The Death of Empress Cixi

The Dowager Empress of China died on 15 November, 1908, after ruling the country for almost 50 years.

Portrait of Tzu-hsi by Hubert Vos, 1906

Three centuries after Elizabeth I, at the other side of the globe, another formidable woman breathed her last. The Dowager Empress of China, Tzu-hsi (or Cixi), had started life in a minor Manchu family in 1835. Pretty and charming, at 17 she was recruited to the harem of the Son of Heaven, the Hsien-feng (or Xanfeng) emperor, to whom the court eunuchs presented her naked within a red robe whenever he wanted her for the night. She was the only one of his wives and concubines to give him a son, the future Tung-chih (or Tongzhi) emperor, and when the little boy succeeded his father at the age of six in 1861, she as co-regent made herself the effective ruler of the country.

Shrewd, determined and ruthless, Tzu-hsi had no intention of relinquishing power and when her son came of age at 17 she kept him busily occupied with women and opium. He succumbed to venereal disease in 1875 and his favourite concubine, who was pregnant with a possible heir, died in mysterious circumstances. His mother contrived to get him succeeded, contrary to the rules but with the support of the army, by her three-year-old nephew as the Kuang-hsu (or Guangxu) emperor and continued to run the empire. In 1889, in her mid-fifties, she apparently relinquished her grip on the country to retire to the gorgeous summer palace she had built for herself outside Beijing. In 1898, however, the young emperor announced a programme of modernizing reforms, which conservative mandarins opposed, and with their support and the backing of the army, Tzu-hsi took control again. In 1900 came the Boxer Rebellion and Western armies besieged and took the capital. Tzu-Hsi was combing her hair in the palace when a bullet came through the window and rattled on the floor. Disguised as a peasant woman, she fled, taking Kuang-hsu with her, and China was forced to accept humiliating peace terms. She continued in power until in 1908 she suffered a severe stroke. She apparently took care to have Kuang-hsu poisoned and his death was announced the day before her own.

After lunch and a substantial helping of her favourite crab-apples with clotted cream, the Dowager Empress fainted and was carried to her apartments, dressed in her Robes of Longevity. Marina Warner in her biography The Dragon Empress reports her on her deathbed, looking back over the last 50 years and saying that she had never enjoyed a moment’s respite from anxiety. She died in the afternoon, shortly before her 73rd birthday, after ruling China for close to 50 years. Her forceful personality had kept the imperial system in existence. It was overthrown three years after her death, in 1911, and China became a republic.