The Dowager Empress of China introduced her country to technological, political and social change while maintaining a respect for Chinese tradition. Dowager Empress Cixi was probably born in 1835. She was the oldest of five children that included another daughter and three sons. Her family were Manchus. In 1644 the Manchus from northern China had overrun the country and replaced the Ming dynasty of the Han people with the Qing dynasty still in power. Her father and grandfather were civil servants responsible for their father's role in government. When the treasury showed a deficit her family had to provide compensation.
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This obligation to the state influenced her childhood. Her family had to take in work until the debt was repaid. After it was satisfied her father was appointed governor of a province in Mongolia. She had no formal schooling but was introduced to classical arts and literature at home. in 1852 after a trip to Beijing she became a concubine of Emperor Xianfeng. it was customary at that time for daughters to be taken to the Forbidden City to be inspected by the Emperor and his staff. If chosen the women would live in the women's quarters of the Forbidden City and be scheduled to have sex with the Emperor. Cixi's son was the first born son of the Emperor who already had a daughter with Empress Zhen. The birth of the son led to a change in status ind name so that she was now "Yi".
Emperor Xianfeng died in 1861 when Cixi's son was five years old. As the mother of the Emperor Cixi sought a promotion and was able to work out an arrangement with the Empress Zhen so that both women were Dowager Empresses. Consort Yi became Cixi, "kindly and joyous" when her son became Emperor Tongzhi. There followed a period of palace conflict with the Regents appointed with Xianfeng's death. Zhen and Cixi were able to vanquish the Regents and install themselves as the guardians of the Emperor. The Empresses were not allowed to meet with delegates in person and conducted the business of the Empire behind a yellow screen that separated them from the Emperor who played on his throne. At night they slept in the women's quarters.
These years were a tumultuous period in China. European trading groups sought entrance to promote their wares and sell Chinese products to the Europeans. The Anglo-French wars against China (1856-60) began a hundred years previously. Ultimately China agreed to allow Europeans to import opium from India into China and maintain trading areas in Chinese cities. Aware that China needed to be introduced to technological innovations such as the telephone, telegraph and railroad Cixi worked out relationships with British delegates while securing the territorial integrity of China. She sent representatives on world tours who provided information on the changes that had taken place in previous centuries while the court lived in the Forbidden City.
Although Cixi made worked with Western-leaning officials in the Court, her son supported more conservative members. When he died in 1875 arranged to have a nephew succeed him. The new Emperor Guangxu was five years old at the time of his succession. His father was ambivalent about the succession since he would have the prestige of being the Emperor's father but would be more isolated from the Court where he had had considerable influence. The same pattern of court conflicts, innovations and reactions continued. However, the European and Japanese became more aggressive. After an assassination attempt Cixi left Beijing with her nephew the Emperor whom she suspected of complicity in the attempt. While in Xian she agreed to protocols that let Europeans enter Chinese society as an outcome of the Boxer rebellion. When she returned to Beijing in 1902 she introduced reforms of the educational and legal systems. Women were no longer subject to foot-binding and segregation of the sexes was decreased. Han and Manchu people were allowed to intermarry. Cixi still entered the Forbidden City by the back door but was able to meet with foreign women informally and have her picture taken. She proposed a constitution which would have set up a constitutional monarchy based on European models.
Emperor Guangxu was kept under house arrest until 1908 when he was poisoned. His successor was Cixi's two year old nephew, the Emperor Puyi. His mother became the Empress Longyu. She signed an abdication document in 1912 thus ending the reign of the Qing emperors. Cixi had died in 1908. Her tomb was raided by Chinese nationalists in 1927. Emperor Puyi's protests to Chiang Kai-shek about the desecration were ignored. He made an alliance with the Japanese who invaded China in the 1930's.
Best part of story, including ending:
I found the story to be very interesting especially in its account of details of court functions. Sometimes the details seemed unnecessary.
Best scene in story:
The most interesting parts were the descriptions of the court after 1861 in part because of the details of practices unknown to the West. Examples included bowing with head touching the floor, sexual segregation and the presence of eunuchs.
Opinion about the main character:
Empress Cixi was a remarkable figure. Her retention of extreme retaliatory practices was not surprising but still detracted from her legacy. More than anyone else she deserves to be lauded for her role in modernizing China.