January 11, 2019: This post needs some re-writes for organization and clarity.
left: photo, right: painting; both created in 1903
Empress Dowager Cixi (1835-1908) is a fascinating, complex, contradictory, and often polarizing figure. She took the throne of China for herself at a time where the country was being torn apart by foreign influence, and spent her reign fighting European imperialism in China.
Cixi’s political career began in her adolescence, when the Xianfeng Emperor selected her as a concubine. She worked her way up through the ranks of the harem, and upon her son Zaichun’s (1856-1875) first birthday, she became the second highest ranking woman in the imperial household. She took over as regent for her son upon the death of the Xianfeng Emperor, and when Zaichun died in 1875, she installed her nephew as the Guangxu Emperor. However, it was Cixi who held the true power during both of their reigns.
Cixi came into power at the conclusion of the Second Opium War, and in the midst of the Taiping Rebellion—a rebellion against the Qing Dynasty led by a Chinese Christian convert who aimed to institute Christian ideals in China over Cunfucian ideals, and to institute social reforms based in foreign ideals. Both of those wars were, at their core, about the struggle against foreign influence and interference in China. Cixi was a conservative, anti-Reformist, anti-foreign ruler, so it is quite fitting that she began her rule in the midst of those two conflicts.
The opening years of her rule can be characterized by increasing hostility and mistrust towards foreign powers. This mistrust grew to such proportions that, in 1881, Cixi halted the practice of allowing Chinese children to study abroad, fearing the liberal attitudes they often returned with. Upon his sixteenth birthday in 1887, Cixi publicly handed power over to the Guangxu Emperor. However, after the 1894 loss of the First Sino-Japanese War, and a failed series of social and political reforms in 1898, Cixi had him removed from power and re-instated herself as regent.
In 1900, in an official show of support for the Boxer Rebellion, Cixi declared war on the foreign powers operating within China. The Rebellion had begun two years previously by groups calling themselves the Boxers, who were fighting against the encroachment of foreign ideals across all spheres of Chinese society. The foreign powers responded to her declaration of war with the formation of the Eight-Nation Alliance, with the titular Eight Nations being Austria-Hungary, France, Germany, Italy, Japan, Russia, the United States, and the United Kingdom.
The Alliance defeated the Boxers, and the conflict officially came to an end in 1901. Though the Boxers had wished to continue fighting, Cixi, ever the politician, decided that it would be best to simply end the war and appease the Eight Nations. That appeasement took the form of the Boxer Protocol, which demanded the presence of an international military force in Beijing, and the payment of the equivalent of $333 million in reparation fees to the Eight Nations. Those fees effectively bankrupted China.
Beginning in 1902, Cixi did a complete political 180, and began to support the powers she once hated, and advocate for policies she had once suppressed.
She had tea with the wives of foreign officials in the Forbidden City, and instigated reforms far more radical than the ones she had rather brutally suppressed earlier in her reign. It is my opinion that she retained her anti-foreign views, but recognized that cooperation was, by that point, probably the best way to save her country from total collapse.
The Empress Dowager Cixi died in 1908 at the age of 73, and the Qing dynasty collapsed a few years after her death. Those who came after her characterized her as a ruthless leader and held her responsible for the fall of the Qing dynasty. In reality, she was no more ruthless than a male emperor would have been in her stead, and it was the imperial powers of the day who were responsible for the fall of the Qing Dynasty, not the woman who spent her life trying to save it.