Empress CiXi: The Last Empress of a Dying Dynasty


Photo courtesy of Wikicommons PD-1923

The end of Imperial China and the beginning of Modern Day China was an eventful transition which forced the nation out of its ancient ways and into the new Republic of China. Ending thousands of years of Imperial rule and ushering more than 400 million Chinese into the new world would be hastened by the poor leadership of a single woman: CiXi, the Last Empress of China.

CiXi, or 慈禧, was born in 1835 to a Manchu clan in Northeastern China. At the time China was ruled by the Qing Dynasty, a Manchu dynasty which required ethnic homogeneity among its ruling family. Thus, CiXi was selected as a teenager to become a concubine for the Emperor of China.

Mother to the Throne

Soon CiXi gave birth to the Emperor’s only son, granting her a special place as the mother of the next Emperor of China. She then set herself to consolidating and affirming her political authority within the Forbidden City. CiXi faced a key problem; as a mere concubine, she was outranked by the Emperor’s wife, the Empress Ci’An. Birthing the next ruler only gave her a foot in the door by relation to her son, she still needed to earn authority in her own right by elevating her rank.

The Emperor XianFeng, known for his drug use and general weakness, would die while his son was only a few years old and passed the imperial seal onto him. CiXi took control of the seal in place of her son, and elevated herself and Ci’An to the rank of Empress Dowager. CiXi became the Empress Dowager of the West, and Ci’An the Empress Dowager of the East.

The Reigning Empress

Now with the rank, the seal, and the son, CiXi could begin practicing her power. As Empress Dowagers, the two women held more power than the Imperial Regents who traditionally would have made political decisions until the boy emperor was old enough to rule. The few regents who challenged this situation were quickly executed.

With her son sitting on the throne, the two Empress Dowagers began sitting behind the silk curtain behind the throne, listening to discussions and giving orders for her son to command. CiXi, the more dominant of the two women, became the literal ‘Power Behind the Throne’.

Like many politicians, her strength in gaining and consolidating her own power far outshone her ability to lead a nation. The Qing Empire had been declining for decades as Western nations became stronger, internal conflicts became bloodier, and the Qing Emperors became weaker and more prone to early deaths. While gaining her influence during the Opium Wars and Taiping Rebellion, CiXi grew both resentful towards Westerners and intolerant of disobedience within China.

Beginning to rule with an iron fist, it seemed like China and the world may receive reprieve from her when her son turned 17 and took full control of the throne. However, the new Emperor died shortly after taking full control, except this time there was no heir to the throne. Custom dictated that the new Emperor be from a generation younger than the previous. This would place CiXi two generations from the rightful ruler, and would weaken her claim to power.

In an event foreshadowing the coming demise of the dynasty, the tradition was broken and a cousin to the dead emperor was selected. CiXi would retain her current connection to the throne and resumed her role behind the silk curtain.

In the early 1880’s, Empress Dowager Ci’An died, leaving CiXi as the sole being behind the silk curtain. Shortly after the death of her political competition came the ascension of the new Emperor, CiXi’s nephew. CiXi, now on her third emperor, took the opportunity to “retire” to the Summer Palace which had been built with naval funds (causing the Japanese and French to utterly destroy the Chinese fleet).

Now nearing the coming of the 20th Century, the new Emperor was reform-minded; he wished to bring China forth into the modern world with science, technology, and a new political system. Fearing she was losing her grip, CiXi had the Emperor arrested and held prisoner before launching her greatest blunder, one which would solidify the Western presence in China and would send the Qing court running in exile.


Emperor Guangxu, CiXi’s third emperor;Photo courtesy of Wikicommons PD-1923

The Rebellion

The Boxers were originally an anti-Manchu group which sought to bring back the Ming Dynasty. However, with growing Western dominance along China’s coastline, they had taken on an anti-foreign stance as well. The group believed that through magical rituals and calisthenics training they could achieve inhuman feats, not the least of which being their claim that bullets would simply bounce off of their skin. They aimed to push the Western powers out of China, and CiXi aimed to support them.

The Boxer Rebellion would culminate in 1901 with the siege of the foreign legations in Beijing. Troops from the Eight-Nation Alliance arrived in the nearby port at Tianjin, and rapidly fought their way to the legations. Faced with an allied force using modern weapons, the Boxers’ claims to immortality, flight, and steel skin were quickly proven untrue, and the alliance took control of Beijing. Immediately after the end of the ill-advised fight, CiXi and most of the rest of the Qing court fled to the city of Xi’an. CiXi would never return to Beijing.


With her capital seized, her rebellion quashed, and her body aging, CiXi suddenly had a change of heart. She proclaimed multiple reforms in China including ending foot-binding and promoting education abroad. CiXi died in 1908, but not before seeing Emperor Guanxu die the day before her. Like many convenient deaths and events around her, including the death of Ci’An, speculation of her foul-play is abundant.

CiXi had lost wars, angered foreign powers, and had held China back from modernizing and industrializing. Her rule is remembered in China with scorn as part of the “Century of Humiliation”, and she is characterized as selfish and sometimes cruel. With the eight-nations holding great amounts of Chinese territory, the Qing court ruined and in the hands of a new toddler Emperor, and the fruits of education abroad beginning to flourish in China, Imperial China was no more. In 1911 Dr. Sun Yat-Sen proclaimed the founding of the Republic of China in Wuhan, officially ending the 4,000 year story of Imperial China.


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