Empress Dowager Cixi in History

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Empress Dowager Cixi in History


Empress Dowager Cixi, who was from the clan of Manchu Yehenara, was a famous woman, well known for her charisma., She had been able to control the Manchu Qing dynasty for about 47 years. This period lasted from 1861 to the time she died. Many descriptions can be put forward regarding this woman. However, this essay is not meant to analyze her qualities independently. Instead, it is a literature review of other researchers and authors’ views  concerning Empress Dowager Cixi. These works have been selected from different periods in history. In this way, it is easier to find out how the society viewed her at different times. For this reason, the essay has been divided into four parts. They represents the four periods that have been considered in the course of the research.

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During this period in history, many authors had different views on Cixi. However, this was one of the most recent periods after her death. Therefore, the events that had occurred in her life were fresh in the eyes of many historians. At the same time, enough time had not been spent to ensure that thought was put into the reviews. Therefore, this review was not exhaustive. Carl Katharine, being one of the authors that conducted this research at that time had a lot to say about Cixi. She carried out a thorough analysis of this Empress through all the major events that happened in her life. Norbert Meienberger is another author whose analyses focused on Empress Cixi’s deeds.

The first quality that was given to her in this period was that she was dictatorial. This is proved by her actions, especially those after the emperor’s death. The first step was that she ousted all the regents that had been appointed. Obviously, the emperor had appointed these people having the faith in them. Therefore, they were the people whom he had seen appropriate for the positions. Also, based on the fact that they had worked with the emperor for a while, they might have been the best people to work with. However, Cixi chose to ignore this fact. She ousted them all and formed a new team to continue the governing of her dynasty. After she ousted them, the Empress assumed regency in the dynasty. This was shared with Empress Dowager Cian. This mere act of assuming power by Cixi is reviewed as dictatorial by most of the analysts and researchers of this period.

There were rules of succession in the dynasty. Empress Cixi knew them extremely well. This is because she used to read most of the papers that the emperor received, especially when he was ill. This made her knowledgeable about all the laws and rules in the country. Thus, when Emperor Tongzhi died, Cixi took control over the whole dynasty. Then, she put her nephew, Guangxu in power. This was against the succession rules of this dynasty. She knew better than anyone else in the dynasty. Most of the authors of this period considered this to be disrespect for the law. She showed that the law could be easily manipulated to suit any private interests. .

The deduction from these few analyses is that she was not viewed positively. However, there seems to be a lack of in-depth analyses in the documents. The general theme that comes up is the dictatorship. However, there are no vital analyses that should be considered as important by any researcher in the present day. Probably, this is be due to the fact that most other issues were to come later. Probably the part she had played in the history of her country was  noticed and appreciated many years later. The lack of exposure to many other issues that came late after the period of analyses, makes these analysts skip some vital aspects of her life that come with the story of Empress Cixi. This does not mean that the theme of dictatorship could appear in any other period in history. Instead, it means that many other issues,  surrounding a woman who had such great power and influence over her people, should have cropped up. For this reason, there was a need to review the other periods of history following this one.


During this period, the analyses of Cixi’s life seemed to take new angles. This is where most of the authors looked into the political implications of her actions. Apart from the short-term implications that may be considered, these authors looked into the future. They looked at the influence that the changes would have on the future of their country. This was something in which most of these authors seemed to place a lot of value. They believed that, whether positive or negative, the rule of Cixi would have a significant political influence that would change the political situation in their society. Apart from the writers from China,  numerous other writers seemed to take interest in the issue of the last Empress.

In the book The Last Empress great emphasis was placed on the political changes that Cixi initiated. For example, there were the ‘Hundred Days’ Reforms in 1898. These were reforms that Cixi considered detrimental. She came to this conclusion when she made considerations relating their influence on dynastic power, which she valued so much. For this reason, Cixi  rejected these reforms, since she was in a position to do that. However, this action faced a lot of resistance from people who believed that these reforms were necessary. These people had hoped to see certain changes in their political world. On the other hand, Cixi considered that these reforms were impractical. She believed that they could not be achieved without losing some important political aspects. As a matter of fact, she went further and placed Guangxu Emperor under arrest. He was placed under house arrest because he supported the reformers. The authors of this period seem to be fascinated by Cixi’s views ,and her political life.

