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Ci'an, a Manchu aristocrat, was two years younger than Cixi but as empress was senior in rank. In August , the Xianfeng emperor died in Jehol, leaving a regency of eight princes to take over the administration on behalf of Cixi's six-year-old son, the Tongzhi emperor. In collaboration with Prince Gong — , the deceased emperor's brother and a key personality in the Qing government, Cixi returned to Beijing with Ci'an, the deceased emperor's empress.

The regency of the eight princes was overthrown and replaced by Cixi and Ci'an as co-regents, ruling from behind the screen due to concern for propriety. The regency of the two empress-dowagers was set up despite the protest of the Qing court: although a normal procedure in the Chinese dynastic system, it violated Qing dynastic laws.

Cixi was the biological mother of the Tongzhi emperor, but Ci'an, as Xianfeng's empress, was observed to be the official mother who made decisions over the Tongzhi emperor's upbringing, including the choice of empress. During the Tongzhi regency of —, Cixi, rather than Ci'an, played the dominant role in direct involvement with state affairs. The Taiping Rebellion , a pseudo-Christian revolt which devastated much of the Chinese empire, was suppressed in The regency then launched a "self-strengthening" movement to revitalize the dynasty by entrusting high-ranking officials with the modernization of the military and the navy.

In , the Tongzhi emperor, now at the age of majority, ended the regency but embarked on a life of debauchery. In early , he died without heir from a sexually transmitted disease, which was officially recorded as smallpox; his pregnant empress Akute soon passed away as well. With both her husband and only son predeceasing her, Cixi then designated her four-year-old nephew the son of her own sister and the half-brother of the Xianfeng emperor as the Guangxu emperor Kuang Hus, r. This choice violated the Manchu generational rule and set the Qing court in an uproar, but Cixi achieved a compromise by promising that Guangxu's successor would continue the lines of both the Guangxu and Tongzhi emperors.

Because the enthronement of the Guangxu emperor was entirely due to Cixi's designation, she was regarded as his official mother to whom the emperor's filial piety and obedience must be directed. As the Guangxu emperor was a minor, the co-regency of Cixi and Ci'an was in effect. The sudden death of Ci'an in left Cixi the sole regent to deal with the Sino-French War of , which tore Vietnam away from China's sphere of influence.

To consolidate her authority over the Guangxu emperor, Cixi married him to her niece her brother's daughter in , the same year that the Guangxu emperor terminated Cixi's regency by virtue of his adulthood. But Cixi still retained real power due to her firm control over high-ranking Manchu and Chinese officials.

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Officially, she had retired to the new summer palaces being constructed with funds earmarked for the navy. While the navy sorely needed more ships to deter foreign incursion, an immobile marble boat—now a prime tourist attraction—was built in the summer palaces. In , the poorly financed Chinese navy was no match for the Japanese naval forces, and the Sino-Japanese war concluded with the disastrous loss of Taiwan and the huge reparations payable to Japan.

To the chagrin of the Guangxu emperor and his court, other powers including Germany, encouraged by the gains of Japan, demanded more concessions from China.

Chinese queen and regent. Name variations: Tz'u-an, Cian. Born in ; died in Ci'an, a Manchu aristocrat, was two years younger than Cixi, but as senior consort to the Xianfeng Hsien-feng emperor she was much higher in rank. Until Ci'an's death in , she served as regent with Cixi, though Cixi had usurped her power long before.

It is said that while Ci'an had the virtues, Cixi had the talent in reading and writing. By , the Guangxu emperor had been exposed to Western ideas and foreign languages and had come under the influence of several progressive advisors and reform-minded intellectuals, including Kang Youwei — and Liang Qichao — From June to September —known as the Hundred Day Reform—the Guangxu emperor proclaimed sweeping political and social reforms to transform China into a modern nation-state.

