Empress Dowager Cixi (1835-1908)
China History

Research Report
Web Resources



Empress Dowager Cixi was a ruthless and selfish lady who had an unlimited greed for power. After the death of her husband, Emperor Xianfeng, Empress Cixi was the primary actor to run China. She entered the Forbidden City as the lowest-ranking concubine but has a good fortune of giving birth to the only heir to the throne. Through her son, Emperor Tongzhi, she became Empress Cixi and ruled behind the curtain. She would listened to government reports and told her son what to response. After the death of her son, she placed her nephew on the throne and again ruled behind the curtain. Empress Dowager Cixi ruled China for nearly fifty years.

Historical Background

    Empress Dowager Cixi was born Lan Kuei (also known as Yehonala), meaning Little Orchid, on November 29, 1835 in Beijing, to a minor Manchu official. Lan Kuei was the oldest of four children. She had two brothers and a sister. Lan Kuei’s father, Hui-cheng, was a minor Manchu official, but has a “bloodline of the ruling race” ( Buck 43 ). Those who are considered to be of the “ruling race” are descendents of Manchu cavalry who took part in overthrowing the Ming Dynasty in 1644. The Manchu cavalry was divided into eight military companies or Banners: Bordered and Plain, White, Yellow, Red, and Blue. Lan Kuei’s father belonged to the Bordered Blue Banner, one of the “inferior” banners, but nevertheless, this gave Lan Kuei and her sister the eligibility to serve in the Forbidden City as maidservants or concubines to the emperor.

Concubine to the Emperor

    At the age of fourteen, Lan Kuei was nominated as a candidate concubine to the emperor. Two years later, she was chosen as a concubine of the fifth rank, the lowest-ranking concubine, to Emperor Xianfeng. However, Lan Kuei was fortunate to give birth to a son, the only male heir to the throne. When Emperor Xiangfeng died in 1861 at the age of thirty, Lan Kuei’s son, at the age of six, was placed on the throne. Both Cixi (Lan Kuei’s court name) and Xiao Chen (Emperor Xianfeng’s wife) were named dowager empress and both were assigned regent to the emperor. During Emperor Tongzhi’s reign (1861-1875), Empress Dowager Cixi was virtually the ruler of China. Behind the curtain, she listened to official’s reports and told Emperor Tongzhi what to response. He was her key to power.

Research Report

Empress Cixi was one of the eight regents of Emperor Tongzhi. At that time, the regency system was set up so that each regent had the legal power to remove each other from their post if they wished, but Empress Dowager Cixi was clever to be friends with many important people who would be of good use to her future. Prince Kung, Emperor Xianfeng’s brother, was one of those people that she be-friended with. Empress Cixi also received strong support from the eunuchs and the Banner Corps. The eunuchs supported her because she bribed them and the Banner Corps liked her because she was the daughter of one of their officers. With the help of all these people, Empress Cixi beheaded all those who were against her and seized control of the government. During her early years as regent, Empress Cixi was very active in revitalizing China. She ordered schools to be built so foreign language can be learned and help ended many uprising that threatened the Qing Dynasty. Empress Cixi (along with other regents) was supposed to end their regency when Emperor Tongzhi reached maturity (at the age of 16), but Empress Cixi continued to rule behind the curtain. To make sure that her position would not be threaten, Empress Cixi would find things to keep her son busy. She encouraged him to drink and keep many concubines. So, at the age of 16, Emperor Tongzhi was drinking heavily and consorting with both male and female prostitutes. When Emperor Tongzhi got married and his wife, Alute, gave birth to a baby boy, Empress Cixi, realizing that he was a threat to her power, ordered the baby killed. It was said that not long after, Emperor Tongzhi contracted smallpox and died. His wife, after her husband died, committed suicide by swallowing opium. But there was a rumor that Empress Cixi might be the one who was responsible for the young emperor and his wife’s death.
    Seeing that the throne was empty, Empress Cixi went in search for a new emperor. With the help of the army, she violated the succession laws and placed her nephew on the throne. Guangxu, at the age of three, became the new emperor. Again, Empress Dowager Cixi positioned herself as regent to the young emperor. After Guangxu became emperor, his mother (Empress Cixi’s sister), died mysteriously. In 1881, Empress Cixi’s co-regent, Empress Dowager Xiao Chen, also died the same death. During the first fourteen years of Emperor Guangxu’s reign (1876-1898), Empress Cixi acted as regent. In 1889, she left the throne to Emperor Guangxu and resided at the summer palace.
    Unlike Emperor Tongzhi, Emperor Guangxu was not corrupted. He had a mind of his own. He proved himself to be worthy of his emperorship by searching for new ways to modernize and better China’s condition. He was very much open-minded and not at all like Empress Cixi, who was very conservative. Emperor Guangxu busied himself with trying to find new ideas on how to go about changing China. In 1898, he found his answer in Kang Youwei and Liang Qichao. Kang Youwei was a man in his forties and a man of Confucianism. His idea of going about changing China was to go back and learn from the past. Liang Qichao, on the other hand, opposed the idea of looking back to the past. He favored opening up China and learned from the West. However, both Kang and Liang did emphasis the need for new government and favored the abolishment of the examination system.
    In 1898, Emperor Guangxu launched a New Reform Movement. The idea was to learn from the West and to use what they learned from the West to control the West. Emperor Guangxu initiated his Hundred Days of Reform. He issued decrees ordering railroads to be built, modernized the military,  and ordered reform of the legal system and many more. He also dismissed hundreds of Manchu officials who opposed his reforms. As a result, upset officials called on Empress Cixi for support. Empress Cixi, then called on Yuan Shikai, the most powerful man outside of Beijing at that time. Yuan Shikai was the Chinese imperial resident in Korea in 1885 and was made governor of Shandong Province and from 1901 to 1907, he served as a government general of Chihli (now Hebei). Yuan Shikai came to the empress’s aid. He ordered his army to surround the palace and arrested Emperor Guangxu. Emperor Guangxu was arrested and locked up in a house arrest for the rest of his life. This time, instead of finding a new emperor, Empress Cixi took over the throne herself. She ruled from 1898 until her death in

