Dowager Empress Cixi: the ‘Dragon Lady’

dowager empress cixi
Dowager Empress Cixi, photographed with Western women

The story of Empress Dowager Cixi (Wade-Giles: Tz’u-hsi) is a remarkable one. Born at a time when Chinese women were politically invisible, Cixi managed to acquire enormous political influence. She did this by exploiting her position as a royal concubine, engaging in court intrigues and manipulating those around her. By the last quarter of the 1800s, Cixi had become the most powerful individual in China. Her will and her reach even exceeded those of the emperor. In the last 20 years of her life, the Dowager Empress had officially retired from public life. She remained in her summer residences and travelled little – yet she retained and exerted considerable power, acting like a watchful spider at the heart of a gigantic web. Politically, Cixi was a watchdog for Qing conservatism, Manchu values and neo-Confucianism. She did not like political and social change and resisted it where she could. Cixi placed two different emperors on the throne and effectively disempowering the second of them, the Guangxu Emperor, after he authorised a reform program that Cixi could not tolerate.

Cixi was born Lan Kueu in 1835, the daughter of a minor Manchu official. A child of some beauty, at age 15 she was selected as a potential concubine for the Xianfeng Emperor and relocated to the Forbidden City. At age 18 she was elevated to the status of concubine. In April 1856 the 20-year-old Lan Kueu gave birth to the emperor’s only son, Zaichun, a feat that earned her another promotion in the palace hierarchy. The Xiangfeng Emperor died in 1861, shortly after the disastrous Second Opium War. He left the throne to five-year-old Zaichun, who was crowned as the Tongzhi Emperor. As the mother of the reigning emperor, Cixi was given the courtesy title Dowager Empress. Along with Ci’an, the Xianfeng Emperor’s widow, Cixi was left in charge of her son’s welfare and development. Matters of government were left to a regency council of eight ministers, who were tasked with governing until the Tongzhi Emperor had reached adulthood.

dowager empress cixi
Cixi’s son, the future Tongzhi Emperor, at study

By this point, Cixi had become adept at manipulation, palace intrigues and power games. Through forged evidence and false testimony, she engineered the arrest of the eight ministers, three of whom were later executed. She also marginalised the placid and politically naive Ci’an. With the regency council gone, Cixi became de facto regent for the duration of her son’s reign, until his early death from smallpox in 1875. The Dowager Empress was instrumental in selecting his successor. She chose her four-year-old nephew, Zaitian, who was crowned as the Guangxu Emperor. Cixi again acted as regent to the infant emperor, this time in a more formal capacity. Twelve years into the young emperor’s reign Cixi moved to the Summer Palace in Beijing, declaring both her regency and her political life at an end. But Cixi’s involvement and meddling in Qing politics were far from over. Surrounded by a network of informants and advisors, doted on by loyalists and conservatives in the bureaucracy and military, Cixi continued to exert enormous influence on appointments, policies and matters of state. The most significant of her political interventions came during the Hundred Days of Reform in 1898 and the Boxer Rebellion of 1900-1901.

dowager empress cixi
The Marble Boat at Cixi’s Summer Palace, built on her orders in the 1890s

Cixi’s significance in late Qing government is not in dispute. There is more debate among historians about her motives, actions and legacy. Traditional interpretations, based in some part on contemporary Western views about Cixi, have been overwhelmingly negative about the Dowager Empress. She has been portrayed as the ‘Dragon Lady’: a cunning, manipulative and often spiteful ruler; an arch-conservative who resisted and sabotaged reform, even though it may have prolonged the Qing dynasty. Stories of Cixi’s extravagance are also prevalent, though some have been exaggerated by republican and communist authors. It has been variously claimed – often without evidence – that Cixi regularly increased her personal and food allowances; withdrew gold and silver from dwindling national reserves; and spirited millions of pounds offshore into bank accounts in London. Other tales of her exorbitant spending including Cixi’s decision to spend 10 million silver taels – a sum set aside to rebuild the Chinese navy – on the renovation of one of her palaces. Another rumour claims that 3,000 ebony boxes were needed to store her jewellery collection.

“Several recent historians have argued that Cixi has become a too convenient target for attack, in what was an extremely complex late-Qing political situation. Indeed, she was hardly the first person to gain power and wealth through nefarious means, nor was she the first to concentrate on retaining power above all else. Some have even argued that only such a forceful personality – who broke, in gender and style, the conventions of rule – could control the growing regional armies and the fragile political centre. With the situation being extremely fluid, the manipulation of regional leaders was the only way to bring minimal cohesion to the Qing.”
Robert A. LaFleur, historian

Historians are divided on Cixi’s political legacy. Many believe Cixi was the most powerful obstacle to reform. By seeking to prolong the Qing dynasty, she actively contributed to its obliteration. But a growing group of revisionists argue that Cixi’s importance, both as a political player and an anti-reformist, have been grossly exaggerated. As with Marie Antoinette in France and Alexandra in Russia, Cixi has become a scapegoat for conservatism and failed reforms in late Qing China. Rather than a reactionary mastermind, Cixi was a victim of changes she did not understand and forces beyond her control. The scurrilous stories about Dowager Empress, some historians allege, were concocted or exaggerated by her political enemies, like the reformist writer Kang Youwei.

Cixi was also targeted by Sinophobes in the Western press. Many stories about her were derived from scurrilous and fanciful propaganda written by foreigners, particularly the British baronet and conman Edmund Backhouse. Writing in his 1910 book China under the Empress Dowager, Backhouse claimed that Cixi was a sadistic nymphomaniac who was not averse to ordering an execution if someone happened to annoy her. Backhouse’s main primary source for these stories was the diary of a Qing official but this manuscript was later proved a forgery. Cixi was certainly known for being stubborn, aloof and cloistered in ceremony, protocol and etiquette. There is no corroborating evidence to suggest she was inherently violent or brutal. Several foreigners who met her described Cixi as charming, graceful and sensitive to the needs of others. Though undoubtedly a political conservative, Cixi did encourage some social reforms, like the abolition of foot binding. In the final years of her life, Cixi also authorised some extensive, albeit belated political and social reforms.

chinese revolution

1. Dowager Empress Cixi was a royal concubine, the mother of a Qing emperor and, by the late 1800s, the most powerful political figure in the Qing court.

2. She entered the Qing court as a teenager, serving as a concubine to the Xianfeng Emperor and bearing his only son, the future Tongzhi Emperor.

3. Cixi was a schemer who obtained considerable political influence by orchestrating the removal and arrest of the Tongzhi Emperor’s regency council.

4. In her lifetime Cixi dominated three young emperors. Through her network of informers, agents and fellow conservatives she actively resisted political and social reform.

5. Recent historians have challenged views that Cixi was the main agent of Qing corruption and conservatism. They argue that she was not as powerful as is often suggested, or that she has become a scapegoat for other anti-reformist groups and forces in late Qing China.

© Alpha History 2018. Content on this page may not be republished or distributed without permission. For more information please refer to our Terms of Use.
This page was written by Glen Kucha and Jennifer Llewellyn. To reference this page, use the following citation:
G. Kucha & J. Llewellyn, “Dowager Empress Cixi“, Alpha History, accessed [today’s date],
This website uses pinyin romanisations of Chinese words and names. Please refer to this page for more information.