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 noble
s 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.