The eunuch Li Lienying aligned himself with China's most infamous concubine, Empress Dowager Cixi. Only the third ruling empress in China's two-millennium imperial history, Cixi was perceived as the power behind the Dragon Throne for some 47 years, until her death in 1908. Court gossip had it that she fell in love with Li Lienying, and that they conspired to murder her potential rivals; British journalists depicted her as a cunning, sexually depraved tyrant. But Sterling Seagrave writes in Dragon Lady, his 1992 biography of the empress, that "slandering Tzu Hsi (Cixi) became a literary game over the decades." Her reign coincided with the empire's tumultuous decline.
Cixi entered the Forbidden City as a concubine in 1851, at age 16, and delivered Emperor Xianfeng his only male heir five years later, Seagrave writes. After Xianfeng died in 1861, possibly from the effects of his extended debaucheries, her son, then 5, took the throne as Emperor Tongzhi; she was named an empress dowager and Tongzhi's co-regent. Tongzhi ruled as emperor for only two years before dying of smallpox or syphilis at age 18, and Cixi again served as regent—first when her 3-year-old nephew was named Emperor Guangxu, and again when, as an adult, he was nearly deposed for allying himself with a radical reform movement that failed. Just before she died in 1908, at age 72, Cixi arranged for Guangxu's nephew—her grandnephew—to be named the last emperor of China.
Her place in the Chinese imagination is suggested by the number of homegrown tourists I saw jockeying for camera position at a small stone well near the northern gate by the Palace of Peace and Longevity. The story goes that when European troops, in Beijing in 1900 to put down the Boxer Rebellion, threatened to attack the Forbidden City, Cixi summoned Guangxu and his favorite concubine, Zhen Fei, then ordered the palace evacuated. Zhen Fei begged for the emperor to stay behind and negotiate with the invaders. The empress, enraged at the so-called Pearl Concubine, ordered some eunuchs to get rid of her, which they supposedly did by throwing her down this well.
Seagrave writes that there is no evidence to support this "dark fable." And Cixi's great-great-nephew, Yehanara Gen Zheng, a Manchu nobleman, offers an alternative version. "The concubine was sharp-tongued and often stood up to Cixi, making her angry," he told me. "When they were about to flee from the foreign troops, the concubine said she'd remain within the Forbidden City. Cixi told her that the barbarians would rape her if she stayed, and that it was best if she escaped disgrace by throwing herself down the well. The concubine did just that." Whatever the truth—and from the size of the well I doubt both versions—Chinese visitors are drawn to it by the thousands.
Inside the imperial garden—trees and walkways, ponds and pavilions created for the emperors' private pleasure—gilded bronze elephants squat beneath twisted cypress tree trunks. I have never come here without thinking about Puyi, the subject of Bernardo Bertolucci's Academy Award-winning 1987 movie, The Last Emperor. Poor Puyi. Born in 1906, he was named emperor just before his third birthday; after revolution swept his domain, the forces that would establish the Republic of China forced him to abdicate when he was 6. The miscast ruler spent the next 12 years as a virtual prisoner; the garden was his sanctuary.
Run Qi Guo Bu Luo, Puyi's brother-in-law, consulted on the Bertolucci movie. At 96, he lives in a small apartment near the Forbidden City. "Puyi never wanted to be emperor," he told me. "His great wish was to go to England and study to be a teacher." But even after abdicating, he could not escape the perils of power. In his autobiography, Puyi writes that he was eating an apple at 9 a.m. on November 5, 1924, when Republican troops gave him three hours to vacate the Forbidden City. That afternoon, after signing a declaration that "the imperial title of the Hsuan Tung Emperor of the Great Ching is this day abolished in perpetuity," the Son of Heaven fled in a fleet of limousines.
Puyi moved to Tianjin, in northeastern China, then controlled by the Japanese. In 1932, the Japanese set him up as the ruler of Manchukuo, their puppet state in Manchuria. In the waning days of World War II, he was captured by Soviet forces, and in 1950 repatriated to what had become the People's Republic of China. After ten years in a reeducation camp, he worked for the government as an editor. Puyi died at age 61 in 1967 as the Cultural Revolution was getting underway.
The fervor of that revolt almost claimed the Forbidden City. The Red Guards, having plundered historical sites to further Mao's aim of effacing anything traditional, planned to sack the Forbidden City, too. But Premier Zhou En-lai ordered the gates closed and sent other troops to protect it, thus preserving, among so much else, the Gate of Heavenly Peace, where the chairman's portrait still hangs.
Paul Raffaele, a frequent contributor to the magazine, wrote about the ark of the covenant for the December 2007 issue.