Yehe Nara (or Yehenala) was the daughter of a minor Manchu official. She entered the harem of Emperor Xianfeng (Hsien-feng) in 1851 and became a highranking consort upon the birth of a son, his only male heir, in 1856.
An incompetent ruler, Xianfeng’s disastrous foreign policy led to war against Great Britain and France that culminated in the Anglo-French occupation of China’s capital, Beijing (Peking).
Xianfeng, Yehe Nara, their son, and some followers fled to their summer palace in Rehe (Jehol), north of the Great Wall. Xianfeng died there in 1861 and was succeeded by his five-year old son who reigned as Emperor Tongzhi (T’ung-chih).
Xianfeng’s will created a board of regents for his son. However, they were quickly overthrown by a coalition of his empress, Yehe Nara, and his brother Prince Gong (K’ung), who had been left in charge in Beijing and had negotiated treaties ending the war with Britain and France.
Xianfeng’s empress became the dowager empress Ci’an (Tz’u-an) and Yehe Nara became the dowager empress Cixi (also called the Eastern and Western Empresses, respectively, after the location of their residences in the Imperial City).
Contrary to dynastic law that forbade regencies under dowager empresses, they became coregents, assisted by Prince Gong, who was given the additional title of prince counselor. Although senior in status, Ci’an was retiring by nature and was dominated by Cixi, who was both ambitious and ruthless; she also exploited her position as the natural mother of the boy emperor. Initially, she cooperated with Prince Gong, using him to run China’s foreign affairs and going along with his programs in cooperation with other modernizing officials.
They introduced policies and programs that strengthened China and raised armies that defeated the major rebellions (Taiping, Nian, and Muslim Rebellions) that had threatened the very survival of the Qing (Ch’ing) dynasty. Thus the era of the boy emperor’s reign was called the Tongzhi Restoration.
As Cixi gained experience she shed anyone who could threaten her power. From 1865 she repeatedly “chastised” Prince Gong, until he was completely sidelined, replacing him with incompetent and totally compliant Manchu princes.
For example, she put a minion, Prince Yihuan (I-huan), in charge of building a modern navy, then diverted funds intended for the navy to build a lavish new summer palace, with calamitous results for China when Japan attacked in 1894. She refused to give up actual power when her son reached majority in 1872 and encouraged him to indulge in excesses as distraction.
She also disapproved of his choice of an empress and did her best to separate the two. He died in 1874 under mysterious circumstances, followed by the suicide of his pregnant empress so that her unborn child, if a male, would not succeed to the throne.
In violation of dynastic law, Cixi then adopted a nephew (son of her husband’s brother and her sister), threeyear-old Zaitian (Tsai-t’ien), as the new emperor. His youth ensured another long regency for Cixi. When the Eastern Dowager died mysteriously in 1881 after only a day’s illness, Cixi’s power was supreme.
Cixi and her court were corrupt to the core. Officials were required to pay her for audiences, promotions, and her birthdays and were cashiered if they objected. She allowed her favorite eunuchs and maids to sell offices. One favorite eunuch, Li Lianying (Li Lienying), her hairdresser, died a multimillionaire.
She tried to terrorize Guangxu (Kuang-hsu) into becoming a cipher, but though terrified of her and forced to marry her niece to enmesh him further under her control, he grew up to be an intelligent and studious man, convinced that deep reforms were necessary to save China. The confrontation occurred in 1898 when Guangxu launched the Hundred Days of Reform.
In a showdown, Cixi’s reactionary supporters, who feared loss of power, and an opportunistic general, Yuan Shikai (Yuan Shih-k’ai), who betrayed the emperor, allowed Cixi to launch a successful coup that imprisoned Guangxu.
Six leading reformers were executed, others fled abroad; all reforms were rescinded. She installed a reactionary prince as heir, preliminary to dethroning Guangxu, but was foiled by opposition from provincial governors and Western powers.
Climax of Reaction
In 1899 a xenophobic secret society popularly called Boxers began a rampage in northern China, killing Westerners and Chinese Christians. Cixi and her ignorant supporters believed in Boxer claims of magic.
She ordered all Westerners in China killed, Chinese diplomats to return home, declared war on the entire Western world, and cut telegraph lines so that her deeds would not be reported abroad. Fortunately for China, its diplomats abroad and governors in the central and southern provinces refused to obey her orders and declared the Boxers rebels.
The Boxer reign of terror in Beijing ended when soldiers from eight Western powers captured the city. Cixi fled the capital with Guangxu in tow, refusing to let him stay behind to negotiate with the Western powers due to fear that he might assume power. She returned to Beijing in 1902, blaming Guangxu for the Boxer fiasco.
Cixi attempted to salvage her fortunes and those of the dynasty after 1902 by belatedly professing interest in change, sent a delegation to Western countries to study reform, and promised gradual political changes.
She appointed a three-year-old grandnephew heir to the childless Guangxu before she died on November 15, 1908, after it was announced that he had suddenly died on the previous day. The Qing dynasty would last three more years.