EMPRESS DOWAGER CIXI: HER LIFE, LOVERS AND EXTRAVAGENT LIFESTYLE

EMPRESS DOWAGER CIXI


Empress Dowager Cixi (1835 – 1908) was a Chinese empress dowager and regent who effectively controlled the Chinese government in the late Qing dynasty for 47 years, from 1861 until her death in 1908. A member of the Manchu Yehe Nara clan, she was selected as a concubine of the Xianfeng Emperor in her adolescence and gave birth to a son, Zaichun, in 1856. After the Xianfeng Emperor's death in 1861, the young boy became the Tongzhi Emperor, and she became the Empress Dowager. Cixi secured power by ousting a group of regents appointed by the late emperor and assumed regency, which she shared with Empress Dowager Ci'an. Cixi then consolidated control over the dynasty when she installed her nephew as the Guangxu Emperor at the death of the Tongzhi Emperor in 1875, contrary to the traditional rules of succession of the Qing dynasty that had ruled China since 1644. [Source: Wikipedia]

In 1861, when a powerful leader could have turned the country around, the Chinese throne was taken over by a succession of child emperors who were controlled by a former concubine known as the Empress Dowager Cixi. Cixi is the title of honor for the Empress Dowager in late Qing dynasty. Her real name was Yulan, but people (except her husband and parents) were forbidden to call her Yulan, according to the complex rules of feudal system.

Less than five feet tall and known to ordinary Chinese as "that evil old woman," the “dragon lady” and “old master Buddha”, Cixi rose from the position of a third-level concubine to become the ostensible ruler of China for nearly half a century by bearing the Emperor of China his only son. Isabel Hilton wrote in The Guardian, “One of Emperor Xianfeng's 3,000 concubines, Cixi rose through the ranks by producing an heir, Tongzhi, and when Xianfeng died in 1861 she ousted other contenders and installed herself as sole regent for her son, ruling China for 47 years.. [Source: Isabel Hilton, The Guardian, October 25, 2013]

Books: Empress Dowager Cixi: The Concubine Who Launched Modern China by Jung Chang; China Under the Empress Dowager by E. Backhouse and J.O. Bland; The Dragon Empress by Marina Warner; Dragon Lady by Sterling Seagrave;

Website on the Qing Dynasty Wikipedia Wikipedia ; Qing Dynasty Explained drben.net/ChinaReport ; Recording of Grandeur of Qing learn.columbia.edu Ming and Qing Tombs UNESCO World Heritage Site: UNESCO World Heritage Site Map ; Forbidden City: FORBIDDEN CITY factsanddetails.com/china; Wikipedia; UNESCO World Heritage Site Sites World Heritage Site ; Temple of Heaven: Wikipedia Wikipedia UNESCO World Heritage Site UNESCO World Heritage Site ; Empress Dowager Cixi: Court Life During the Time of Empress Dowager Cixi etext.virginia.edu; Wikipedia article Wikipedia Summer Palace Used by Cixi ; Wikipedia Beijing Trip.com ; Travel China Guide ; Summer Palace Factsanddetails.com/China ; Books on Cixi royalty.nu; The Last Emperor Puyi Wikipedia article Wikipedia ; His Widow's Account hartford-hwp.com/archives; Puyi Biography royalty.nu/Asia Foreigners in China: 19th Century Tea Trade in China Harvard Business School ; Early Chinese Emmigrants to America: Central Pacific Railroad Museum cprr.org/Museum ; Chinese Americans Wikipedia Wikipedia ; Taiping Rebellion: Taiping Rebellion.com taipingrebellion.com ; Wikipedia Taiping Rebellion article Wikipedia ; Boxer Rebellion National Archives archives.gov/publications ; Modern History Sourcebook fordham.edu/halsall ; San Francisco 1900 newspaper article Library of Congress ; Wikipedia Wikipedia ; Cox Rebellion PhotosCaldwell Kvaran ; Eyewitness Account fordham.edu/halsall ; Sino-Japanese War.com sinojapanesewar.com ; Wikipedia article on the Sino-Japanese War Wikipedia

