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Empress Dowager Cixi - Last Female Ruler in Chinese History

Empress Dowager Cixi (Nov.29, 1835-Nov.15, 1908), a concubine of Xianfeng Emperor and mother of Tongzhi Emperor, is an essential political figure in the late Qing Dynasty and the actual ruler of Qing court. She held power for 47 years, during which she launched two coups, set up two crowns, and promoted the social transformation three times. Only three years after her death, the game-changing Xinhai Revolution broke out, and China was dragged into the modern age.

Quick Facts about Empress Dowager Cixi

Name: Yehe Nara Xingzhen
Other Titles: Xiaoqinxian Empress, Empress Dowager Cixi (慈禧太后)
Nationality: Manchu Empress Dowager Cixi
Born on: Nov.29, 1835 (Oct.10 in Chinese lunar calendar)
Died on: Nov.15, 1908 (aged 72, Oct.22 in Chinese lunar calendar)
Zodiac: Goat
Spouse: Xianfeng Emperor
Child: Emperor Tongzhi
Sister: Yehe Nara Wanzhen (biological mother of Emperor Guangxu)
Religion: Tibetan Buddhism
Burial: Ding Mausoleum, Eastern Qing tombs


Cixi was born in a Manchu aristocratic family; she was named as Xingergu. She was chosen to be one of the concubines for Xianfeng Emperor at age 17 and bestowed the title of Languiren. In the following five years, Cixi made it to Yi Guifei (next to the empress) and gave birth to a prince Zaichun (later Tongzhi Emperor), who was also the only son to Xianfeng Emperor.Young Cixi, Restored Image

Xianfeng Emperor had been frail most of the time, and it was a time of great turbulence. In the north, the Anglo-French army was invading, and in the south, the Taiping Rebellion was tearing the empire apart, which imposed enormous pressure to the emperor. Yi Guifei (Cixi) was skilled at Chinese calligraphy, which made her a scrivener for the emperor. Sometimes, the emperor even allowed her to make her own statements, which induced discontent from ministers.

In 1860, Yi Guifei followed the emperor to Rehe to escape the invasion of the Anglo-French troop. In August 1861, Xianfeng Emperor died. According to the late emperor’s will, eight appointed ministers were made to assist the young prince, and two imperial seals were put to the hands of the Empress and Crown Prince (Yi Guifei’s son). This way, the powers were divided, and dictatorship was prevented. The crown prince was only 5 when he became the head of the state. Therefore, his imperial seal was held by his mother, now called Empress Cixi.

Power through manipulation

However, Cixi’s time has not arrived yet. She had to rule together with Empress Dowager Ci’an (the empress of Xianfeng Emperor) and eight assisting ministers. Empress Dowager Cixi did not have any real power. Shortly after the death of Xianfeng Emperor, with the support of Empress Dowager Ci’an, Cixi conspired with Old Prince Gong Yi Xin and launched a coup. The result was that the eight assisting ministers were either executed or dismissed. Since then, Empress Dowager Ci’an and Empress Dowager CixiXianfeng Emperor began to rule behind the scene. Although Empress Dowager Ci’an also shared part of the royal power, she was innocent all along. Most of the orders came from Empress Dowager.

Under the support of Prince Yi Xin, Empress Dowager Cixi rectified the administration, promoted a lot of Han ministers like Zeng Guofan, Zuo Zongtang, and Li Hongzhang, and pacified the Taiping Rebellion, Miao Revolt, Hui Uprising, and Nian Bandit with the help of the foreign powers, earning temporary stabilization for Qing court. To maintain the feudal autocratic ruling, she also promoted ministers from the Westernization School to develop military and civil industry, train navy, and land force, which made some difference in the modernization of the Qing empire. Domestic uprisings were put down during the period, foreign powers didn’t push forward, and the military force was improved, and the industry was advanced. It was a relatively peaceful time.

In 1875, Tong Zhi Emperor died of illness and left no heir. Dowager Cixi made her nephew Zai Kuo the emperor, and the reigning age was changed to Guangxu. During 1865-1870, most of Xinjiang was encroached by Kokand Khanate and Yili area controlled by tsarist Russia in 1871. Under the circumstance, Empress Dowager Cixi took the adviceChuxiu Palace Where Cixi Lived from Zuo Zongtang and sent the army to take back Xinjiang. By 1881, Xinjiang was back to the Qing court and most of Yili as well. In the same year, Empress Dowager Ci’an passed away. People believed that Cixi murdered her.

