of Skye terrier." She did not like cats and some of the eunuchs who had cats made sure to keep them "within rigid bounds, on no condition allowing them to come within Her Majesty's ken." Cixi enjoyed flowers and the staff of the Summer Palace ensured the rooms and courtyards were kept properly dressed with cut flowers.

The Empress Dowager understood loyalty and practiced it with her retinue. Carl while describing the Palace staff says: "Among these is a Chinese woman who nursed Her Majesty through a long illness, about twenty-five years since, and saved her life by giving her mother's milk to drink. Her Majesty, who never forgets a favor, has always kept this woman in the Palace. Being a Chinese, she had bound feet. Her Majesty, who cannot bear to see them even, had her feet unbound and carefully treated, until now she can walk comfortably. Her Majesty has educated the son, who was an infant at the time of her illness, and whose natural nourishment she partook of. This young man is already a Secretary in a good yamen (Government Office)"

Cixi enjoyed boating on the lake at the Summer Palace, walks through the gardens and grounds of the Palace (actually the Imperial family rode in sedan chairs so the eunuchs did the majority of the walking), and presentations of Chinese opera in the Summer Palace Opera house. Cixi smoked Chinese water pipes as well as European cigarettes through a cigarette holder. At an age of 69, Cixi was in sufficiently good physical shape that when providing a tour of the Summer Palace Opera House to Carl, Cixi "mounted the steep and difficult steps with as much ease and lightness as I did, and I had on comfortable European shoes, while she wears the six-inch-high Manchu sole in the middle of her foot, and must really walk as if on stilts."

A film called Lover of the Last Empress (慈禧秘密生活, 1995) was made about her path to become the ruler of the Empire.

External links

es:Cixi nl:Cixi nds:Cixi ja:西太后 zh:慈禧太后


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