As the decrees became more radical and an anti-Cixi plot leaked out, Cixi and the conservatives in the government became alarmed. In September , she returned to Beijing from the summer palaces, placed the Guangxu emperor under house arrest, and secured his signature to approve her regency on his behalf. For the remainder of his reign to , although he remained emperor in name, he was rendered powerless. Cixi immediately revoked the reforms, purged the reformers, and executed six prominent intellectuals without trial.

Kang Youwei and Liang Qichao escaped and founded societies to protect the Guangxu emperor. Their influential writings portrayed Cixi as a domineering, corrupt, selfish, and incompetent woman who thwarted the reforms that could have molded China into a respectable member of the global community of equal nation-states. Recent appraisals of this event now show that Cixi was not against the general idea of reform but that her hostility was due to the conspiracy to remove her and her clansman Ronglu Jung Lu, — , a powerful military figure.

After stripping power from the Guangxu emperor, Cixi's desperation with the demanding Western authorities drove the Qing court to a bizarre episode in —the Boxer Uprising. In her half-a-century of residence in the imperial places, Cixi had witnessed the opium trade's burden on the Chinese economy, the outflow of foreign currency, and the continued scramble for concessions by the foreign powers. Natural disasters such as droughts, floods, and epidemics exacerbated the unprecedented population increase as peasant refugees flooded the cities or became involved in banditry and secret societies, one of which was the anti-foreign and anti-Christian Boxer movement.

In May , the Boxers started to kill foreigners, missionaries, and Chinese converts, murdering the German ambassador in the chaos. Relying on poor advice from Manchu officials, Cixi joined the Boxers' fanaticism by declaring war on the foreign governments. The foreign powers responded with an allied expeditionary column that overpowered the Boxer forces, sacked Beijing, and looted the imperial palaces.

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Accompanied by the Guangxu emperor, Cixi took refuge in the ancient Chinese capital of Xian—her second flight out of Beijing. In January , Cixi and her entourage returned to Beijing, after signing a humiliating settlement with the allied forces. In , Cixi and the Qing government finally launched a drastic modernization program, reminiscent of the political and social reforms that the Guangxu emperor had wanted to implement in The civil-service examination system was abolished in and replaced with a national school system and a modern syllabus. Cixi endorsed the concept of a constitutional monarchy and supported the nine-year plan to prepare for constitutional government.

She adopted a more open attitude to foreign governments and entertained diplomats and missionaries. Her portrait was painted by Western artists, who were among the authors of the earliest Cixi biographies that were based on these brief, personal encounters. One memoir of Cixi's court life was authored by Cixi's Western-educated lady-inwaiting, Derling.

On November 15, , shortly after appointing Henry Puyi Xuantong emperor, r. The grand scale of Cixi's funerary rituals—unprecedented for an empress or empress-dowager—rivaled that reserved for emperors, and 39 representatives from 14 countries offered condolences. The rituals continued for a full year before the actual burial in the Eastern Mausoleum. In , her tomb was looted and her skeleton strewn about, but the tomb was restored in as well as in by the current government.

As a Manchu minority and a woman ruling a vast country of million for half a century, during a lengthy and critical period of Chinese and world history, Cixi's achievements were extraordinary. No other Manchu woman in history had acquired and exercised political power, not to mention breaking dynastic laws by her own regency and the appointment of three emperors Tongzhi, Guangxu, Puyi.

Meticulous in her attire and hairstyle, she was a woman who, despite a limited education, appreciated and promoted traditional music, theater, opera, and calligraphy. Historical and literary sources in both Chinese and Western languages disagree among themselves about Cixi's capabilities and intelligence. Her eventful life and attributes have been tarnished by accusations of her extreme brutality and scandalous sexuality. With little documentation, traditional historians have implicated Cixi in no less than five murders committed, they say, to fulfill her thirst for power: her own son Tongzhi and his empress Akute , the co-regent Ci'an , and the Guangxu emperor and his favorite concubine Zhenfei The King's Curse.

Empress of the Night. Circling the Sun. Paula McLain.

Rare photography exhibit conjures lives of Cixi, Puyi

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