The Boxer Rebellion

    The Boxer Rebellion started out as a society called the "Righteous and Harmonious Fists." These were mostly poor people who blamed others for their problems. At first, they were anti-Manchu, but then, in 1898 there was a shift from being anti-Manchu to anti-foreigners. Instead of attacking Manchu officials, these boxers started to attack foreigners. The Boxer Rebellion emerged in Shandong in 1898. The empress saw the Boxer Rebellion as her solution to getting rid of the foreigners so she secretly supported them. In 1900, Empress Cixi declared war on the foreigners and called on all the Qing officials to support the Boxers. Roaming in bands, the Boxers wandered through northeast China, killing foreigners and destroying their property. They also attacked Chinese who became Christians. These Boxers thought themselves to be protective by spirit and believed themselves to be invincible to foreigners’ bullets.
With the support of Empress Cixi, the Boxers surrounded foreigners’ residence and cut off all their accesses to the outside world. Consequently, foreigners began to worry. Rumors going around about the murder of these captive foreigners led Western powers to join hand. Foreigners (Americans, Germans, British, French, etc) met in Dagu Fort. They attacked and destroyed Dagu Fort and Beijing. The Boxers were forced to release all the captive foreigners and the West also demanded leader of the Boxers to be killed. Empress Cixi and her party fled north to the city of Sian. They took the emperor along with them. The Boxer Rebellion killed at least 250 foreigners. The Qing government was forced to sign the Peace of Beijing Treaty. The treaty imposed heavy fines on China and amended trade treaties in favor of the West. China was also forced to let foreign troops to be stationed in Beijing.
    This treaty increased Chinese people’s anger at the Qing government, including Empress Cixi.
In 1901, Empress Dowager Cixi returned to the Forbidden City. Because of the Boxer Rebellion's failure, she radically changed her policies. Like Emperor Guangxu, the empress now favored westernizing China. Still holding Emperor Guangxu captive, Empress Cixi ordered railroads to be built and modernized schools and other Western innovations. Cixi’s government also outlawed the "slicing" of people (killing people with a thousand small cuts), and the smoking of opium. Any soldiers who were caught smoking would be killed. For the first time, Chinese people were allowed to settle in Manchuria. Empress Cixi also promised the Chinese people a constitution and representative government.

Historical Significance

    Empress Dowager Cixi was one of the three Empresses to rule China. After the death of her husband, Emperor Xianfeng, Empress Cixi was virtually the ruler of China. After the regency terminated (when her son reached maturity), Cixi continued to play a dominate role in state affairs. When her son (Emperor Tongzhi) died, she placed her nephew on the throne and continued to rule China. In 1889, she handed over the power to her nephew, Emperor Guangxu. But in 1898, she resumed power and ruled China until her death in 1908. Empress Dowager Cixi was the kind of person who would put her own interests ahead of the nation’s. She was very corrupted. She used military funds to build herself a summer palace, hold banquets, bought jewels and other luxuries for herself while the country was going through a financial crisis. She seized whatever she wanted and killed anyone blocking her way, or threatened her position. She was a selfish woman. Empress Cixi died of stroke on the fifteenth of November 1908. Before she died, she changed the rule of succession. The heir of the throne would be chosen by the successor instead of having the eldest son to automatically receives the throne. Having changed the rule, Cixi chose the three-year old P'u Yi as the next in line to the throne.


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Buck, Pearl S. Imperial Woman. John Day Company. New York 1956
Cameron, Meribeth E. The Reform Movement in China 1898-1912. Octagon Books:
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Ling, Der. Old Buddha. Dodd, Mead, and Company: New York, 1928.
Seagrave, Sterling. Dragon Lady-The Life and Legend of the Last Empress of China.
        Alfred A. Knope: New York, 1992.

Web Resources

Discovering China: Empress Dowager Cixi: http://library.thinkquest.org/26469/movers-and-shakers/cixi.html

Tzu-hsi: The Dowager Empress of China: http://www.kings.edu/womens_history/tzuhsi.html

Empress Dowager Cixi: http://dev.thinkquest.org/27629/chronicle/1908.html

Movers and Shakers: http://dev.thinkquest.org/26469/movers-and-shakers

Tong Zhi Restoration: http://www.campus.northpark.edu/history/WebChron/China/Qing.html