Cixi: The Woman Behind the Throne

The concubine who became China’s last empress

The Empress Dowager Cixi (Yu Xunling)

"Too much mystery surrounds the Forbidden City for us to write of its inmates with assured authority. Even when the facts are known, there are two or three versions, each giving a different rendering of what occurred. This vagueness is like the nebulous parts of a Chinese painting; it has a charm that it might be a mistake to dispel. Nor is it certain that the historian, could he lift the veil, would discover the truth."

—Daniele Vare, an Italian diplomat in Peking, in his 1936 biography of Cixi,"The Last Empress"

History can be a slippery substance, particularly when it comes to personalities. A century after the death of China's last and most famous empress, Cixi, the story of her life and reign remains veiled by varying versions of the truth.

Some sources paint her as a veritable wicked witch of the east, whose enemies often mysteriously dropped dead. Others link her to tales of sexual intrigue within the palace walls, even questioning whether her favorite eunuch was truly a eunuch. But recent scholarly analyses discredit many of those sensational stories and suggest a more complicated woman than this caricature.

What do we really know about this woman who indirectly controlled China's throne for almost half a century, in the twilight of the Qing dynasty?

She entered history on November 29, 1835 as a rather ordinary Chinese girl named Yehenara, although there was a certain prestige in being born to a family from the ruling Manchu minority. At age 16, she was brought to the Forbidden City to join Emperor Xianfeng's harem—which may sound like punishment to modern ears, but was considered a swank role for Chinese women of her time.

Daniele Vare's book, The Last Empress, says Yehenara (he calls her Yehonala) rose to the top of the concubine ranks when the emperor overheard her singing and asked to see her. Infatuated, he began picking her name from the nightly roster of choices to visit his bedchamber, and soon she bore him a son. This earned her the title Tzu Hsi, meaning "empress of the western palace," spelled Cixi these days.

When Xianfeng died in 1861, Cixi's five-year-old son was his only male heir and became the emperor Tongzhi, making her the "empress dowager" and a regent ruler. Cixi relinquished the regency when her son turned 17, but Tongzhi died two years later and Cixi became a regent again, this time for her three-year-old nephew Guangxu.

Some historians have pointed to this turn of events as proof of Cixi's political shrewdness because it defied tradition for the new emperor to be of the same generation as his predecessor. Also, although Tongzhi had no heir when he died, his first-ranking concubine, Alute, was pregnant. So it seems far too convenient that Alute and her unborn child died during the debate over succession. The court announced it as a suicide, but as the New York Times reported at the time, the circumstances "aroused general suspicion."

Even if Alute was murdered, Cixi wasn't necessarily responsible, as author Sterling Seagrave points out. The late emperor had five brothers, princes of the imperial court, who had their own rivalries and ambitions for controlling the throne indirectly.

About Amanda Fiegl

Amanda Fiegl is a former assistant editor at Smithsonian and is now a senior editor at the Nature Conservancy.

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