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.