According to these writers, Cixi was sure of what she wanted. Her position was the one that many would dread displaying. This is because it came with numerous requirements and knowledge of the land. Most people would have given up the pressure and let the opposition take away the power that they had. However, this woman had the power, will, conviction, and bravery to carry out the steps that ensured that her rivals could not overpower her. At that period, she seemed to know too much about the dynasty and was in a position to make the decisions.  The analysts say that if she had not taken the steps that she did, her power would have been taken from her a short while after she had assumed it. Therefore, the authors are fascinated by her knowledge.

The general theme that seems to be emerging in this period is that of education. It is known that before his death, Xianfeng Emperor was very ill. However, he still had to govern the state. Therefore, he had to read the palace memoirs. Since he could not do this on his own, he always had Cixi reading them for him. In this way, it was easier for him to understand the information without much struggle. Therefore, apart from the fact that Cixi could read, she had the opportunity to learn a lot about the state affairs. This was where she understood some of the most basic and fundamental principles the state was built on. This is the fact that the authors of this period did not forget to mention. However, the criticism was still evident. Although these authors believed that Cixi was getting enlightened, they still held to negative opinion about her. This concerns her methods of ruling, as well as her respect for the law.


During this period, the flexibility of Cixi was reviewed. Over the time, the change has to occur. Some of the changes can be prevented, while others cannot. However, the effects that these changes have on an individual depend on how he/she perceives the changes. According to these authors, Cixi was determined to adjust to the changing times in a clever way, meaning that she was able to welcome positive change and reduce negative ones, at least in her view. Norbert Meienberger is one of the authors who mentioned and explained these changes in an in-depth analysis, for the sake of better understanding.

The first change that Cixi did not allow was that of adopting models of the Western government. She always supported the idea of originality. She did not like the thought that China could take up the models of government that were initially created in the western world. This is something that is still  influential today. China has always been a communist nation, despite the fact that most other nations are capitalist. They have been able to retain this originality for a very long period of time. However, the rejection of these models of government did not mean that the western world had nothing positive to offer. They have some positive aspects that China could have used. This is something that Cixi knew well. For example, technology was one of the aspects that China inherited from the western world. The use of technology ensured that some nations were ahead of others. Being wise, Cixi was sure to welcome any technological advance that came to her land. She also supported military reforms, which were meant to make her army stronger. The Self-Strengthening Movement is another example of a change that she adopted from the West, for the sake of bettering her state.

After Cixi refused to accept reforms, there was the Boxer rebellion. At this period, allied armies invaded the country. This was too much pressure for Cixi. She was, in fact, forced to look for the ways to strengthen her army. The time came when Cixi noticed that her resistance was not good anymore. This caused her to institute the changes that she had resisted before.  In fact, these are the changes that would threaten the dynasty rule. After careful calculation, Cixi had noticed that she stood on the losing end. The invasions and rebellions would only weaken her armies. She needed an ample environment under which her country would develop into a modern nation. This meant dropping all her pride and accepting the very reforms that she had resisted. She took a step forwards and appointed new officials. By her new choice, she ensured that the majority of the officials were reform-minded. This would help to pass the reforms. Directly, it can be said to have been the proof that Cixi wanted these reforms to take place.

During this historical period , the theme of change is observed. This is understandable, considering the changes that the world had to go through. During this period, the Second World War had just ended. Most of the nations were in a self-rebuilding process. In this process, the people of the nations experienced numerous changes. As they tried to be better, many nations had to adjust their systems and ways of doing things. This was the same thing that the authors observed in Cixi . From a young age, she had seen so many changes in her life that she was already used to them. Therefore, she was just perfecting what she had already experienced before. This is the reason why her rule was marked by permanent changes that have been witnessed in China since that time.


