Monday, December 2, 2013

A Woman of Corruption and Decadence – Empress Dowager Cixi

To rise from concubine to empress is no easy feat, but Yehonala (later known as Cixi), the unloved daughter of a commonplace government official managed to do so. Corrupt, greedy, ambitious, and murderous, Cixi clawed her way to the top with an ambition so ruthless; she drove the Qing Dynasty into powerless ruin.

Cixi photograph

She was born in 1835; the eldest daughter of Manchu parents, but by her own words, the least loved of all her siblings. Ignored, mistreated, her mother nominated her as a possible candidate for concubine to Emperor Xianfeng when she was only fourteen. Eager to escape her unhappy family life, with a fiery passion, she set out to be noticed from among the hundreds of women in competition against her. And noticed she was, for she was one of the chosen ones. Armed with competence, and sheer determination, she shrewdly became one of the elite royal concubines, leaving many others in her wake.

She was the only woman among Emperor Xianfeng’s multitude of wives and concubines who bore him a son. This catapulted her into the dubious position of number one concubine and consort. With that came the title of Empress of the Western Palace. As the emperor’s confidante, she filled his ears with advice on the government’s political affairs.

Cixi's Palace where she gave birth to her son

Her sense of security soon disappeared when the emperor died at the tender age of 30. Because the emperor’s wife bore him only a daughter, Cixi’s five-year-old son, the only heir to the throne, became emperor. In the male dominated world of the Qing Dynasty, she was pushed to the background, as high-ranking men became the boy’s advisors. Fired up with her voracious appetite for greed, she seized the throne.

Cixi and the palace eunuchs

The years were not easy ones. Internal rebellions and an ever-increasing number of outsiders from western nations were becoming an ever-growing threat. While her advisors strongly recommended fortifying China with modern inventions like guns, trains, and telegraphs, Cixi refused, convinced that preserving the tried and true old traditional methods were the only way to succeed.

Cixi painting

Despite all the political headaches arising from ruling one of the oldest and largest dynasties in the world, Cixi made it a priority to take care of herself first. There was no limit to her spending. She amassed in excess of 3000 caskets filled with an endless array of priceless gems and jewels. She misspent funds on magnificent palaces, ornate tableware including solid gold chopsticks, and lush banquets with hundreds of different dishes served at a single sitting. Dressed in silk and furs, she commanded a virtual army of servants and eunuchs. Instead of building up her navy, she squandered the money on herself. Corruption became a way of life in the Forbidden City.

To reach out to westerners in her country, Cixi prepared a lavish banquet for the ladies, lavishing the with an amazing banquet and gifting them with expensive riches  

Ten years passed. Her son was now 15 years old, constantly liquored up and cavorting with prostitutes. So, she married him off to Elute (Xiao Chee), the daughter of a Manchu nobleman. Much to her chagrin, her son loved Elute and was heavily influenced by her. Seeing her daughter-in-law as a threat to her authority, she tried to distract her son with concubines carefully chosen by her. Not only did he catch small pox, but also a venereal disease to which he ultimately succumbed. Alute, devastated by her husband’s death, committed suicide with an overdose of opium. But palace rumors suggested Cixi was behind the suicide, but of course, this was never proven.
Now Cixi found herself without a puppet, or should we say heir, to manipulate. Determined to hang on to her power, she plucked her 3-year-old nephew, Guangxu, from obscurity to be the next emperor. It didn’t matter to her that he was not in direct line of succession to the throne. All she needed was an innocent on the throne, someone she could easily manipulate and control.


Poor Guangxu. He was a frail child, always sickly and terrified of Cixi. Despite his ailments and weaknesses, when soon came of age. She married him off to a woman named Zhenfei. At first, Cixi liked Zhenfei, but soon came to hate her because of the emperor's growing love for the girl and her influence over him.


At the tender age of 17, Cixi had no choice but to hand over power to Guangxu. But did she? Not really. She packed herself off to one of her favourite palaces, and from there set out to cause trouble. She spread vicious rumours that the emperor was naïve and inept, ill equipped to rule.
In reality, the young emperor was not like that at all. In fact, he had plenty of leadership skills. Fair-minded, he listened to the people of China, especially those who wanted to modernize. He began to build railroads, updated the military, reformed politics and justice, and initiated many other changes. If anyone stood in his way, he dismissed them.

