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Empress Cixi, the last woman to rule China

In the 19th century, when Queen Victoria was on the throne, another woman was governing a world power on the opposite side of the globe: Empress Dowager Cixi.

Black-and-white photograph. A group of Chinese servants and officials pose in ornate clothing, with the empress Cixi in a wooden carrier in the middle of the frame.
Sofie Taes (opens in new window) (KU Leuven / Photoconsortium)
Julien Ménabréaz (Photoconsortium)

In Bernardo Bertolucci’s movie The Last Emperor (1987), emperor-to-be Puyi, 2 years old, faced Cixi at her deathbed, when she announced that he would become the next emperor of China. The scene holds historical truth, depicting the last political act of a woman who had held the reins of the country for half a century.

The Chinese empress Cixi poses on her ornate throne, draped in heavily decorated clothes.

The story of Yehenala (Cixi’s birth name) started out like a fairy tale.

Born in 1835, she stemmed from a noble family of Manchurians, the ethnic group that had been ruling China for nearly two centuries. As a teenager, she was chosen as a concubine to Emperor Xianfeng, who took notice of her because of her cleverness. In 1856, she and her husband had their only son and heir Tongzhi, and she was elevated from concubine to consort.

By that time, the mighty empire of China had begun its downfall. Internally, the Manchurian power was eroded by famines, natural disasters, financial problems and revolts.

Junks enshrouded in smoke during an attack, c. 1875-1860

From the outside, China was under fire as well, as exemplified by the disastrous opium wars against Great Britain (1839-1842) and France (1856-1860), ending with the destruction of the Old Summer Palace in Beijing.

Moreover, China was forced to sign the so-called Unequal treaty, to open up its harbours to foreign merchants and to give Hong Kong to Great Britain.

The ruins of Yuanmingyuan (Old Summer Palace), c. 1918-1960
View of the lake at the Imperial Summer Palace (Yuan Ming Yuan), Beijing, after its destruction by the English and French armies, October 1860

The next blow was the death of Emperor Xianfeng in 1861.

At the time, his rightful heir Tongzhi was just 5 years old, thus a regency was established. His mother Cixi seized the opportunity along with Xianfeng's official wife to take control.

Henceforth, she would be known as 'Empress Dowager Cixi' (慈禧) and, throughout the next decades, ruled China as a co-regent, taking decisions and using the imperial seal on behalf of her son.

Bell-shaped bowl with a bird on a tree and wisteria on a yellow ground

When Tonghzi finally succeeded to the throne in 1873, his reign would prove to be exceptionally short, succumbing to illness just 2 years later.

Cixi elected her nephew Guangxu, who was only 3 at the time, as the next emperor. After the death of Empress Dowager Ci’an, Cixi became China's sole regent. She continued to use the underaged emperor as her puppet until he married and was installed on the throne in 1889.

The Empress Dowager retired shortly after, yet there would be no smooth sailing for Cixi just yet.

When the emperor attempted the Hundred days’ Reform in 1898, the conservatives and Cixi reacted with a coup. The emperor was put under arrest for the rest of his life.

His Imperial Majesty Kwang Sü, Emperor of China, 1911

When Guangxu eventually died in 1908, Cixi chose the son of her nephew’s brother, little Puyi, as a successor. By appointing a child once again, she thought she could continue to rule China. Yet she passed away only 24 hours later.

The glorious tale of the Chinese empire was now nearing its end as four years later Qing dynasty officials forced the abdication of Puyi. The end of the Chinese imperial era opened a new chapter in the history of the country: the Republic of China.

a toddler sits on the lap of a Chinese man. The man is holding the hand of Emperor Puyi as a child.

Cixi not only left her mark on China's political history but also on the country’s culture and society.

One of her passions was Peking opera: a mix of theatre, music, song and incredible acrobatics, that was in the midst of its golden age during her reign. In the imperial palaces, Cixi had special theatres built with complex machinery. One of the greatest honours a courtier could experience was to receive an invitation to attend a performance there.

Peking opera costume

Cixialso was an architecture enthusiast.

She supervised the construction of the New Summer Palace. The funds she spent on such large-scale projects, however, were originally intended for the modernisation of the state.

A famous example was the abuse of money meant to modernise the imperial fleet. Instead of acquiring new battleships, Cixi used the resources to erect a Marble Boa at the Summer Palace, to allow for the enjoyment of beautiful views and fresh lakeside air. Yet modernisation it was not: the only unusual trait of the boat were the two fake paddles, added to make it look like a western ship.

The marble boat at the Summer Palace in Beijing, c.1895 - c.1915

Contrary to what might be expected, the conservative Empress Dowager appreciated styles and inventions that infused the court with a western flavour. Cixi liked clocks and cosmetics and even had a telephone line installed at the Summer Palace.

She loved to receive gifts: some courtiers saw this as an opportunity to show her the necessity of modernisation.

As a consequence, a small railway was built to transport her from the Forbidden City to the Summer Palace. She was also gifted a car but never used it - the idea of sitting behind a chauffeur was considered disrespectful.

Empress Cixi and her ladies-in-waiting

Cixi also understood the importance of photography to support her public image.

In 1903 and 1904, a series of portraits were made by Xunling: son to the Chinese ambassador in Paris and brother of Cixi’s first lady-in-waiting, Princess Der Ling. These pictures, of which several have been included in the album of French traveller Firmin Laribe, remain as a great testimony of the Qing court life.

The lavish décor of Empress Cixi’s photoshoots at court. Cixi was a fervent buddhist and is seen here reenacting a scene from the life of Buddha.

Cixi has been a fascinating character, from the time of her reign up to the present.

Many a myth concerning her roots, her life, rumoured cruel behaviour and even sexual acts with eunuchs and actors has come to fruition. Some of these tales, along with genuine biographic facts, have inspired a range of publications and other products, from novels and comics to tv series and films.

Movie poster referring to 55 Days of Peking: a film featuring Empress Cixi as a character, 1963

And so the legend continues, as the kaleidoscope of perspectives on this intriguing figure keeps on turning. Champion of the arts, sharp-minded strategist, gravedigger of a mighty empire: views on Cixi will never cease to evolve, but she will always remain one of the most powerful women in world history.

This blog is the result of a collaboration between two CEF-projects co-funded by the European Union: PAGODE: Europeana China, focusing on Chinese cultural heritage preserved in Europe, and Europeana XX. A Century of Change dedicated to the 20th century and its social, political and economic changes.

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