This was the back entrance to the Forbidden City. The front, south gate, was prohibited to women. In fact, the entire front—and main—section was for men only. Constructed for official ceremonies, it consisted of grand halls and vast, empty, stone-paved grounds, with a most noticeable absence: plants. There was virtually no vegetation. This was by design, as plants were thought to convey a feeling of softness, which would diminish the sense of awe: awe for the emperor, the Son of Heaven —“Heaven” being the mystic and formless ultimate god that the Chinese worshipped. Women had to stay well within the rear part of the Forbidden City, the hougong, or harem, where no men were permitted except the emperor, and the eunuchs, who numbered many hundreds.
The potential entrants for the harem now stopped outside the back entrance for the night. Under the towering gate, the carts parked on an enormous paved ground as darkness descended, each lantern casting its own dim circle of light. The candidates would spend the night cooped up in their carts, waiting for the gate to open at dawn. They would then alight and, directed by eunuchs, walk to the hall, where they would be scrutinised by the emperor. Standing before His Majesty, several in a row, they were specifically exempted from performing the obligatory kowtow: going down on their knees and putting their foreheads on the ground. The emperor needed to see them clearly.
Apart from the family name, “character” was a key criterion. The candidates must demonstrate dignity as well as courteousness, graciousness as well as gentleness and modesty—and they must know how to behave in the court. Looks were secondary, but needed to be pleasing. In order for them to show their pure selves, the candidates were not allowed to wear richly colored clothes: The gowns they wore had to be simple, with just a little embroidery along the hems. Manchu dresses were usually highly decorative. They hung from the shoulders to the floor and were best carried with a straight back. Manchu women’s shoes, daintily embroidered, had the elevation at the centre of the soles, which could be as high as 14 centimeters (over five inches) and compelled them to stand erect. Over their hair, they wore a headdress that was shaped like a cross between a crown and a gate tower, decorated with jewels and flowers when the occasion demanded. On such occasions, a stiff neck was needed to support it.
Cixi was not a great beauty; but she had poise. Though she was short, at just over 1.5 meters (about 4 feet, 11 inches), she looked much taller, thanks to the gown, the shoes and the headdress. She sat erect and moved gracefully, even when she was walking fast, on what some described as “stilts.” She was blessed with very fine skin and a pair of delicate hands, which, even in old age, remained as soft as a young girl’s. The American artist who later painted her, Katharine Carl, described her features thus: “a high nose ... an upper lip of great firmness, a rather large but beautiful mouth with mobile, red lips, which, when parted over her firm white teeth, gave her smile a rare charm; a strong chin, but not of exaggerated firmness and with no marks of obstinacy.” Her most arresting feature was her brilliant and expressive eyes, as many observed. In the coming years during audiences she would give officials the most coaxing look, when suddenly her eyes would flash with fearsome authority. The future— and first—President of China, General Yuan Shikai, who had served under her and had a reputation for being fierce, confessed that her gaze was the only thing that unnerved him: “I don’t know why but the sweat just poured out. I just became so nervous.”
Now her eyes conveyed all the right messages, and Emperor Xianfeng took notice. He indicated his liking, and the court officials retained her identification card. Thus being shortlisted, she was subjected to further checks and stayed one night in the Forbidden City. Finally she was chosen, together with several other girls, out of hundreds of candidates. There can be no doubt that this was the future she wanted.