Another significant challenge Cixi faced was the increasingly decrepit state of the Manchu elites. Since the beginning of Qing rule over China in 1644, most major positions at court had been held by Manchus. Cixi, again in a Reversal of imperial tradition, entrusted the country's most powerful military unit against the Taiping rebels into the hands of a Han Chinese, Zeng Guofan. Additionally, in the next three years, Cixi appointed Han Chinese officials as governors in all southern Chinese provinces, raising alarm bells in the court, traditionally protective of Manchu dominance.
Cixi was born in the winter of 1835. Cixi was the daughter of Huizheng, an ordinary official from the Manchu Yehenara clan. Palace archives also show that Huizheng was a member of Bordered Blue Banner of the Eight Banners and was working in Beijing during the year of Cixi's birth, an indication that she was born in Beijing. The file records the location of Cixi's childhood home: Firewood Alley of West Sipailou, Beijing (西四牌樓劈柴胡同).
In 1851, Cixi participated in the selection for consorts to the Xianfeng Emperor alongside 60 other candidates. Cixi was one of the few candidates chosen to stay. Placed in the sixth rank of consorts, she was styled "Noble Lady Lan" (蘭貴人). Among the other chosen candidates were Noble Lady Li of the Tatala clan (later Consort Li), Concubine Yun of the Wugiya clan, and Concubine Zhen of the Niohuru clan (later the Xianfeng Emperor's Empress consort).
After her sexual union with the Xianfeng Emperor, she was promoted to the rank of guìrén (貴人; "Noble Lady"; a sixth-grade consort) and given the name Lan (蘭). She was thus known as "Noble Lady Lan" (蘭貴人). At the end of December 1854 or the beginning of January 1855, she was promoted to pín (嬪; "Imperial Concubine"; a fifth-grade consort), hence she was known as "Imperial Concubine Yi" (懿嬪).
On 27 April 1856, Lady Yehenara gave birth to a son, the only son of the Xianfeng Emperor, and was immediately promoted to feī (妃; "Consort"; a fourth-grade consort). In February 1857, she was further elevated to the status of guìfeī (貴妃; "Noble Consort"; a third-grade consort), hence she was referred to as "Noble Consort Yi" (懿貴妃)
Cixi stated that "I have always been of the opinion, that the allied armies had been permitted to escape too easily in 1860. Only a united effort was then necessary to have given China the victory. Today, at last, the opportunity for revenge has come", and said that millions of Chinese would join the cause of fighting the foreigners since the Manchus had provided "great benefits" to China.
On seven occasions after 1861, Cixi was given additional honorific names (two Chinese characters at a time), as was customary for emperors and empresses, until by the end of her reign her name was a long string of 16 characters starting with Cixi. As Empress dowager, she had the right to nine additions, giving a total of 20 characters, had she lived long enough for it. At the end of her life, her official name was:
Under the command of Zeng Guofan, the victorious Xiang Army defeated the Taiping rebel army in a hard-fought battle at Tian Jing (present-day Nanjing) in July 1864. Zeng was rewarded with the title of "Marquess Yiyong, First Class", while his brother Zeng Guoquan, along with Li Hongzhang, Zuo Zongtang and other Han Chinese officers who fought against the Taiping rebels, were rewarded with auspicious decorations and titles. With the Taiping rebel threat receding, Cixi focused her attention on new internal threats to her power. Of special concern was the position of Prince Gong, who was Prince-Regent in the imperial court. Prince Gong gathered under his command the support of all outstanding Han Chinese armies. In addition, Prince Gong controlled daily court affairs as the head of the Grand Council and the Zongli Yamen (the de facto foreign affairs ministry). With his increasing stature, Prince Gong was considered a threat to Cixi and her power.
