Empress Dowager Cixi
Empress Dowager Cixi, born Yehe Nara Xingzhen, ascended from a noblewoman of the Manchu Yehe Nara clan to a towering figure in the late Qing dynasty, effectively controlling the Chinese government for almost 50 years. Her journey to power began in her adolescence when she was selected as a concubine of the Xianfeng Emperor. The birth of her son, Zaichun, marked the commencement of her political journey. Following the Xianfeng Emperor’s demise in 1861, her young son ascended the throne as the Tongzhi Emperor, with Cixi and Empress Dowager Ci’an sharing the regency.
Cixi’s influence was unyielding. After expelling the appointed regents and co-governing with Ci’an until her death, Cixi navigated the corridors of power with an adeptness that saw her nephew installed as the Guangxu Emperor, flouting traditional succession protocols. Under her watch, the Qing dynasty embarked on the Tongzhi Restoration, a strategic array of moderate reforms that breathed new life into the faltering regime.
Yet, Cixi was a study in contrasts. Despite her hesitance to embrace Western models of governance, she was not averse to technological and military advancements. She cautiously endorsed the principles of the Hundred Days’ Reforms of 1898, wary of foreign exploitation and internal turmoil. The Guangxu Emperor’s alliance with radical reformists culminated in his virtual house arrest, and the unfolding Boxer Rebellion marked a turbulent chapter in Cixi’s rule. In the aftermath of a humiliating defeat, a transformative Cixi emerged, advocating for foreign alliances and spearheading substantial reforms.
The death of Cixi in 1908 heralded an era dominated by conservative Manchu, with a child emperor, Puyi, at the helm and a society on the cusp of upheaval. The legacy of Cixi is as intricate as the era she reigned over. Historians remain divided – some cast her in the light of a despot whose reactionary policies prolonged an ailing Qing dynasty, leading to its eventual downfall. Others, however, view her as a scapegoat, attributing the deep-rooted societal issues to systemic failures far beyond her control and lauding her for instituting key reforms, including the abolition of slavery and the outdated civil service examination system.
Spouse: Emperor Xianfeng
Empress Dowager Cixi’s husband was the Xianfeng Emperor, whose reign lasted from 1850 until his death in 1861. Born as Aisin-Gioro Yizhu, he was the seventh emperor of the Qing Dynasty. His reign was marked by internal rebellions and external invasions, most notably the Taiping Rebellion, one of the deadliest conflicts in history, and the Second Opium War, where British and French forces defeated the Qing army. The Xianfeng Emperor faced significant challenges in trying to quell internal uprisings and counteract foreign aggression. His inability to effectively address these issues led to a decline in the imperial power and prestige. He passed away at the age of 30, leaving the empire in a state of turmoil and his young son, Zaichun (the future Tongzhi Emperor), as his heir. His death prompted Cixi’s rise to power as she became the regent for her son, leading to her influential and controversial reign.