China’s Last Empress Dies

China’s Last Empress Dies

“On this day in 1908, China’s Empress Dowager Cixi died amidst extraordinary circumstances, ending one of the most intriguing lives in modern history. In the early 1850s, Cixi first came to the Forbidden City as a young concubine in the harem of the Xianfeng emperor; she died one of the most powerful women in the history of China.

Originally named Yehenara, she was born on 29 November 1835 into a family from the ruling Manchu minority. She was noticeably intelligent and attractive, and in what was considered quite a privilege at the time, she became a concubine in Xianfeng’s harem at the age of 16.

Information from the Forbidden City was full of rumors and conflicting reports, but it is thought that she quickly became Xianfeng’s favorite, despite being of low rank. In 1856, she bore him his only son. Her name would no longer remain Yehenara, she would be known as the “”empress of the western palace”” or “”Tz’u-his”” which is romanised as Cixi.

Xianfeng died in 1861, and at the age of six his son became the Tongzhi emperor. Affairs were to be handled by a council of elders, but a coup a few months later by Xianfeng’s brother, Gong Qinwang, meant that power shifted to Cixi and Ci’an, a former consort of the dead emperor. This triumvirate, led by Gong, squashed rebellions and oversaw great changes in China, including improvements in education and defense, along with the establishment of China’s first office of foreign service.

The Tongzhi emperor officially matured in 1873 but Cixi maintained her control over affairs. A series of events over the next decade including the deaths of Tongzhi and Ci’an, and the dismissal of Gong, meant that Cixi became the sole holder of power—this time as regent to her nephew, Guangxu, whom she had adopted.

The series of events leading to Cixi’s dramatic rise to power were certainly seen with suspicion. There were whispers that the emperor’s highest-ranking concubine, who was pregnant at the time, had been murdered. Mystery and intrigue would follow Cixi throughout her remaining years.

Her final years were rife with political manipulation. She relinquished power to Guangxu, but following his attempts of modern reforms and the defeat in the Sino-Japanese War, she returned to the palace. She then reportedly spread rumors that the hereto-healthy Guangxu was deathly ill.

On 15 November 1908, Cixi died. It was announced, in an overtly suspicious manner, that Guangxu had died the previous day. He had been poisoned with arsenic. She had decreed on her deathbed that the throne would pass to Puyl, Guangxu’s young nephew, who would be the final emperor in the Manchu dynasty.”

Credit: Alamy AA15TC
Caption: From harem to throne, Empress Dowager Cixi was always a force to be reckoned with.