Although Prince Gong was rewarded for his conduct and recommendation of Zeng Guofan before the Taiping rebels' defeat, Cixi was quick to move after Cai Shouqi, a minor scribe-official, filed a memorial accusing Prince Gong of corruption and showing disrespect to the Emperor. Having built up a powerful base and a network of allies at court, Prince Gong considered the accusations insignificant. Cixi, however, took the memorial as a stepping stone to Prince Gong's removal. In April 1865, under the pretext that Prince Gong had "improper court conduct before the two empresses," among a series of other charges, the Prince was dismissed from all his offices and appointments, but was allowed to retain his status as a noble. The dismissal surprised the nobility and court officials and brought about numerous petitions for his return. Prince Gong's brothers, Prince Dun and Prince Chun, both sought their brother's reinstatement. Prince Gong himself, in an audience with the two empresses, burst into tears. Bowing to popular pressure, Cixi allowed Prince Gong to return to his position as the head of the Zongli Yamen, but rid him of his title of Prince-Regent. Prince Gong would never return to political prominence again, and neither would the liberal and pro-reform policies of his time. Prince Gong's demotion revealed Cixi's iron grip on politics, and her lack of willingness to give up absolute power to anyone – not even Prince Gong, her most important ally in the Xinyou Coup.
In 1872, the Tongzhi Emperor turned 17. Under the guidance of the Empress Dowager Ci'an, he was married to the Jiashun Empress. The empress's grandfather, Prince Zheng, was one of the eight regents ousted from power in the Xinyou Coup of 1861. He had been Cixi's rival during the coup and was ordered to commit suicide after Cixi's victory. As a consequence, there were tensions between Cixi and the Empress, and this was often a source of irritation for Cixi. Moreover, the empress's zodiac symbol of tiger was perceived as life-threatening by the superstitious Cixi, whose own zodiac symbol was a goat. According to Cixi's belief, it was a warning from the gods that she would eventually fall prey to the Empress.
The Tongzhi Emperor made two important policy decisions during his short stint of rule, which lasted from 1873 to 1875. First, he decreed that the Summer Palace, destroyed by the English and French in the Second Opium War, would be completely rebuilt under the pretext that it was a gift to Cixi and Ci'an. Historians also suggest that it was an attempt to drive Cixi from the Forbidden City so that he could rule without interference in policy or his private affairs.
Uneasy about the Tongzhi Emperor's neglect of national affairs, the emperor's uncles Prince Gong and Prince Chun, along with other senior court officials, submitted a joint memorandum asking the Emperor to cease the construction of the Summer Palace, among other recommendations. The Tongzhi Emperor, unwilling to submit to criticism, issued an imperial edict in August 1874 to strip Prince Gong off his princely title and demote him to the status of a commoner. Two days later, Prince Dun, Prince Chun, Prince Fu, Jingshou, Prince Qing, Wenxiang, Baojun, and Grand Councillors Shen Guifen and Li Hongzao were all to be stripped of their respective titles and jobs.
The Tongzhi Emperor died without a male heir, a circumstance that created an unprecedented succession crisis in the dynastic line. Members of the generation above were considered unfit, as they could not, by definition, be the successor of their nephew. Therefore, the new Emperor had to be from a generation below or the same generation as the Tongzhi Emperor. After considerable disagreement between the two Empresses Dowager, Zaitian, the four-year-old firstborn son of Prince Chun and Cixi's sister, was to become the new Emperor. 1875 was declared the first year of the Guangxu era; Guangxu was the new emperor's regnal name and it means "glorious succession". Zaitian was taken from home and for the remainder of his life would be cut completely off from his family. While addressing Ci'an conventionally as huang e'niang ("Empress Mother"), Zaitian was forced to address Cixi as qin baba ("Dear Father"), in order to enforce an image that she was the fatherly figure in the household. The Guangxu Emperor began his education when he was aged five, taught by the imperial tutor Weng Tonghe, with whom he would develop a lasting bond.
China's "learn from foreigners" programme quickly met with impediments. The Chinese military institutions were in desperate need of reform. Cixi's solution, under the advice of officials at court, was to purchase seven British warships. When the warships arrived in China, however, they were staffed with British sailors, all under British command. The Chinese were enraged at this "international joke", negotiations broke down between the two parties, and China returned the warships to Britain, where they were to be auctioned off. Scholars sometimes attribute the failure of China's foreign programmes to Cixi's conservative attitude and old methods of thinking, and contend that Cixi would learn only so much from the foreigners, provided it did not infringe upon her own power. Under the pretext that a railway was too loud and would "disturb the emperors' tombs", Cixi forbade its construction. When construction went ahead anyway in 1877 on Li Hongzhang's recommendation, Cixi asked that they be pulled by horse-drawn carts. Cixi was especially alarmed at the liberal thinking of people who had studied abroad, and saw that it posed a new threat to her power. In 1881, Cixi put a halt to the policy of sending children abroad to study and withdrew her formerly open attitude towards foreigners.
