Also known as the Empress Dowager, Tz'u-hsi ruled over a clique of corrupt official and tightly controlled the Manchu Imperial house during the Ch'ing dynasty becoming one of the most powerful women in the history of China.

She is known in the West for politically backing the anti-foreigner Boxer Rebellion. When Western troops stormed Peking, she was forced to flee and accept peace terms.

The selfish, ignorant leader of China from 1861-1908 when she played 2 young emperors as puppets. She refused any attempts to modernize the nation, made no more clear during the 100 Days Reform when the 23-year-old emperor, Guangxu with the help of a group of would-be reformers led by Kang Youwei attempted to modernize the military, education system, commmerce, government, etc. After 3 months (Hence the 100 days), she locked up the emperor revoked all the edicts, and executed any reformers she could find. Other examples of sheer stupidity include, supporting modernization projects while encourage critics to attack them, spending money for a naval base on a garden, and her support of the Boxer Rebellion and yet providing no military support.

If anything her legacy is one of a sheer abuse of power for self-pleasure. More than anything, she is responsible for the rapid collapse of the Qing Dynasty. Strong leadership may have gotten the nation similar to Japan's strength, but China ended up with this worthless person.

The woman who could become known to history as Dowager Empress Tzu-Hsi or Cixi (pronounced , as Excalibre tells me, "'ts shee' - the 'ci' or 'tz'u' is a vowelless syllable." Kalen describes the first syllable as sounding "like a broken fax machine, as my mother put it when I demonstrated for her! :)") was born Yehonala on November 29, 1835 to a Manchu family; her father was said to be a captain in the banner corps which guarded the Forbidden City. Little is known about her family; they were probably well-off and Yehonala was well-educated by the standards day and time, but she later said they favored her sisters over her and she felt ignored. She was nominated as a candidate to be one of the emperor's concubines while still a teenager, even though there may have already been plans for her to marry a garrison commander named Jung Lu. One source says that she was not a virgin, which was required for concubines, but bribed the midwife who was examining her to say she was.

As a third-rank concubine, Yehonala did not get much respect or trust in the imperial court. If the emperor wanted to spend the night with her, eunuchs would bring her to the bedroom and strip her to make sure she had nothing that could harm the emperor; only after that would he enter the room. However, Yehonala was the only one of the many imperial concubines to give birth to a living son. She was then promoted to first-rank concubine, but the emperor's favorite concubine was still a woman called Li Fei. However, she was treated with more respect after becoming mother to the heir apparent and given the honorific "Kuei Fei," translated as "Concubine of Feminine Virtue."

At her new rank, Kuei Fei became involved in affairs of state -- she read state documents and offered her own opinions and advice, and as mother of the heir, was listened to. She also had connections in the military through her father's friends and her former fiance; a political coalition grew around her.

When the emperor died in 1862 at the age of thirty, her son (originally named Tsai Chun, later called Tung Chih) became emperor at the age of five, with his mother as co-regent with other concubines of the late emperor. The new emperor's mother was now called "Tzu Hsi," translated by one source as "Fortunate Mother" and by another as "kindly and virtuous." Tzu Hsi and the late emperor's actual wife, Tzu An, seized control of the government with military support, and the influential nobles who had opposed them were charged with treason and executed. Li Fei, the late emperor's favorite, mysteriously disappeared (rumor had it that she had been tossed down a well).

The two empresses ruled through the official emperor; Tzu Hsi sat behind a screen in the throne room and told the child what to say. As Tung Chih grew older, he was more interested in drinking and women than government anyway. He married at sixteen, and soon both his wife and a concubine were pregnant. He died during a case of smallpox (or venereal disease according to some sources) before either baby was born (and poisoning by the palace eunuchs is also considered a distinct possibility, especially given that the women pregnant with his children died shortly thereafter of an overdose of opium and falling down a well). Tzu An also died (possibly from poisoning). Tzu Hsi selected her own three-year-old nephew, Kuang Hsu, to become the new emperor, even though he was not in the line of succession, and ruled through him as she had her own son. As he grew, she spread rumors that he was incompetent, and she cultivated an image of herself as royal, particularly through raising the Pekingese dogs called "Lion Dogs" and thought to be companions of Buddha. In fact, she encouraged her own nickname "Old Buddha."