Chinese History: Visual Sourcebook of Chinese Civilization depts.washington.edu ; Chaos Group of University of Maryland chaos.umd.edu/history/toc ; WWW VL: History China vlib.iue.it/history/asia ; 3) Wikipedia article on the History of China Wikipedia ; Early 20th Century China Sun Yat-sen Wikipedia article Wikipedia ; May 4th Movement Wikipedia article Wikipedia ; Chiang Kai-shek Wikipedia article Wikipedia ; New York Times Obituary New York Times ; Madame Chiang Kai-shek Wikipedia article Wikipedia ; Books and Films: "Cambridge History of China" multiple volumes (Cambridge University Press); "Chronicle of the Chinese Emperor" by Ann Paludan, "The Last Emperors: A Social History of the Qing Imperial Institutions" by Evelyn S. Rawski (University of California Press, 1999). "Forbidden City" by Frances Wood, a British Sinologist, "The Opium War: Drugs, Dreams and the Making of China" by Julia Lovell (Picador, 2011); "China: Alive in the Bitter Sea" by Fox Butterfield; "China: A New History" by John K. Fairbank; "China's Imperial Past: An Introduction to Chinese History" by Charles O. Hucker; "In Search of Modern China" by Jonathan D. Spence; Zhu Shilin’s Sorrows of the Forbidden City (“The Secret History of the Qing Court,” 1948), the first important film made by a Han Chinese director about the Qing/Manchu court set during the Hundred Days” Reform. Li Han-hisang did a series of films on Empress Dowager Cixi.

Early Life of Empress Dowager Cixi


Cixi as the Goddess of Mercy

The girl that would later become the Empress Dowager Cixi was born Lan Kuei ("Little Orchid") on November 29, 1835 into a family of Manchu government officials. Her family was a member of the Yehe-Nara Manchu tribe. The daughter of a minor Manchu official, she taught herself to read and may have been engaged to a handsome general named Jung Lu. In 1852, at the age of 16, she became a concubine of the Qing Emperor Hsein Feng (Xianfeng) and entered the Forbidden City and was given the name Cixi. She gave birth to the emperor’s son – the future Emperor Tongzhi – in 1856 and went on to live an extravagant and privileged life in the imperial court.

Isabel Hilton wrote in The Guardian, "Xianfeng faced enormous problems: the Taiping rebellion was to last 10 years and take millions of lives, the treasury was bleeding, foreign powers were rudely knocking down the empire's closed doors. Cixi began to offer the emperor unwanted advice, inspiring in him the prophetic fear that she might interfere in state affairs after his death. To keep her under control, on his deathbed he set up an eight-man regency to run China."

Xianfeng was not the best of leaders. He reportedly spent much of his time smoking opium and chasing after transvestites and girls with three-inch "lily feet." While he indulged himself, Cixi studied Confucianism and dabbled with Buddhist and shamanist mysticism.

After sleeping with Cixi, the emperor raised her status one rank. On April 27, 1856 at the age of 20, she gave birth to a son, Tsai Ch'un (Tongzhi), and her rank was raised again to an inner circle concubine. After producing a son, she and the emperor became closer and she assisted him with some decision-making while his health declined.

Empress Dowager Cixi Secures Power


Emperor Xianfeng

The Empress turned out to be barren. While the Emperor was on his deathbed, Cixi pleaded with him to name her son as his successor. Recalling the moment Cixi later said, "I took my son to his bedside and asked him what he was going to do about his successor to the throne...I said to him, 'Here is your son; on hearing which he immediately opened his eyes and said, 'Of course he will succeed to the throne."

The Emperor stayed true to his word and arranged for Cixi (now the empress dowager) and eight regents to run the court while his son (now Tongzhi or T'ung Chih) grew up.

After the Emperor died in 1861, Cixi was named an empress dowager and Tongzhi’s co-regent. Working with her brother-in-law Yi Xin, she launched a palace and wiped out her political enemies. She effectively seized power by ordering the arrests of the eight regents and arranging the forced suicides of two of them with silk ropes. She then outmaneuvered a rival empress dowager and ruled the court behind the scenes through a "bamboo curtain." Tongzhi was five when the Emperor died. He ascended to the throne at the age of 18 but died of small pox or syphilis two years later.