In the years between 1881 and 1883, Cixi resorted to written communication only with her ministers. The young Guangxu Emperor reportedly was forced to conduct some audiences alone, without Cixi to assist him.
The once fierce and determined Prince Gong, frustrated by Cixi's iron grip on power, did little to question Cixi on state affairs, and supported Manchu involvement in the Sino-French War of 1884-1885. Cixi used China's loss in the war as a pretext for getting rid of Prince Gong and other important decision-makers in the Grand Council in 1885. She downgraded Prince Gong to "advisor" and promoted the more easily influenced Prince Chun. After being appointed President of the Navy, Prince Chun, in a sign of unswerving loyalty to Cixi, but in reality a move to protect his son, the new Emperor, moved funds from the military to reconstruct the Summer Palace for Cixi's retirement. Prince Chun did not want Cixi to interfere with the Guangxu Emperor's affairs once he came of age. Cixi showed no opposition to the construction of the Summer Palace.
The Guangxu Emperor slowly began to take on more responsibilities in spite of Cixi's prolonged regency. In 1886, he attended his first field plowing ceremony and began commenting on imperial state documents. By 1887, he began to rule under Cixi's supervision.
The Guangxu Emperor technically gained the right to rule at the age of 16 in 1887 after Cixi issued an edict to arrange a ceremony to mark his accession. Because of her prestige and power, however, court officials voiced their opposition to the Guangxu Emperor's personal rule, citing the emperor's youth as the main reason. Prince Chun and Weng Tonghe, each with a different motive, requested that the Guangxu Emperor's accession be postponed until a later date. Cixi, with her reputed reluctance, accepted the "advice" and legitimised her continued rule through a new legal document that allowed her to "aid" the Guangxu Emperor in his rule indefinitely.
On March 5, 1889, Cixi retired from her second regency, but nonetheless served as the effective head of the imperial family. Many officials felt and showed more loyalty to the Empress dowager than they did to the Emperor, owing in part to her seniority and in part to her personalised approach to cultivating court favourites, many of whom would be given gifts of her artwork and invitations to join her at the theater for opera and acrobatics.
After coming to the throne, the Guangxu Emperor became more reform-minded. After a humiliating defeat in the First Sino-Japanese War of 1894, during which the Chinese Beiyang Fleet was virtually destroyed by the Imperial Japanese Navy, the Qing government faced unprecedented challenges internally and abroad, with its very existence at stake. Under the influence of reformist-officials Kang Youwei and Liang Qichao, the Guangxu Emperor believed that by learning from constitutional monarchies such as Japan and Germany, China would become politically and economically powerful. In June 1898, the Guangxu Emperor launched the Hundred Days' Reform aimed at sweeping political, legal and social changes and issued edicts for far-reaching modernising reforms.
Empress Dowager Cixi, unsatisfied with her tomb, ordered its destruction and reconstruction in 1895. The new tomb was a lavish grandiose complex of temples, gates, and pavilions, covered with gold leaf, and with gold and gilded-bronze ornaments hanging from the beams and the eaves. In July 1928, Cixi's tomb was plundered by the warlord Sun Dianying and his army as part of the looting of the Eastern Mausoleum. They methodically stripped the complex of its precious ornaments, then dynamited the entrance to the burial chamber, opened Cixi's coffin, threw her corpse (said to have been found intact) on the ground, and stole all the jewels contained in the coffin, as well as the massive pearl that had been placed in the Empress dowager's mouth to protect her corpse from decomposing (in accordance with Chinese tradition). Urban legend states that the large pearl on Cixi's crown was offered by Sun Dianying to Chiang Kai-shek and ended up as an ornament on the gala shoes of Chiang's wife, Soong Mei-ling, but this is unconfirmed.
