Powerful women in history: the Empress Dowager Cixi

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Powerful women in history: the Empress Dowager Cixi

The Dowager Empress Cixi of China / en.wikipedia.com

The Dowager Empress Cixi of China / en.wikipedia.com

She was the real ruler in China from 1861 – 1908. She was intelligent, literate, well able to express herself, and able in all matters. She did not like foreigners and said so. She was also the only woman to exercise true power within the Quing Dynasty which ruled China from 1644 to 1912. They were originally Manchus, a hunting tribe from ther north-east, It was the Quing who extended China’s control to Mongolia, Tibet and part of Turkestan. None of these had been a part of China under the Mings (1368 – 1644). The Quings were the first to hold Tibet.

Cixi was a daughter of a minor Manchu official, but became one of the many concubines of Emperor Xianfeng (ruling from 1851 – 61). By guile, skill or perhaps murder, she was the only one of the concubines to bear the Emperor a son. Thus when the Emperor died Cixu’s son, aged only five, became the new Emperor. Cixi herself instantly became the power behind the throne, being named Empress Dowager. Things went slightly wrong for her when her son died childless in 1874, but she immediately installed another boy Emperor, so that the regency could carry on. The provenance of this child is not certain.

Cixi never gave up her position as Empress Dowager and virtual ruler of China except for a brief period of retirement from 1889 – 98. Rather like ElizabethI of England, her sole aim in life was to stay in power. She achieved this with a mixture of ruthlessness, flattery of the right people, brazen corruption and the unrelenting exercise of her own strong will. Again comparison with Elizabeth is fair.

She was an able user of public funds for her own purposes; for example she rebuilt most of the Summer Palace using monies allocated to the Navy (the Summer Palace had been rudely destroyed by the British in the second of the Opium Wars) and she also staged a coup in 1898 to bring to an end the Hundred Days’ Reform, which did not meet with her agreement.

A mistake was being behind the Boxers’ Rebellion, in which foreign emissaries and missionaries were murdered. When the foreign powers discovered who had planned the uprising, Cixi had to get out of Pekin (Beijing) fast.

She then began a desperate last-ditch attempt to save the Quing Dynasty by promoting a series of reforms similar to those she had swept aside by her opposition to the Hundred Days’ Reform.

Cixi, Empress Dowager and Regent died (in 1908) before her failure became obvious in the Chinese Revolution of 1911. There is an excellent representation of this formidable woman in the film 55 Days in Peking (1962) in which the Dowager is played by Dame Flora Robson.

About the Author:

‘Dean Swift’ is a pen name: the author has been a soldier; he has worked in sales, TV, the making of films, as a teacher of English and history and a journalist. He is married with three grown-up children. They live in Spain.

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