Cixi was a master of court politics and intrigue and managed by keep her power even after her son died. After he died Cixi presided over the Grand Council and pushed through her choice for emperor: Guangxu, her three-year-old nephew (the son of her sister and a prince). When he ascended to the throne she went briefly into retirement and he developed a fascination with Western technologies, particularly clocks and bicycles. She directed state affairs from behind the screen during reigns by Tong Zhi and Guang Xu for 48 years.

Cixi’s Rule

Isabel Hilton wrote in The Guardian, “Formally, Cixi had no power, but she succeeded in mounting a coup against the regents with Empress Zhen, the late emperor's principal wife, before he was buried. Cixi falsely accused the regents of forging the emperor's will, and in the first of what would be a substantial list of Cixi fatalities, ordered the suicide of the most important two. Her son was crowned Emperor Tongzhi, and Cixi's extraordinary political career was launched. [Source: Isabel Hilton, The Guardian, October 25, 2013 ***]

“Since she could never sit on the throne herself, her continued power depended on the emperor being a child. In this, one might say, she had a lot of luck. Her own son died as a teenager in 1875 and another child, her three-year-old nephew, succeeded as Emperor Guangxu. Cixi promptly adopted him, though, bizarrely, she instructed him to address her as "my royal father". It was not a warm relationship. The death of the former empress Zhen, which some would add to Cixi's account, left Cixi in sole charge and her reluctance to hand over the reins on the boy's maturity was palpable. She reluctantly "retired" in 1889 and devoted herself to building a pleasure ground on the outskirts of Beijing. It was not the last of her. She came out of retirement to help with the trauma of a lost war against Japan in 1894, after which she retained an active role in state affairs, a position that left her well placed for her next coup. ***

Cixi’s biographer Jung Chang wrote: "In some four decades of absolute power, her political killings, whether just or unjust … were no more than a few dozen, many of them in response to plots to kill her." According to Hilton, “ Life at any court is a rough game: the combination of intimate emotions and absolute power generates a special form of cruelty in those who survive. A woman who began her adulthood as a 16-year-old grade-three imperial concubine in 1852, and rose to hold supreme power in the Manchu empire for the best part of 40 years, is likely to have a few unpleasant traits. Nevertheless, a few dozen political murders – without counting the deaths further afield in suppressed rebellions and more distant wars – is not nothing. Her victims included the emperor Guangxu's son's favourite concubine, thrown down a well, and Guangxu himself, by then deposed by her, dispatched with arsenic on the eve of her own death to ensure that he made no comeback. ***

Cixi's Extravagant Lifestyle and Pampered Pooches


The Empress Dowager spent much of her time in the outskirts of Beijing in the Summer Palace, a huge complex with a marble boat built in 1888 with money that was supposed to be spent on building a modern navy. See Summer Palace, Places The cost of running her court was $6.5 million a year (an astronomical sum at that time). She celebrated her birthdays with the release of 10,000 caged birds, and banquets with 128 courses with 30 kinds of desert and dishes like fried magnolia and lotus flowers, ducks tongues and stuffed melons.

The Empress Dowager reportedly entertained herself by ordering her maids to engage in slapping contests and by playing a game of her own invention called "Eight Fairies Travel Across the Sea." She rested her head on a pillow stuffed with tea leaves and rose petals, slept on a 10-foot-long, fire-heated brick bed, and took medicines made from crushed pearls. Once when a hairdresser accidentally plucked two hairs from her head she ordered the hairdresser to put them back. At parties she used to clap her hands to draw everyone's the attention and then asked if anybody needed to pee. She didn't ride in a train until she was 67.

Laramie Mok wrote in the South China Morning Post: Keeping a dog as a pet was a popular hobby in the palace. According to Imperial Incense, written by Der Ling – a Manchu nobleman's daughter and one of Cixi’s court attendants – the empress kept more than 20 dogs and loved, in particular, a Pekinese. Instead of keeping the pets in cages, Cixi allowed her dogs to stay inside a villa made of bamboo, with four eunuchs assigned the task of taking care of them. [Source: Laramie Mok, South China Morning Post, November 15, 2017]

“The imperial palace also prepared a large number of clothes for the dogs to wear each year. The clothes were made from satin and adorned with special floral Malus spectabilis and chrysanthemum patterns, embroidered with silk and gold thread. In 1905, Alice Roosevelt, the daughter of President Theodore Roosevelt, visited Beijing’s Forbidden City. She met the ailing Empress Dowager Cixi, who presented her with a black Pekinese dog named Manchu.