According to research by Professor Lei Chia-sheng (雷家聖), during the Hundred Days' Reform, former Japanese Prime Minister Itō Hirobumi arrived in China on 11 September 1898. Almost at the same time, British missionary Timothy Richard was invited to Beijing by the reformist Kang Youwei. Richard suggested that China should hand over some political power to Itō in order to help push the reforms further. On 18 September, Richard convinced Kang to adopt a plan by which China would join a federation composed of China, Japan, the United States, and England. This suggestion did not reflect the policies of the countries concerned. It was Richard's (and perhaps Itō's) trick to convince China to hand over national rights. Kang nonetheless asked fellow reformers Yang Shenxiu (楊深秀) and Song Bolu (宋伯魯) to report this plan to the Guangxu Emperor. On 20 September, Yang sent a memorial to this effect to the Emperor. In another memorial written the next day, Song Bolu also advocated the formation of a federation and the sharing of the diplomatic, fiscal, and military powers of the four countries under a hundred-man committee.
In 1900, the Boxer Rebellion broke out in northern China. Perhaps fearing further foreign intervention, Cixi threw her support to these anti-foreign bands by making an official announcement of her support for the movement and a formal declaration of war on the Western powers. The general Ronglu deliberately sabotaged the performance of the imperial army during the rebellion. Dong Fuxiang's Muslim troops (the "Kansu Braves") were able and eager to destroy the foreign military forces in the legations, but Ronglu stopped them from doing so. The Manchu Prince Zaiyi was xenophobic and friendly with Dong Fuxiang. Zaiyi wanted artillery for Dong's troops to destroy the legations. Ronglu blocked the transfer of artillery to Zaiyi and Dong, preventing them from destroying the legations. When artillery was finally supplied to the imperial army and Boxers, it was only done so in limited amounts; Ronglu deliberately held back the rest of them. The Chinese forces defeated the small 2,000 person Western relief force at the Battle of Langfang, but lost several decisive battles, including the Battle of Beicang, and the entire imperial court was forced to retreat as the forces of the Eight-Nation Alliance invaded Beijing. Due to the fact that moderates at the Qing imperial court tried to appease the foreigners by moving the Muslim Kansu Braves out of their way, the allied army was able to march into Beijing and seize the capital.
In January 1902, Cixi, the Guangxu Emperor, the Empress and the rest of the court made a ceremonious return to Beijing. At the railhead at Chengtingfu, Cixi and the court boarded a 21-car train to convey them the rest of the way to the capital. In Beijing, many of the legation women turned out to watch the procession from the Beijing Railway Station to the Forbidden City, and for the first time, commoners were permitted to watch as well.
This was perhaps because Cixi took the initiative and invited several women to spend time with her in the Forbidden City. Katharine Carl, an American Painter, was called to China in 1903 to paint Cixi's portrait for the St. Louis Exposition. In her With the Empress Dowager. Carl portrays Cixi as a kind and considerate woman for her station. Cixi, though shrewd, had great presence, charm, and graceful movements resulting in "an unusually attractive personality". Carl wrote of the Empress dowager's love of dogs and of flowers, as well as boating, Chinese opera and her Chinese water pipes and European cigarettes. Cixi also commissioned the well-known portraitist, Hubert Vos to produce a series of oil portraits.
Once back in the palace, Cixi implemented sweeping political reforms. High officials were dispatched to Japan and Europe to gather facts and draw up plans for sweeping administrative reforms in law, education, government structure, and social policy, many of which were modeled on the reforms of the Meiji Restoration. The abolition of the examination system in 1905 was only the most visible of these sweeping reforms. Ironically, Cixi sponsored the implementation of the New Policies, a reform program more radical than the one proposed by the reformers she had beheaded in 1898.
At her death in 1908, Empress Dowager Cixi was given a posthumous name, which combines the honorific names that she gained during her lifetime with new names added just after her death. This is the name that is usually used on official documents to refer to an Empress. This long form of the posthumous name is:
The publication of China Under The Empress Dowager (1910) by J. O. P. Bland and Edmund Backhouse did much to spoil Cixi's reputation with its back-door gossip, much of which came from palace eunuchs. Their portrait included contradictory elements, writes one recent study, "on the one hand... imperious, manipulative, and lascivious" and on the other "ingenuous, politically shrewd, and conscientious..." Backhouse and Bland told their readers that "to summarize her essence simply, she a woman and an Oriental". Backhouse was later found to have forged some of the source materials used in this work. The vivid writing and lascivious details of their account provided material for many of the books over the following decades, including Chinese fiction and histories that drew on a 1914 translation.