When Kuang Hsu turned seventeen, Tzu Hsi officially retired from government and let her newphew rule -- for a while. This emperor had tried to learn as much as possible about the West and when he gained his own power, implemented various reforms that were meant to modernize and westernize China. Among these were abolishment of hereditary officer status in the military, converting some temples to schools, and reducing the power of the nobility. Not surprisingly, this turned the powerful military, priesthood, and aristocracy against him. This movement increased after China lost the Sino-Japanese War in 1895. The anti-modernization forces went to Tzu Hsi, who at first was reluctant to move because she knew the emperor would have a lot of support in the country merely because he was the emperor and she was a woman. However, she read the birth of a single female puppy to one of her favorite dogs as an omen that a female would stand alone, especially since the number one also signified "guaranteed" or "assured." Before Kuang Hsu could go through with his plans for stripping her of power, she arranged to have his guards replaced with men loyal to her, so that she and more of her supporters could storm directly into his quarters. The emperor was terrified at their entrance that he is supposed to have thrown himself to the floor and said "I am unworthy to rule."

Tzu Hsi imprisoned Kuang Hsu on an island in an artificial lake in the middle of the Forbidden City and took over government, thus ending the "Hundred Days of Reform." However, the outside world would not let China alone. The general Tung Fu-Hsiang recruited people who were unhappy with increased foreign presence in China for his Society of Righteous and Harmonious Fists, better known as the Boxers. Tzu Hsi agreed with the ideas of the Boxers, but was not originally sure that an army of peasants could overcome whatever strength the outside forces could bring to the fight. However, another dog birth of puppies with lucky colors was seen as a good omen, and she gave imperial support to the Boxer cause.

At first, it seemed possible that the Boxer Rebellion against the foreigners would work; many non-Chinese, as well as Chinese people who had converted to Christianity, were killed in 1900 by the Boxers. However, the U.S., Great Britain, France, Germany, Russia, and Japan all sent forces to Peking to protect their people. Tzu Hsi apparently considered foreigners controlling Peking/Beijing to be a threat to her reign, so imperial military fought back. When the outside forces did take over the city, Tzu Hsi and Kuang Hsu fled north to another city. China was forced to accept foreign terms for settling the situation.

In 1901 when she returned to the Forbidden City, Tzu Hsi blamed her former advisors for getting her into the situation of the rebellion and treaty; many were exiles or executed. She tried a different tactic and decided to go ahead with modernizations similar to those her nephew had tried to institute years before. However, her power was diminished and her health was declining. She had a stroke in 1908 and died of dysentery shortly thereafter. Kuang Hsu died the day before despite good health and being only thirty-seven; it is commonly assumed he was poisoned at her order. Shortly before dying, Tzu Hsi named a new successor, her three-year-old nephew Pu Yi (son of Kuang Hsi's brother).

Her funeral was the type traditionally given to the imperial family -- a procession of red-robed pallbearers, yellow-robed priests, and white-robed nobles. Her favorite dog, Moo-Tan, was carried by the chief eunuch (and tradition says it died of grief not long afterward). However, in 1928 her tomb was dynamited open and looted by revolutionaries. Her reputation remains mixed; some consider her only a ruthless "dragon lady" who brought on the dynasty's collapse and others feel her strength kept China relatively independent much longer than it would have been otherwise.

Coren, Stanley. The Pawprints of History: Dogs and the Course of Human Events. New York: The Free Press, 2000.

Lady Yehenara, from the Manchu tribe, was said to be very beautiful and charming. It was these characteristics that would cause her to lose the love of her life and gain one the highest political positions in China. Lady Yehenara, later known as Tzu Hsi was to become the last dowager empress of China.

When she was sixteen, Yehenara was said to be strikingly pretty. She had long jet black hair, slender in form, brilliant black eyes, delicate hands and a “showstopping” smile, which people would remark on even into her seventies. As a teenager some historians have said that Yehenara had fallen in love with a garrison, Jung Lu, who she had planned to marry. However marriage to that young boy was out of the question. Yehenara had been nominated by her Manchu tribe and submitted in the selection of the new Emperor Hsien Feng’s wives and concubines. To become a concubine Yehenara had to pass several examinations. In the verbal test Yehenara passed without any difficulties, however, the next examination was the physical and one requirement was that she be a virgin. It is written that on the day of her exam Yehenara wore a pair of expensive jade bracelets and when the midwife came in to begin, Yehenara went into a theatrical tantrum. By creating this diversion she was able to slip the bracelets into the awaiting hands of the midwife. Yehenara had bribed her way into the imperial household and was taken to live in the Forbidden City.

