The Rise of the Most Powerful Woman Ever to Rule China

A new book on the Empress Dowager Cixi explores the early life of one of the country's most important historical figures.
Empress Dowager Cixi (second from left) ruled China for much of the second half of the 19th century. (Wikimedia Commons)

For much of the second half of the 19th century, as China’s Qing Dynasty fell into terminal decline, the country was ruled by the Empress Dowager Cixi, a once-teenage concubine who ascended the Qing Court and became a figure of great historical consequence. Traditionally, historians have viewed the Empress Dowager as a symbol of China’s backwardness, a ruler who failed to enact the necessary reforms to save the empire she inherited (the Qing Dynasty ultimately collapsed in 1911, three years after Cixi's death).

In her new book, Empress Dowager Cixi: The Concubine Who Launched Modern China, published last month by Random House, the author Jung Chang argues that this historical impression of the Empress Dowager is wrong; in fact, the Empress Dowager was a progressive figure, well ahead of her time, and indispensable to China’s path to modernization. 

This isn't the first time Jung Chang has taken issue with conventional wisdom. Her 2006 biography of Mao Zedong, co-written with her historian husband Jon Halliday, charged that the Chinese Communist leader actually welcomed Japan's occupation of China as a way to smooth his path to power. Chang’s first book, the best-selling Wild Swans (1991), explored the history of 20th century China through the lives of three generations of women: her grandmother, mother, and herself.

In the following excerpt from Empress Dowager, Chang describes how the teenage Cixi first entered the Qing court in the early 1850s as a nameless girl plucked from a nationwide search for an emperor’s concubine.

In spring 1852, in one of the periodic nationwide selections for imperial consorts, a 16-year-old girl caught the eye of the emperor and was chosen as a concubine. A Chinese emperor was entitled to one empress and as many concubines as he pleased. In the court registry she was entered simply as “the woman of the Nala family,” with no name of her own. Female names were deemed too insignificant to be recorded. In fewer than 10 years, however, this girl, whose name may have been lost for ever, had fought her way to become the ruler of China, and for decades—until her death in 1908—would hold in her hands the fate of nearly one-third of the world's population. She was the Empress Dowager Cixi (also spelt Tzu Hsi). This was her honorific name and means “kindly and joyous.”

She came from one of the oldest and most illustrious Manchu families. The Manchus were a people who originally lived in Manchuria, beyond the Great Wall to the northeast. In 1644, the Ming dynasty in China was overthrown by a peasant rebellion, and the last Ming emperor hanged himself from a tree in the back garden of his palace. The Manchus seized the opportunity to smash across the Great Wall. They defeated the peasant rebels, occupied the whole of China and set up a new dynasty called the Great Qing—“Great Purity.” Taking over the Ming capital, Beijing, as their own, the victorious Manchus went on to build an empire three times the size of the Ming empire, at its peak occupying a territory of 13 million square kilometers (over 5 million square miles)—compared to 9.6 million today.

Being consulted and having her views acted on, she acquired self-confidence and never accepted the common assumption that women's brains were inferior to men's.

The Manchu conquerors, outnumbered by the indigenous Chinese, the Han, by approximately 100:1, imposed their domination initially by brutal means. They forced the Han males to wear the Manchu men’s hairstyle as the most visible badge of submission. The Han men traditionally grew their hair long and put it up in a bun, but the Manchu men shaved off an outer ring of hairs, leaving the centre part to grow and plaiting it into a trailing queue. Anyone who refused to wear the queue was summarily beheaded. In the capital, the conquerors pushed the Han out of the Inner City, to the Outer City, and separated the two ethnic groups by walls and gates. The repression lessened over the years, and the Han generally came to live a life no worse than that of the Manchus. The ethnic animosity diminished—even though top jobs remained in the hands of the Manchus. Intermarriage was prohibited, which in a family-oriented society meant there was little social intercourse between the two groups. And yet the Manchus adopted much of the Han culture and political system, and their empire’s administration, extending to all corners of the country like a colossal octopus, was overwhelmingly manned by Han officials, who were selected from the literati by the traditional Imperial Examinations that focused on Confucian classics. Indeed, Manchu emperors themselves were educated in the Confucian way, and some became greater Confucian scholars than the best of the Han. Thus the Manchus regarded themselves as Chinese, and referred to their empire as the “Chinese” empire, or “China,” as well as the “Qing.”

The ruling family, the Aisin-Gioros, produced a succession of able and hard-working emperors, who were absolute monarchs and made all important decisions personally. There was not even a Prime Minister, but only an office of assistants, the Grand Council. The emperors would rise at the crack of dawn to read reports, hold meetings, receive officials and issue decrees. The reports from all over China were dealt with as soon as they arrived, and rarely was any business left undone for more than a few days. The seat of the throne was the Forbidden City. Perhaps the largest imperial palace complex in the world, this rectangular compound covered an area of 720,000 square meters (about 7.7 million square feet), with a moat of proportional size. It was surrounded by a majestic wall some 10 meters high and nearly 9 meters thick at the base, with a magnificent gate set into each side, and a splendid watchtower above each corner. Almost all the buildings in the compound displayed glazed tiles in a shade of yellow reserved for the court. In sunshine, the sweeping roofs were a blaze of gold.

Jung Chang is the author of Wild Swans, Mao: The Untold Story and Empress Dowager Cixi: The Concubine Who Launched Modern China.

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