Monarch Series: Empress Dowager Cixi

Fact File


  • Name: Empress Dowager Cixi
  • DOB: 29th November 1835
  • DOD: 15th November 1908
  • Reign: 1861-1908 China – Qing dynasty


Rise to Royalty

At just 16 Cixi was chosen to become a concubine for Emperor Xianfeng. She started as a third-grade concubine but rose to secondary consort to the Emperor after the son she bore him turned one – she was the only concubine that bore him a male heir. At the age of thirty, Emperor Xianfeng died and Cixi’s five year old son became Emperor Tongzhi.

On his deathbed, Xianfeng had set up an eight-man regency group to rule China after his death. It is believed this is due to his mistrust of Cixi and his belief that she would meddle in affairs of state. If this is true, he had every right to be wary. Alongside Empress Zhen, Xianfeng’s principal wife, Cixi succeeded in a coup against the Regents. She falsely accused them of forging Xianfeng’s Will and ordered the death of two of the more prominent members. As her son was too young to rule, she was able to claim power as Dowager Empress. Her future power depended on the young age of the Emperor and in that respect she was rather fortunate. Her son died as a teenager in 1875 so she was then able to place her 3 year old nephew on the Dragon throne.


Controversial Acts

Cixi was greedy. She believed her childhood was difficult because she believed her parents loved her siblings more than her. This shows her desire to be the centre of attention from a young age and clearly fuels her later actions. She squandered the treasury on building herself an immense summer palace, on jewels and on banquets. It is said that she drank from a jade cup and ate with gold chopsticks.

When her son married Alute, Cixi feared that his new wife might take away some of her son’s affection for her and perhaps some power over him with it, so she encouraged him to take concubines and to continue drinking heavily. It is believed this probably had a hand in his early death in 1875 as it has been suggested that he died from venereal disease. His young wife commited suicide not long after his death by swallowing opium. It is believed Cixi pushed her to that extreme reaction.

She then placed her three year old nephew, Guangxu, on the throne. Another young Emperor who she could rule in place for.

Hundred Days’ Reform

In 1898 Gunagxu, encouraged by a group of reformists, undertook national, cultural, political and educational reforms in China. These reforms lasted 104 days from 11th June to 21st September 1989. They were a response to all the recent wars against other countries and a consequent rise in nationalist feelingfs in China, notably after the Opium wars against the British (1839-1842 and 1856-1860), the first Sino-Japanese war (1894-1895) and the Sino-French war (1884-1885). The loss against the Japanese had hit China particularly hard. Japan had been considered a much weaker foe due to it’s smaller size in comparison to China. The reform movement sought to strengthen China from within through modernization, industrialisation, a change from an absolute monarchy to constitutional monarchy backed by a democracy and applying capitalist values to China.

This threat to her power was of course extremely unwelcome to Cixi, and with the help of other conservative elites performed another coup and locked Emperor Guangxu away in the Forbidden City under house arrest. There he remained until his death in 1908 and she placed herself as regent once again. Upon his removal from power, she rescinded all the reforms her nephew had put into place.

Stubborn until her end, Cixi was so against Guangxu gaining power in his own right once she died, she poisoned him with arsenic the night before her own death. This left the last vacancy on the Dragon throne.


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