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The Most Powerful Woman in Chinese History, Empress Dowager Cixi

The Qing dynasty was China’s final imperial dynasty, dissolving in 1912 amid mounting social and political unrest. The Qing dynasty ruled for about three hundred years and was one of the world’s greatest empires, trebling the lands under their control. Sun Yat-sen later founded modern-day China after its demise. While Sun Yat-sen is widely regarded as the country’s founding father, the significance of China’s royals in the country’s growth as an economic and military force is often overlooked.

Empress Dowager Cixi was undeniably crucial to China’s modernization. Cixi was the most powerful Chinese ruler of the nineteenth century, governing China behind the scenes for nearly five decades. According to some historians, she is the most powerful woman in Chinese history. But who was Cixi, and how did she become China’s ruler?

How she climbed the ranks

She was chosen as a teenager to be a concubine to the new Xianfeng Emperor, who reached the throne in 1850 at the age of 19. After giving birth to the emperor’s first son, she advanced through the ranks of the court’s concubine rank system. She eventually became the second-highest-ranking woman in the emperor’s household after the Empress Consort, Ci’an. Her ability to read and write Chinese, a rarity among the emperor’s household Manchu women, gained her favor with the emperor and enabled her to learn more about state matters.

In 1860, Lord Elgin, the British High Commissioner to China, ordered the full destruction of the emperor’s cherished Old Summer Palace after a Qing general murdered numerous British and French hostages. A year later, the Emperor died. The day before he passed, he convened eight of his ministers and appointed them regents to assist the new child monarch, Zaichun. Soon after, Cixi and Ci’an staged a coup with the support of prominent relatives and associates of the late emperor. The regents were defeated and many were assassinated, while the rest were imprisoned or driven to commit suicide. This made it possible for Cixi and Ci’an to govern as co-regents. While Ci’an officially had the upper hand since she was the emperor’s first wife, it was Cixi who made all of the critical decisions.

China’s modernization

Following a string of humiliating military setbacks, Cixi and her supporters realized that in order to revitalize China’s military, the country needed to modernize its agricultural economy and incorporate Western ideals. China created a sophisticated fleet and its first international service through Cixi. She also assisted in the establishment of a customs agency, which allowed China to trade more freely with the rest of the world. Local government institutions were reorganized, steps to reduce government corruption were implemented, and the education system was reformed. Without Cixi’s reforms, China would most likely not be the worldwide superpower that it is now.

Her influence

Cixi’s ability to remain China’s most prominent voice for 47 years despite the rigid imperial convention that limited women’s responsibilities at court are amazing. For example, she had to sit behind a curtain at court proceedings, so ministers wouldn’t see her. She was also barred from entering portions of the Forbidden City that only the Emperor could access. Her directives were carried out by her royal male supporters or faithful eunuchs in an indirect manner. Despite her limitations, she had a significant impact on China’s internal and global affairs.

Divided opinions about her today

Cixi is still controversial today. Many people still see her as an awful despot who brought the Qing dynasty to an end. Others regard her as a reformer and astute negotiator who aided China’s transition into the modern era. Some experts claim that portraying the empress dowager is difficult owing to the hidden nature of her rule, in which she effectively reigns from the shadows of a highly intricate and devious court.

She is still accused of poisoning her nephew, the Guangxu Emperor, since he would most likely have overturned her policies. One of his consorts, Zhen, died mysteriously, with some reports claiming Cixi ordered Zhen to be thrown into a well. In each of these situations, there is no concrete evidence of her guilt. In the lack of a comprehensive record of Cixi’s acts, rumors and exaggerations of her character have usually occurred and have persisted to capture the public imagination over a century after her death.

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