Cixi's Eating Habits: 120 Dishes a Meal and 150,000 Apples a Year?

The Empress Dowager drank human’s mother’s milk as part of effort to stay young. Her favorite dish reportedly was Mandarin sweet and sour dish. She also reportedly had a big sexual appetite. Laramie Mok wrote in the South China Morning Post: In addition to the palace’s “Imperial Kitchen”, which catered to the many concubines serving the emperor, Cixi had her own exclusive kitchen built within the Forbidden City, known as the “Western Kitchen”. It was subdivided into five areas – the meat section, vegetarian section, rice, bun and noodle section, snack section and pastry section. [Source: Laramie Mok, South China Morning Post, November 15, 2017]

“Staff of the Western Kitchen were capable of making more than 400 different kinds of pastry, 4,000 dishes and also rare delicacies, which included bird’s nest, shark’s fin and bear’s paw. According to the biography, Empress Dowager Cixi, written by Xu Che, a scholar and Qing dynasty expert, she would be served 120 different dishes for each meal. However, she would eat only two or three bites of some of the dishes because of fears that would be poisoned. Cixi usually gave permission for the other concubines, officials and eunuchs to eat the unfinished dishes – something that was regarded as a huge honour.

“However, stories that Cixi consumed more than 150,000 apples each year are false. It would have meant that she ate more than 400 apples a day. In fact, she did not actually eat them, and instead smelled the apples instead. Cixi also favoured the smell of other fruits, including pears and peaches. The fruit was replaced once their ripe fragrances had faded.

Cixi’s Private Railway in Her Private Royal Park

Laramie Mok wrote in the South China Morning Post: “To win Cixi’s support for developing the country’s railway network, Li Hongzhang – a prominent politician, general and diplomat – suggested building an exclusive royal railway in the Western Garden, the royal park located in the west of the Forbidden City. “The Western Garden, consisted of Beihai (Northern Sea) and Zhongnanhai (Middle and Southern Sea), was the place where the Empress Dowager often lived after 1888. [Source: Laramie Mok, South China Morning Post, November 15, 2017]

“Construction work on what would become the first imperial railway in China began in 1886 and was completed in 1888. The 1,510-metre-long railway started near Cixi’s residence, the Hall of Ceremonial Phoenixes (Yiluandian) in Zhongnanhai, and ran to her dining hall, the Place of the Quiet Heart (Jingxinzhai) in Beihai.

The line also featured a halfway station, at the Pavilion of Purple Light (Ziguangge; ), after which the railway was officially named the Ziguangge Railway. “To emphasise her imperial authority, the carriages of the train were decorated with different colours of curtains – yellow for Empress Dowager Cixi and the Emperor Guangxu, and red and blue for the members of the royal clan and officials, respectively. Unfortunately, the railway was destroyed by the army of the Eight-Nation Alliance in 1900.


Cixi on the Imperial barge on Zhonghai


Fashion and Images of the Empress Dowager

The Empress Dowager covered her face with white cake make-up and placed patches of cherry rouge on her cheeks and lower lip. According to Manchu custom, she didn't cut her hair, her feet remained unbound and the nails of her third and forth fingers were over four inches long. Her wardrobe required 160 bolts of silk, satin and gauze each year to make. A $5 million exhibit in Kong Hong called "Empress Dowager Cixi---Her Art of Living," included displays of the empress's facial creams, soaps and skin bleach, her stone massage roller, hairpins, headdresses and gold nail casings.