This period extends to the present times. Therefore, it is the one which has the most diverse analyses of the last Empress’s activity. This is because there has been a lot of time to analyze the life of this great woman. The other fact is that there are many issues emerging at present, which can be placed on any platform, because of the advanced technology. In the past, it was difficult for most writers to be heard. This is because there were no internet sources, where their information would be accessible or promoted. However, things have changed., Mentioning other issues, authors often tend to liken the story of the last Empress to current issues. For example, the issue of women empowerment has been very evident in the present society. When this issue comes up, most of the researchers remember the names of those who introduced it to the world. These are the early women who raised the issue, knowingly or unintentionally. Cixi is one of these women mentioned. This is just one of many issues in relation to which this great woman can be mentioned. This is something that causes many perspectives on the life of Cixi.

Jung Chang has explained the things that occurred during her rule. It is known that the dynasty collapsed after her death . This happened only three years after her death. This and many other authors seem to look into the positive side of the empress. During those days, women were not given a chance to air their views, let alone become leaders. They were always moved on the sidelines and all those duties were passed to the men. Therefore, women in China did not have much power. However, Cixi managed to assume unofficial rule until her death. She was able to make major decisions that influenced most of the Chinese people, then and now as well.

There are many historians that blame Cixi for the fall of the dynasty. Actually, there are some authors that believe that she was responsible for it. In their explanations, they claim that she tried to force things that could not work out for the people. In the process, the intense pressure was exerted, which caused the fall of the dynasty soon after her death. However, other authors think otherwise. In their descriptions of this woman, they state that she had willpower. They claim that she had what it took to change the nation and make decisions that were beneficial  for everyone. However, there are some people who were just looking for a scapegoat, to blame for the fall of the dynasty. For example, the people who were in opposition to her, initiating many rebellions, should have been on her side. This way, Cixi would not have faced difficulties in governing the nation. In addition, they would have had the chance to offer guidance to her, in matters that she might have been wrong. They claim that her ruthlessness was not different from that of other reformers. It was a character that had to be in the blood of any leader.

The theme of women empowerment comes out repeatedly in this period. Now, women have often asked for a fair chance to share the roles in governing the nations. Cixi lived in the society where women were not enlightened. In the imperial harem, the women who could either read or write were scarce. However, Cixi took the initiative to learn. She was able to translate any writings that she saw. She had the edge over all other women. She became special because she was always determined to bring changes in her life. In her younger years, she had been taken as a concubine by the Emperor. Therefore, she was a special woman the Emperor had taken interest in. After the Emperor’s death, Cixi managed to assume and maintain power till her death, despite being a woman.

This maintenance of power had to be coupled with the resistance and rebellion of people in her dynasty. Cixi managed to handle all this pressure. Some authors view her as a role model for many women. She is explained as an example of bravery for the females. When she was the Empress, many changes occurred. Most of them came from the western countries. With her knowledge, Cixi was able to distinguish between useful and useless changes. She was able to use her power and balance her pressure to achieve the results that she wanted for her country. According to most of the authors, she was the one who preventing the dynasty from falling. In fact, most of them believe that no one else could have done the job that Cixi did. It is proved by the fact that after her death it only took the dynasty three years to fall. However, she is not remembered for the dynasty but for the changes that she implemented in China, and the positive aspects that can be found in her character by young girls and women. Her life also teaches that any originality can be maintained without ignorance. This is the way she accepted some helpful western traditions, while leaving out the rest. The writers might have different views on this woman. However, this does not erase the fact that she was greatly successful and influential in making the History of China. The positive attributes of this person are yet to be seen later, when a large platform for comparisons will be made.

The Inconsistencies

As it has been explained in every period analyzed, we see clearly that the writers’ views of the Empress were affected by historical reality of the periods. At each period, there were different political, social, as well as economic events that were going on. According to the current issue, at the time of each inscription, the writers had different opinions of the Empress. Some of the events that can be considered include the First and Second World Wars. This difference in events was the real cause for the observed inconsistency.

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The essay above displays that different writers have different views of the same issue, depending on the historical period. However, the review of this woman’s activity and life reveals the similarities between writers of different periods. This can be attributed to the fact that she was outstanding in her endeavors although she had some negative features. The fact that her rule was unofficial, coupled with the fact that she lived in a period when women had not began their empowerment efforts, made her unique. This explains the reigning similarities in the reviews, as opposed to differences.