In the People's Republic after 1949, the image of the Manchu Empress was debated and changed several times. She was sometimes praised for her anti-imperialist role in the Boxer Uprising and sometimes she was reviled as a member of the "feudalist regime". When Mao Zedong's wife, Jiang Qing was arrested in 1976 for abuse of power, an exhibit at the Palace Museum put Cixi's luxurious goods on display to show that a female ruler weakened the nation.
In recent decades, says Pamela Kyle Crossley, an Historian of the dynasty, historians in the West developed what had become "truisms" in the representation of Cixi: "that she has been obscured by misogyny and orientalist stereotyping, as well as the anti-Manchu sentiment running through Chinese nationalist narratives". Crossley felt that Cixi appealed to feminists as a powerful leader and to Chinese patriots as a defender of China. In the 1960s and 1970s, Cixi was one of "a small collection of 'powerful' women newly discovered" and now "she appears in the vanguard of stubborn Chinese opposition to foreign arrogance and encroachment".
By the mid-1970s, views among scholars began to change. Sue Fawn Chung's doctoral dissertation at University of California, Berkeley was the first study in English to use court documents rather than popular histories and hearsay. Her influential 1979 article titled "The Much Maligned Empress Dowager" opened with the sentence "Clio, the Muse of History, has not been kind" to Cixi. Traditional historians in China, Chung continued, "always have been prejudiced against feminine influence in court", and historians have long taken the word of Kang Youwei, Liang Qichao, and other Chinese, who opposed the Empress Dowager. Luke Kwong, in his analysis of the Hundred Days' Reform, argued that many of the allegations of Empress Dowager Cixi being power-hungry and immoral could not be verified. He portrays her as a relatively insecure woman, concerned about her legitimacy and haunted by her relatively humble origins in the palace.
On 4 November 2008, forensic tests concluded that the Guangxu Emperor died from acute arsenic poisoning. China Daily quoted a Historian, Dai Yi, who speculated that Cixi may have known of her imminent death and may have worried that the Guangxu Emperor would continue his reforms after her death. CNN reported in November 2008 that the level of arsenic in his remains was 2,000 times higher than that of ordinary people.
In 2013, Jung Chang's biography, Empress Dowager Cixi: The Concubine Who Launched Modern China, portrays Cixi as the most capable ruler and administrator that China could have had at the time. Pamela Kyle Crossley said in the London Review of Books that Chang's claims "seem to be minted from her own musings, and have little to do with what we know was actually going in China". Although Crossley was sympathetic to restoring women's place in Chinese history, she found "rewriting Cixi as Catherine the Great or Margaret Thatcher is a poor bargain: the gain of an illusory icon at the expense of historical sense".
For many years, the mainstream view of Empress Dowager Cixi was that she was a devious despot who contributed in no small part to China's slide into corruption, anarchy, and revolution. Cixi used her power to accumulate vast quantities of money, bullion, antiques and jewelry, using the revenues of the state as her own. The long-time China Journalist Jasper Becker recalled that "every visitor to the Summer Palace is shown the beautiful lakeside pavilion in the shape of an elegant marble pleasure boat and told how Cixi spent funds destined for the imperial navy on such extravagant fripperies—which ultimately led to Japan's victory over China in 1895 and the loss of Taiwan".
Still according to Lei's findings, on 13 October, British ambassador Claude MacDonald reported to his government about the Chinese situation, saying that Chinese reforms had been damaged by Kang Youwei and his friends’ actions. British diplomat Frederick Bourne claimed in his own report that Kang was a dreamer who had been seduced by Timothy Richard's sweet words. Bourne thought Richard was a plotter. The British and U.S. governments were unaware of the "federation" plot, which seems to have been Richard's personal idea. Because Richard's partner Itō Hirobumi had been Prime Minister of Japan, the Japanese government might have known about Richard's plan, but there is no evidence to this effect.