Upon arriving at the palace Yehenara noticed that the Hsien Feng spent a lot of time at brothels instead of with his concubines. This posed a problem for Yehenara who wanted power which could only given by emperor, himself. Yehenara need to find a way to attract his attention. One night, she went to the Emperor’s chamber and waited; with her sexual appeal she was able to capture Hsien Feng’s interest. For days he spent every waking moment with her. This eventually led to her becoming pregnant. Even though he had initially found Yehenara very appealing, during the months of her pregnancy he was not allowed to engage in sexual intercourse with her. He soon lost interest and toke up with another concubine, Li Fei, who mysteriously disappears when Yehenara takes the throne. Yehenara was, out of all the wives and concubines, the only one to give birth to son. It was by giving birth to this son that Yehenara finally acquired some of the power she was seeking. (She was raised from a level three concubine to a level one concubine in the imperial household.)

In the year 1861 at the age of thirty Hsien Feng died. His death made way for Yehenara’s son, Tongzhi, at the age of five to take the throne. However, because of his young age Tzu An, the old Emperor’s first wife, and his mother, who was now to be called Tzu Hsi, were to act as advisors. Together the two wives wanted to rule as regents until Tongzhi came of age, but because he technically was the only one who could make decisions they had to work through him. Tzu Hsi’s greedy and power hungry attitude began to show and she quickly became the ringleader of the two. During meetings she ordered that there be a bamboo screen in the room where she could listen to the conversation and be able to tell her son what to say in return. Tzu Hsi reigned over China in this fashion until Tongzhi reached the age of fifteen and married a daughter of a Manchu Nobleman. His marriage was very scary for Tzu Hsi. She feared that his new wife would undermine her and that she would lose her control over the empire. Tzu Hsi influenced her son to spend all of his time with concubines. By doing this Tzu Hsi would still be in a position to rule in her son’s name. (Tongzhi eventually contracted smallpox and while getting over the illness he died suddenly of what was most likely a venereal disease.

After Tongzhi’s death a new Emperor had to be chosen. He had left no children to inherit his throne and Tzu Hsi was still determined to stay an authoritative figure. So the next Emperor to be was her 3-year-old nephew, Tung Chih. Unfortunately, shortly after his ascendence to the throne his mother died and in 1881 so did Tzu Hsi’s co-regent, Tzu An, as well as the other Empress Dowager. This new Emperor was sickly and Tzu Hsi was once again able to rule through a young impressionable boy. Tung Chih ruled until he became so terrified of Tzu Hsi that he handed the throne over to her. Tzu Hsi had him put away in a section of the palace where he only saw his wife, who was one of her spies, and four select guards. Tzu Hsi wiped out all of the decrees that he had made and began to rule with an iron fist.

The next event in Tzu Hsi life was the Boxer Rebellion. It was started by a society called the "Righteous and Harmonious Fists." The Rebellion was first organized in 1898, and was supported by a few of Tzu Hsi's advisers. The Boxers were people, generally poor, who blamed foreigners for their problems. Many people, including Tzu Hsi, saw these foreigners as a threat to the Chinese way of life and as devils that were not totally human. Tzu Hsi hated them and ordered the Chinese to attack a compound in Peking where many foreign devils lived. A stand-off between the two forces lasted for eight weeks.

The allied foreigners sent in 19,000 more troops and captured Peking on August 14. The Peking compound was looted, many Chinese people were tortured, raped and/or killed. According to some accounts, Tzu Hsi then decided to flee the Forbidden City with the emperor. She announced to the concubines that she was leaving and that they were to be left behind. One concubine had the gall to tell Tzu Hsi that either she was going along with the emperor or that the emperor was to stay with her. This minor problem was dealt with quickly. Tzu Hsi simply had her thrown down the palace well. The dowager empress and her party fled north to the city of Sian.

When The Boxer Rebellion was over, China was forced to accept a settlement called the Peace of Peking. The settlement imposed heavy fines on China and amended trade treaties in favor of foreigners along with allowing foreign troops to be stationed in Peking. The Peace of Peking increased the Chinese people's anger at Tzu Hsi and the Manchu rulers.

In 1901 the empress returned to the Forbidden City but because of The Boxer Rebellion's failure she had to change her policies to favor the westernization of China. Years later the dowager empress had a stroke and took ill with dysentery. When she realized that she was dying she choose a new emperor, P’u Yi. On November 15, 1908, the dowager died, at the age of 73. This concubine that had, with great skill and manipulation, reigned of china for so many years was buried in splendor, covered in gems.

Dragon Lady: The Life and Legend of the Last Empress of China by Sterling Seagrave and Peggy Seagrave.

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