Empress Dowager Cixi
(Posthumously known as: 孝欽顯皇后 or 孝欽慈禧端佑康頤昭豫莊誠壽恭欽獻崇熙配天興聖顯皇后)
Famous for her manipulative skills, Cixi rose from being the daughter of a mid-level bureaucrat to the preferred concubine of the Emperor and the mother of his only male heir. After the death of the Emperor, she played on the weaknesses and rivalries in the Imperial court in order to gain power. She ruled behind a curtain for her son, who although he was emperor, was only five years old at the time of his father’s death. Cixi resisted the growing western influence in her country and refused reforms that many advocated for, including building railroads and telephone lines and modernizing the military. She saw western ideas and influence as a threat to her power and did all that she could to repress it. Her son, the Tongzhi emperor, died at the age of 20 of smallpox, and she chose his replacement, the Guangxu (or Glorious Succession) emperor, who was close in age to Tongzhi.
Conveniently for Cixi, her rival, the other empress dowager Ci’an died due to a sudden illness and the young and inexperienced Guangxu still had a few years until he was legally allowed to rule. However, once Guangxu ascended the throne he showed a determination to change and modernize the country, emulating european constitutional monarchies. The most notable example being the hundred days reform, which was modeled somewhat after the success of the westernization and modernization of Meiji era Japan. Predictably, Cixi was not pleased with this move and Guangxu would not attempt such a bold move again. Guangxu lost his respect, power and all but his title and was imprisoned on an island in an artificial lake in the forbidden city complex until his death in 1908.
Meanwhile, China had suffered major military defeats, such as the Sino-Japanese war of 1894 and western powers were interested in taking advantage of China’s weaknesses for their own benefit. Cixi only changed her mind about modernization once it had become obvious that resisting it was futile. It was almost five years after she had severely punished and even beheaded some of those who were behind the 100 days reform. It was 1903, and it was too little, too late.
Whether Cixi was truly too absorbed in her own world of luxury, the world of the Forbidden Palace that she rarely stepped out of, or whether she truly tried in vain to influence the changing forces of history were beyond her control is a mystery that we may never solve. It is reported that she spent a lavish sum on her 60th birthday, building a giant boat made of stone for her own pleasure, with funds that had been allocated to substantially modernizing the military. Whether this is true or not, it is apparent that at the end of her reign, Cixi began to regret her past mistakes and tried to repair the damage that her policies had done. She has been portrayed as a villain responsible for the topple of the Qing dynasty, but more recently it has been suggested that she was more of a scapegoat than anything.
Cixi would end up dying in 1908, one day after Guangxu. Next in line to the throne was the Xuantong emperor, who was two years old at the time, and stayed in power until the monarchy was overthrown in 1912. More on Xuantong, aka Puyi, later…