Empress Dowager Cixi is a figure of Chinese history who is an incredibly interesting, influential and controversial woman. This controversy stems from the fact that in practice she ruled China for forty seven years until she died in 1908. Chinese society from the Eastern Zhou Dynasty to the late Qing Dynasty was based upon the ideals of traditional Confucianism which was heavily made up of the idea of social hierarchies, including respect for those elder than yourself and especially important to the case of Empress Dowager Cixi, patriarchy. In this light, wives would walk behind husbands and girls would undertake various tasks such as foot binding to make themselves desirable wives. Because of the notion of patriarchy held firmly by Confucianism, Empress Dowager Cixi’s rule is even more exceptional.
Selected as an imperial concubine for the Xianfeng Emperor, Cixi was elevated up to the third rank of consorts making her only less in rank to the Empress. Due to her ability to read and write Chinese, the Emperor often called upon her for help the day to day ruling of his empire. This in turn helped Cixi learn how to govern the state, which many attribute to her successes once in power.
Cixi gave birth to the Xianfeng Emperor’s only surviving son in 1856. On Xianfeng’s death, their son became Tonghzi Emperor in 1861, making her Empress Dowager and due to his tender age of just five years old, Empress Dowager Cixi became regent ruler of China. She was met by fierce opposition from the regent ministers. To secure her political power on her return to the capital she allied with powerful figures including the Xianfeng Emperor’s wife and two imperial princes whom had been wronged by the regent ministers. On her return to the capital, she executed only three of the usurping regent ministers, thus maintaining the moral high ground on the issue by displaying both her morality and mercy. In Chinese tradition it was stated that females should not engage in politics, but by ruling from behind the curtain on behalf of her son, Empress Dowager Cixi became the first woman to do so.
Empress Dowager Cixi ushered in reform from the beginning of her rule whilst putting down various rebellions which posed a threat to the unity and stability of China. She recognised that the traditionally Manchu dominated bureaucracy was tired and needed reshaping, placing many high level offices to Han Chinese. Furthermore, by promoting local officials to government position and honouring them with titles, she ensured their loyalties and in turn they worked incredibly hard under her rule.
With increasing pressures from the West, Empress Dowager Cixi issued and pushed forward the “Self Strengthening Movement.” During the 1860s this entailed vast institutional reforms in areas such as arsenal, shipyard and navy strengthening. A foreign office and Foreign Language School were established. In the 1870s other reforms took place under her orders including government investment in alleys such as shipping, railways, mining and modern medicine to bring China in line with its Western counterparts.
Empress Dowager Cixi’s son died mysteriously in 1874, just as he came of age to rule China independently. She installed her four year old nephew, Guangxu as the next emperor and continued her rule behind the curtain. When Guangxu came of age, Cixi retired and he gathered many reformer officials and scholars around him to aid him in his rule. After defeat in the First Sino-Japanese War, Guangxu announced 103 edicts calling for reforms which came to be known as the hundred day’s reform. These included replacing the education system, encouraging foreign investment, modernising the bureaucracy and rebuilding the military.
The conservative minded Cixi responded harshly, coming out of retirement and placing the emperor under house arrest for the remainder of his life. She publically executed the scholars who aided Guangxu with his reforms and placed her 3 year old grandnephew on the throne. After her return to power, Cixi sent Chinese officials to Europe and Japan to examine their systems. Ironically, some of Cixi’s reforms were more radical than the hundred days reform with the most obvious being the dismantling of the examination system in 1905. In attempts to charm the foreigners, Cixi hosted their wives.
Empress Dowager Cixi was a figure of female authority and power in China, against some patriarchal Chinese traditions. She put down rebellion and ushered in reform. Considering the Qing dynasty collapsed four years after her death, maybe she was the one whom held it together?