Jung Lu
Viceroy and Military Commander

Cixi was livid! What did she do? She decided to give him enough rope to hang himself and let him continue making enemies within the Manchu government. Her military commander, and former fiancé, Jung Lu, was the dynasty’s military commander. He revealed that there was a secret plan afoot to depose the emperor. Eager to aid in this endeavor, Cixi replaced the emperor's guards with Jung Lu's men. This paved the way for her triumphant return to the Forbidden City.
When he saw her, the emperor’s worst fears came to fruition. The she-devil herself had returned. He threw himself at her feet begging forgiveness and courageously accepting any punishment she wanted to impose on him. Knowing he was popular with the people, she preserved his life, locking him in a palace in the middle of a lake in the Forbidden City, isolating him from everyone and everything. As for her nemesis Zhenfei, his favourite concubine, she was beaten and demoted and put under house arrest at first. Then Cixi ordered her to commit suicide. When Zhenfei refused, Cixi ordered her to be thrown into a well, where he body was left to rot. His closest servants, those most loyal to him were either executed or banished. She permitted the emperor no visitors except for four guards and his wife. Only when it was necessary to produce a figurehead for important occasions did she allow him out, and then only under strict scrutiny. She forever killed all his plans for modernization.
But that was not all she killed. Her insatiable greed for power and money destroyed the Qing Dynasty. When she learned that Guangxu had found a way to re-instate some of his restructurings, she imprisoned him again and ruled from an empty throne and behind a curtain. Meanwhile she continued building palaces, stripping funds from the Navy to do so. Discontent grew and rebellions continued against her political ignorance and unwillingness to adopt western ways and address the ever-growing number of foreigners in her country. Uprisings multiplied.

Entrance to Cixi's underground tomb

Despite all this, she managed to hang on to power until 1908. She died at the age of 73, leaving behind a devastated country caused by her corruption, greed, lack of good leadership, and murderous ambition.

One of the best novels about Cixi's life is Imperial Woman by Pearl S. Buck:

Pearl S. Buck’s remarkable account of the life of Tzu Hsi, the magnetic and fierce-minded woman from humble origins who became China’s last empress

In Imperial Woman, Pearl S. Buck brings to life the amazing story of Tzu Hsi, who rose from concubine status to become the working head of the Qing Dynasty. Born from a humble background, Tzu Hsi falls in love with her cousin Jung Lu, a handsome guard—but while still a teenager she is selected, along with her sister and hundreds of other girls, for relocation to the Forbidden City. Already set apart on account of her beauty, she’s determined to be the emperor’s favorite, and devotes all of her talent and cunning to the task. When the emperor dies, she finds herself in a role of supreme power, one she’ll command for nearly fifty years. Much has been written about Tzu Hsi, but no other novel recreates her life—the extraordinary personality, together with the world of court intrigue and the period of national turmoil with which she dealt—as well as Imperial Woman.
This ebook features an illustrated biography of Pearl S. Buck including rare images from the author’s estate.

Feared and hated, Tzu Hsi (Cixi) was the last Empress of China, a decadent woman known for her insatiable desire for power, greed, and murderous shrewdness. Imperial Woman is a detailed, fictionalized accounting of her life. Written with great historical detail and abounding emotion, this epic novel brings to life not only the world of the Qing dynasty, but the hardships and intrigues of the Chinese royal court within the Forbidden City. Beautifully written with a compelling voice, it is a vivid portrayal of this much-maligned woman.

If you’ve never read one of Pearl S Buck’s novels, then you are in for a rare, exotic treat, a journey like you’ve never before taken. It is no wonder that she is one of the world’s most beloved authors, her books classics. This is definitely a must read book, one that will linger in your memory for years to come, and one that will teach you about a period in history well worth learning about. 


Elizabeth said...

THANK YOU for this amazing post.

I love historical fiction.

Very nice blog as well. I am an e-mail subscriber, but now became a GFC follower.

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Silver's Reviews
My Mailbox Monday

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Jaie said...

You might want to read the book by Jung Chang, it uses documents only available in China.

kmbrly zhng said...

It confuses me a bit. I already read Anchee Min's Empress Orchid and The Last Empress. What I read there was the total opposite of her. She was powerful that suffered harsh judgements and wrong accusations and on the Late Emperor Guangxu she supported him on any decisions he made and the people who Guangxu trusted most attempt to assassinate the Empress. The author's note say that she read and translates everything what is written on the Empress Dowager's decrees and edicts. Just saying, because on Chinese History she was considered a devil and a murderer.