From 1883 to 1885, the Sino -French War broke out. Qing army wasn’t losing, but Empress Dowager Cixi decided to make a treaty with France, the Sino-French New Treaty, which greatly satisfied France's appetite. Meanwhile, ministers of Privy Council, including Prince Yi Xin, were deposed, Empress Dowager Cixi began her tyrannic ruling.


In 1889, Guangxu Emperor got married. Empress Dowager Cixi “gave back” the power to the emperor and retired. She could only provide advice to the emperor. However, the truth was, Empress Dowager Cixi was too powerful. She may have given back the power; the person who was in charge was still her. In 1894, the Sino - Japanese War broke Guangxu Emperor out, and a lot of funds were in need for the War. Coincidentally, the 60th birthday of Empress Dowager Cixi was drawing near, and Cixi wanted a grand celebration. She ordered the royal garden Summer Palace to be enlarged and luxuriantly decorated. However, the War needed loads of funds too. Therefore, someone dared to suggest that the fund dedicated to the garden be used as military expenditure, which enraged the Empress Dowager. Ministers had no choice but to continue building the royal garden.

Later, the Qing navy suffered an epic defeat. To finish the War early, Empress Dowager Cixi resisted Guangxu Emperor’s fighting proposal. She made peace with Japan, resulting in another treaty of national betrayal and humiliation - the Maguan Treaty. Her peace-making did not stop the encroachment of foreign powers. Instead, more cities like Jinzhou, Dalian, and Lvshun were gifted. Cixi couldn’t have a grand birthday celebration as planned. She just held a small one in Ningshou Palace.

After the Sino Japanese War in 1895, the foreign powers set off a frenzy to carve up China. To survive, Chinese reformists launched the Constitutional Reform and Old Summer Palace Modernization (also called Hundred Days' Reform), which was greatly supported by Guangxu Emperor. Cixi faced a dilemma. On the one hand, she wanted a strong nation. On the other hand, she feared that the Guangxu Emperor would break through her control. Therefore, she initially showed support and then made sure her men occupied all the important posts.

In June 1898, Guangxu Emperor issued an official document to perform reform. However, his change touched the interests of many traditional Manchu aristocrats and feudal families, who resisted the reform strongly. To maintain these aristocrats’ interests, Cixi launched another coup, Wuxu Coup, to house arrest Guangxu Emperor and executed six prominent reformists members.

Late Years

After the Wuxu Coup, the Boxer Rebellion broke out in north China. Cixi wanted the rebellion to be put down, but the uprising was too strong. She thought of leaving the Boxers Early Qing Map Movement alone as these revolters also fought against foreigners. However, the foreign powers were not happy; they demanded the Qing court to exterminate Boxers. Under pressure, Cixi, on the one hand, ordered the Qing army to stop attacking the Boxers and let them fight against the foreigners; on the other hand, she sent ministers to comfort ambassadors and negotiate.

However, the Eight-Power Allied Forces were not happy. They marched forward and broke into Beijing on Aug.14, 1900. Empress Dowager Cixi was shocked. She took the emperor, young empress, and some ministers and fled to Xian. The next year, one more treaty of national humiliation, Peace Treaty of 1901, was signed between China and 11 imperialist countries. It required that China had to pay reparation of 22,500,000 km silvers and open the whole country to them. Until Jan.8, 1902, Empress Dowager Cixi made it back to Beijing. During her flee, she declared that China would have a reform involving economics, military affairs, education, administration, and more.

In 1904, the Russo-Japanese War broke out, and the battlefield was in northeast China. Empress Dowager Cixi declared neutrality, which prevented China from suffering. China Being Carved Up Commoners began to realize the advantage of constitutional monarchy. They demanded the Qing court reform, and at the same time, the domestic revolutionary movement was soaring.

In 1905, Empress Dowager Cixi sent five ministers for an expedition overseas. The next year, she declared provisional constitution-making and issued the Outline of the Imperial Constitution in 1908 with its content resembling that of German and Japanese constitution. She also managed to ask refund from seven countries and invested the money in education. On Nov.14, 1908, Guangxu Emperor died with no heir. The next day, Empress Dowager Cixi passed away, leaving a will that Fu Yi would be the future emperor. In Oct. 1909, she was buried in Ding Mausoleum of Eastern Tombs.

Visit the Palace Where Empress Dowager Cixi Lived:

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