Empress Dowager Cixi was the last Dowager Empress of China to hold power. Contrary to tradition and policy she exercised enormous power, opposed foreign influence and supported the 1898-1900 Boxer Rebellion. Unfortunately, Cixi is often characterized as vicious, treacherous, cunning, and crazed by many historians.
Cixi was born on born November 29, 1835, to a noble Manchu family in China. Her father's name was Kuei Hsiang of the Yehenara clan, but her mother was unknown. Little is known about her early life. Prior to the age of fourteen, the information surrounding her is full of speculation, embellishment, and absurd stories. Some say that she was a beggar on the streets due to her father's opium and drinking problems, others say that she was sold as a sex slave to the emperor by her father. By the age of fourteen however, historians know that Cixi was a nominee for the position of imperial concubine. She was probably happy and eager to fill the position since she once said, "I have had a very hard life ever since I was a young girl. I was not a bit happy when with my parents... My sisters had everything they wanted, while I was, to a great extent, ignored altogether". In 1851 she was officially chosen by the then-empress dowager as an imperial concubine. She would then serve Emperor Xianfeng as a fourth-rank concubine under the name "Lady Yehenara" ,after her father's clan.
Xianfeng had one empress, two consorts, and eleven concubines. This was a small assortment, relative to earlier emperors; mainly because budget was tight at the time. His favorite was a consort who bore him a daughter, but while she was pregnant he spent most of his time with Cixi. In 1854, Cixi was elevated to Concubine Yi, and in 1855, she was pregnant. On April 27, 1856, she gave birth to Zaichun, the Emperor Xianfeng's only surviving son. Soon afterward she was elevated to Consort Yi, and then Noble Consort Yi in 1857 following her son's first birthday. This rank placed her second only to the Empress within Xianfeng's harem. Cixi was then called the Empress of the Western Palace. It is said that the emperor trusted her judgment and consulted her constantly on affairs of state because she was his favorite.
Emperor Xianfeng died in 1861 at the age of 30. His primary wife, Cixi's cousin Ci An, had a daughter, but no sons. On his death-bed, Xianfeng made contradictory statements about the succession. He never officially named an heir before his death on August 22, 1861.However , Cixi made sure that her 5-year-old son was in line for the position. Cixi's five year old son ,Zaichun, became the emperor immediately following Xianfeng's death. A regency council of four ministers and four nobles aided the child emperor, while the Empress Niuhuru and Cixi were named co-Empresses Dowagers. This gave each a bit of power, however it was split. The Empresses each controlled a royal seal, which could be used as a form of veto. When the ladies opposed a ruling they refused to stamp it, converting the protocol into real power.
Following the emperor's death in 1861, Cixi became a perceptive strategist. She coordinated with powerful court officials and imperial relatives to seize power and gain alliances. However in 1861 one of the ministers on the regency council, Su Shun, was intent on becoming the power behind the throne. Frustrated with Cixi's interference with the council and overpowering of Empress Niuhuru, Su Shun tried to cut out Cixi and take her imperial seal. Cixi publicly denounced Su Shun, and allied herself with Empress Niuhuru and three imperial princes against him. Su Shun, who controlled the treasury, cut off food and household items for the Empresses, however they would not give in. When the royal household returned to Beijing for the funeral, Su Shun was detained and charged with treason. Despite his high post, he was beheaded in the public market. Two princely co-conspirators were then allowed to commit suicide...