Empress Dowager Cixi or Tzu-hsi (1835–1908) of the Manchu Yehenara clan, was a powerful and charismatic woman who unofficially but effectively controlled the Manchu Qing dynasty in China for 47 years, from 1861 to her death in 1908.
Selected as an imperial concubine for the Xianfeng Emperor in her adolescence, she gave birth to a son in 1856. With Xianfeng’s death in 1861 the young boy became the Tongzhi Emperor and she became Empress Dowager. Cixi ousted a group of regents appointed by the late emperor and assumed the regency, which she shared with the Empress Dowager Ci’an. She then her consolidated control when, at the death of the Tongzhi Emperor in 1875, contrary to the dynastic rules of succession, she installed her nephew as the Guangxu Emperor.
Although she refused to adopt Western models of government, she supported technological and military reforms and the Self-Strengthening Movement. Cixi rejected the Hundred Days' Reforms of 1898 as impractical and detrimental to dynastic power and placed the Guangxu Emperor under house arrest for supporting reformers. In 1900 she supported the Boxer Rebellion against foreign influence in China and after its defeat she had to flee from Beijing to Xi’an for eighteen months. On her return external and internal pressures led Cixi to effect institutional changes of just the sort she had previously resisted and to appoint reform-minded officials. The dynasty collapsed in late 1911, three years after her death, and the Republican Era was inaugurated 1 January 1912.
Historians both in China and abroad have generally portrayed her as a despot and villain responsible for the fall of the dynasty, but – more recently – others have argued that her opponents among the reformers succeeded in making her a scapegoat for problems beyond her control, that she stepped in to prevent disorder and was no more ruthless than other rulers, and became an effective – albeit reluctant – reformer in the last years of her life.
In 1903, having already agreed to have her portrait painted for the St. Louis World’s Fair, Cixi allowed a young aristocratic photographer to take elaborately staged shots of her and her court, designed to convey imperial authority, aesthetic refinement, and religious piety – an incident depicted in Shadow Magic.
Empress Dowager Cixi died on 15 November 1908, after having installed Puyi as the new Emperor of the Qing dynasty the previous day. She was interred amidst the Eastern Qing tombs in the Dong Dingling, some 78 miles east of Beijing.
In July 1928 her tomb was occupied by warlord and Kuomintang general Sun Dianying and his army who methodically stripped the complex of its precious ornaments, then dynamited the entrance to the burial chamber, opened Empress Dowager Cixi’s coffin, threw her corpse on the floor, and stole all the jewels contained in the coffin, as well as the massive pearl that had been placed in her mouth (in accordance with Chinese tradition) to protect her corpse from decomposing. After 1949 the complex of Empress Dowager Cixi’s tomb was restored by the People’s Republic of Chin and it is still today one of the most impressive imperial tombs of China.