Cruelest tyrant or gentle “orchid of China”: Who was Empress Cixi

Empress Dowager Cixi was one of the most powerful women in Chinese history. She ruled from 1861 until her death in 1908. But does Cixi rampant thievery for the failures of the nation, or a strong leader with gangster-like cunning?

There is a particularly bloody ruler in the history of every nation, like Idi Amin of Uganda or Mary Tudor in England. For China, such a bloody monarch was Empress Cixi, the last great ruler of the Qing dynasty. Histories about her are still circulating, turning into scary tales. But are they fair?

Little orchid

When the daughter of a Chinese official named Little Orchid entered her teens, she was registered as a possible concubine of the emperor like thousands of other officials’ daughters. The girls were selected for the palace harem at a particular competition, similar to an exam for boys for the opportunity to serve as an official – the Chinese loved such a systematic approach in everything.

Seventeen-year-old Little Orchid passed it but was among the lowest of the concubines, the fifth rank. They were called “Precious People,” they might not have seen the emperor in their entire life and served and pleased other concubines more than the one who was considered their master.

The quick-witted Cixi quickly, in four years, raised her rank to the third and, most importantly, managed to make friends with the emperor’s wife, her age, named Ci’an. Ci’an did not manage to give birth to an heir, and in the end, the emperor was so kind that he left her to choose a concubine who should conceive from him and give birth to a son to him. Ci’an, of course, chose a friend. The result of the visit was the birth of Zaichun.

Many people still believe that it was too easy for the concubine to give the emperor a boy – just as someone else gave birth to her, for example, a servant who was killed not to tell a secret. But rumors like this about changelings are commonplace. Instead, it was difficult for people to come to terms with the fact that the emperor, for no apparent reason, for only one child, began to shower the concubine with gifts – including the privileges and powers that give her more and more power. These displeased the officials.

Take her to the other world

When Zaichun was six years old, the thirty-year-old emperor was dying. Before his death, the dignitaries began to persuade him to issue a decree that would oblige the mother of his heir to commit suicide so that she would serve the emperor in the next world. But here’s the bad luck: for the decree, a seal was needed, and she kept the seal. She, of course, began to argue and bargain – and won time by waiting for the sovereign to die.

Immediately after the death of the emperor, a decree was issued – with a seal! From now on, Emperor Zaichun rules, under the motto of Tongzhi, that is, “Joint rule.” Cixi (that was now the name of the concubine) and Ci’an were appointed as joint rulers-regents: now, both were recognized as empresses.

One of the nobles, who persuaded the emperor to take Cixi with him to the next world, was executed; the other two were given mercy to commit suicide. Perhaps because the reign of Cixi began with executions, then any death in the p alace was attributed to her. But how could you not execute those who wanted your end? Almost all those executed during the reign – several dozen people – also attempted the assassination

of the Empress.

How can you die in a palace?

At the age of forty-seven, Ci’an died unexpectedly from food poisoning. And then everyone somehow at once remembered that day Cixi sent her rice cakes, that the young emperor once communicated more with Ci’an than with his mother. Rumors spread that Ci’an, unexpectedly entering Cixi, found her with a baby – after Cixi had not shown herself to anyone for a long time under the pretext of illness. So she poisoned him to cover up the sin, people said, and they began to doubt whether the young emperor had died a natural death seven years earlier.

The fact is that the seventeen-year-old monarch suddenly published an appeal in which he announced that he was lucky to get sick with smallpox (at that time, it was believed that the gods celebrate the elect in this way). And after a while, he died. Maybe, of course, the point was that by the age of seventeen, the emperor’s immunity was decimated by alcoholism and the consequences of sexual abuse.

Still, people suddenly began to think that they die of smallpox at the age of seventeen – at least if you are the emperor and not a mere mortal – impossible. They also thought about how it happened that the thirty-year-old emperor-father, who once elevated Cixi, died. Moreover, the doctors announced that he died of the summer heat, a strange reason.

Cruelest tyrant or gentle “orchid of China”: Who was Empress Cixi
Empress Cixi

To replace him, Cixi and Cian chose a new emperor, the four-year-old son of Cixi’s sister and Prince Chun, a dignitary of imperial descent. So the two women retained power. Later, when the new emperor turned nineteen, Cixi officially resigned and retired to the Summer Palace. To control every step of the emperor from there. Not a single document came into force until she gave the go-ahead. She also picked up the wife of the pupil herself – his cousin, so that the influence of the Cixi family remained. But, in general, there was nothing special about such behavior of the Dowager Empress.


In September 1898 – when the Empress was already over sixty – one of the dignitaries revealed to her that the emperor intended to arrest her herself and execute all her associates. At the exact moment, Cixi went to the imperial palace, and She captured the emperor. She took the state seals from him and demanded that he abdicate the throne and then imprisoned him in the Forbidden Palace, not allowing even concubines to visit him and constantly changing servants so that the emperor would not make friends.

Cixi ordered them to prepare her departure from the capital together with the emperor at the tensest moment. Beloved concubine of her nephew, who tried to beg to leave the emperor, she almost without looking ordered to be drowned in a well. Quite possibly, that was nearly the only innocent victim of Cixi. Later, when the emperor died, there were persistent rumors that Cixi decided to poison him, leaving him near-death (after all, she survived him only for a day).

The Empress suppressed the uprising with the help of European states: another action that she is not forgiven to this day. They claim that she thought only about her power and never about the welfare of her country. However, under Cixi, the first ban on bandaging girls’ legs was issued – a procedure in which, for a start, some bones in the foot are broken, and as a result, the girl lives with constant pain cannot walk normally. Under her, censorship for the press and torture as punishment was abolished (and China was traditionally famous for the most sophisticated executions). The telegraph, electricity, modern medicine, which appeared with her – all this may not be more than a standard achievement of technological progress. Still, Cixi also granted the right to women to study and work, and before her death, she signed a decree on universal suffrage.

Perhaps she should be remembered not as a bloody tyrant but as a reformer and one of the first fighters for women’s rights in China. After all, each of her initiatives in favor of women faced public discontent and quiet sabotage, and her life was repeatedly attacked by those dissatisfied with such a policy.

Perhaps the hatred for Cixi was mainly because she started as a concubine.

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