Laramie Mok wrote in the South China Morning Post: The empress was known to enjoy dressing up and also she loved to be photographed. The Palace Museum in Beijing has preserved more than 100 surviving photographs showing Cixi dressed in more than 30 different lavish robes and dresses. Her silk clothing was embroidered with high-quality pearls, while she wore jewels, jade and gold hairpins threaded through her hair. Arranging her hair proved to be a slow painstaking process. A set of hair styling tools used in the palace typically featured 25 different tools for arranging and styling the hair of Cixi and other imperial concubines. [Source: Laramie Mok, South China Morning Post, November 15, 2017]

Owen Edwards wrote in Smithsonian magazine: Though not a charmer, even by the somber photographic portrait standards of the day, the empress dowager seemed to like the camera and imagined that the camera liked her, says David Hogge, head of archives at the gallery and curator of an exhibition of photographs of Cixi by Xunling, the son of diplomats . ‘she thought about self-representation, and---out of the norm for Chinese portraiture’she sometimes posed in staged vignettes that alluded to famous scenes in court theater. Sometimes she looked like a bored starlet.” [Source: Owen Edwards, Smithsonian magazine, October 2011]

The empress dowager probably directed the photographer, not the other way around. Archivist Hogge says she may have taken the camera-friendly Queen Victoria as her role model. Sean Callahan, who teaches the history of photography at Syracuse University, agrees: “Xunling’s pictures bear little evidence of his having much feeling for Chinese art history traditions---but resemble those of the court of Queen Victoria, “to whom...Cixi bore a certain physical resemblance.”

Cixi used the portraits as gifts for visiting dignitaries---Theodore Roosevelt and his daughter Alice received copies. But soon, Hogge says, they showed up for sale on the street, which happened more commonly with photographs of prostitutes and actresses. How the portraits leaked is not known. If their intent was to rehabilitate Cixi’s reputation, they failed. In the Western press, she was portrayed as something like the mother of all dragon ladies, and the impression remained long after she died in 1908, having appointed China’s last emperor, Puyi.

Cixi’s English Lover?

The were rumors or dubious origin that Cixi had Englishmen brought into her chambers to satisfy her sexual demands. There also stories that she fell in love with the eunuch Li Lienying Kent Ewing wrote in the Asia Times, In his memoirs Decadence Mandchoue , the British reporter and scholar Sir Edmund Trelawny Backhouse, “claimed that, at the age of 32, even though by nature he was homosexual - indeed, ravenously so - he became the favorite lover of the Empress Dowager Cixi (1835-1908), then 69, whose oversized clitoris she would deftly employ to his pathic delight. And, when Sir Edmund wasn't frolicking with the "Old Buddha", as she was affectionately known, he was giving it to just about any young, attractive eunuch in her service. Sex with eunuchs - and with catamites in the "bathhouses" of Peking (now Beijing) - was Backhouse's preferred form of eroticism. [Source: by Kent Ewing, Asia Times, June 18, 2011]

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Summer Palace Boat

“As Decadence Mandchoue begins, it is an April afternoon in 1899, and Backhouse is about to meet the love of his life - whom he dubs "Cassia Flower" - in one of the city's male brothels, but their passionate love-making will be cut short a year later by Boxer Rebellion riots that force the establishment to shut down. Backhouse will never see Cassia Flower again, but the memory still burns bright in the memoirs he wrote at the end of his life, 45 years later. “ [Ibid]

“His true heart may have been with Cassia Flower, but when the empress called, Backhouse was nevertheless dutifully and erectly present, even if a powerful aphrodisiac was required to get him through prolonged nights requiring three to four orgasms with his insatiable, near-septuagenarian royal partner. This exacting sexual schedule continued until shortly before Cixi's death, at 73, in 1908 - or so these memoirs attest.” [Ibid]

“By the way, did you know that Cixi, de facto ruler of China for 47 years, did not die of natural causes, as history records? No, she was murdered - with three brutal, point-blank shots to the abdomen - by none other than Yuan Shikai, one of the eight regional viceroys during her reign who was later to become second president of the Republic of China. All that's according to Cixi's chief eunuch, Li Lien-ying, who happened to be Backhouse's best friend and so gave him the exclusive scoop, not to mention his personal diaries detailing all of his years of service to the empress. Unfortunately, those diaries are nowhere to be found; nor can any of the other corroborating "papers", claimed but conveniently "lost" by the author, be located. There is also no reason to believe in an affair Backhouse alludes to with the famously gay Irish novelist, poet and playwright Oscar Wilde. Add to the long list of tall tales the meeting he recounts with iconic Russian novelist Leo Tolstoy. “ [Ibid]

Book Decadence Mandchoue by Sir Edmund Trelawny Backhouse (Earnshaw Books, 2011).

