Behind the Story – Empress Cixi

Behind the Story – Empress Cixi

If you have read any of my books, it’s pretty easy to see that China’s last empress, the Dowager Empress Cixi, is a recurring character. Who was Empress Cixi and why do I write about her?

Empress Cixi was born in 1835 to a poor and unimportant Manchu family, but she didn’t remain in obscurity for long. When she was only 16, she was among several young ladies selected as a consort for the Xianfeng Emperor, but only a 6th rank consort. It took her three years to climb to 5th rank, but the following year, in 1855, she gave birth to the emperor’s only son, the future Tongzhi Emperor, and was elevated to 2nd rank, second only to the empress, Cian.

When the Xianfeng Emperor died in 1861, he appointed 8 ministers to serve as joint regents until his son came of age (who was only six years old at the time). Most scholars agree that this was a poor decision (though making poor or even disastrous decisions was what he did best), but no one could have predicted what happened next.

Cixi, with the support of the emperor’s closest brother, Prince Gong, staged a coup. Together they outsmarted the ministers, had them executed or banished, and Cixi and Empress Cian were made co-Regents with Prince Gong as Prince-Regent.

Empress Cian had no interest in politics, but she was an excellent manager of the Inner Court of the Women, so Cixi effectively ruled China in the name of her son alone, with Prince Gong serving as an advisor and diplomat, until he came of age in 1873. Cixi again took over the regency when Tongzhi died in 1875. She stepped aside again in 1889 when her nephew and adopted son the Guangxu Emperor came of age, but after he attempted to have her killed in 1898, she once again stepped in to rule and placed him under house arrest until both of them died in 1908.

This is just a quick and dirty summary of her life, but suffice to say she was a brilliant and complicated woman. While she was villainized by many both during her life and after her death, Pearl S. Buck, who was alive and living in China during the last years of Cixi’s reign, said in her forward to her novel about Cixi, Imperial Woman, that those who hated Empress Cixi were “more articulate than those who loved her.” She also said that decades after Cixi died, she “came across villages in the in-lands of China where the people thought that she still lived and were frightened when they heard she was dead. ‘Who will care for us now?’ they cried.”

Jung Chang’s biography of Cixi, Empress Dowager Cixi: The Concubine Who Launched Modern China, is an excellent resource if you want to learn more about this fascinating woman. I read it several times in the years leading up to my release of Threads of Silk.

In my own writings, Empress Cixi pops up again and again. In Threads of Silk, I use her name because I tried to portray her as authentically as possible. In Murder in the Forbidden City and in the upcoming The Emperor’s Seal, I don’t name her because I wanted more leeway in how she was portrayed, but who is to say which version is the real Cixi? I don’t think any writer can really pin down a woman as complicated and contrary as Cixi.

While she has often portrayed as the quintessential cruel “dragon lady,” she was also a woman who loved photography, Pekingese dogs, opened the first schools for girls, and tried to abolish foot binding. She ended the method of torture and execution known as the “death by a thousand cuts” and allowed women to be opera singers. When she died she was on the cusp of establishing a Parliament in an attempt to give the people more say in their government and preserve the Qing Dynasty.

While many people tried to blame her for the collapse of the Chinese Empire, she was the only person who held it together for decades. While she lived, there was no organized concerted effort to overthrow her. Instead, out of respect, rebels and revolutionaries waited until she died before trying something new.

She was not a perfect ruler or a perfect person, but she was not the evil monster who single-handedly led China to disaster that many people like to pretend she was.

She was flawed and fabulous. 

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