Lurid, Erotic Descriptions by Cixi’s Lover?

On his first sexual encounter with Cixi, in her boudoir at the Summer Palace, Backhouse wrote: " I took in my hands her abnormally large clitoris, pressed it toward my lips and performed a [s]low but steady friction which increased its size. She graciously unveiled the mysteries of her swelling vulva, even as that of Messalina, and I marvelled at the perennial youth which its abundance seemed to indicate.” [Source: by Kent Ewing, Asia Times, June 18, 2011]

"She allowed me to fondle her breasts which were those of a young married woman; her skin was exquisitely scented with the violet to which I have made allusion; her whole body, small and shapely, was redolent with la joie de vivre; her shapely buttocks pearly and large were presented to my admiring contemplation: I felt for her a real libidinous passion such as no woman has ever inspired in my pervert homosexual mind before nor since." [Ibid]

“In other chapters,” Kent Ewing wrote in the Asia Times. “ Backhouse describes a vampire prince, lightning-struck lovers and oracles with crystal balls that recapture the past for the Empress Dowager while also foretelling her future - quite wrongly, as it turns out. Backhouse was, as he tells it, present for all of this and duly records what he heard and saw, including rattling tables and revelatory messages from the spirit world during a seance. “ [Ibid]

“In one particularly bizarre chapter, Backhouse is enjoying the pleasures of young male prostitutes in a Peking bathhouse when the Old Buddha crashes the orgy dressed as a man and insists on watching. A eunuch and a well-endowed bath attendant are bidden to perform for the empress and, as Backhouse reports, the show is well received: "Everything went swimmingly (like a fish in midstream) and in due course ejaculation into the pathic's rectum was faithfully accomplished. This achieved, both parties rose and kowtowed to the Empress ..." But, her curiosity not yet sated, Cixi then orders a young imperial duke to also serve as pathic in the extended sexual fun and, after this, there follows a display of "69" - which Backhouse points out (in case you didn't know) is called "soixante neuf" in France and which (again, in case you didn't know) "is only easy when the parties are of the same length". [Ibid]

Credibility Problems of Cixi’s Lover

Kent Ewing wrote in the Asia Times, “What readers are left with is, quite probably, the steamy, self-aggrandizing fiction of a lonely, dying old man - once celebrated for his scholarship and linguistic genius - who wrote to comfort and distract himself during the final year of his life, 1943-1944...In his time, Backhouse was highly regarded in Peking for his ability as a researcher and translator. He worked for The Times of London and, in collaboration with another Times correspondent, JOP Bland, wrote two best-selling books on China: China Under the Empress Dowager (1910) and Annals and Memoirs of the Court of Peking (1914). These two works were pivotal in shaping Western perceptions of the Qing court under Cixi. [Source: by Kent Ewing, Asia Times, June 18, 2011]

“Backhouse was accused of forgery, however, by another Times correspondent, Dr George Ernest Morrison, for his heavy reliance in China Under the Empress Dowager on the diary of a high court official, Ching Shan, a source later proved to be a fabrication. The accusations against Backhouse were never fully substantiated during his lifetime, but in 1976, 32 years after his death, British historian Hugh Trevor-Roper wrote a damning biography, Hermit of Peking: The Hidden Life of Sir Edmund Backhouse, which revealed the once-revered sinologist to be an inveterate fraud, a licentious homosexual and, even worse, anti-British. “ [Ibid]

Trevor-Roper characterized Backhouse as a hermit because of his tendency to avoid other foreigners in Peking and expressed disdain for his loss of faith in British constitutional monarchy and his apparent attraction to the fascism that had taken hold in Europe and Japan in the run-up to World War II. As for his bawdy memoirs - which had been gathering dust on a shelf at Oxford University's Bodleian Library since Backhouse's death - Trevor-Roper wrote: "No verve in writing can redeem their pathological obscenity." Trevor-Roper himself was later implicated in the Hitler Diaries hoax. [Ibid]

Graham Earnshaw, publisher of Decadence Mandchoue wrote: “ The issue of whether or how much of it is a fantasy is of course important... There is now no way to know how much was real and how much made up. But at the very least I believe his descriptions of homosexual brothels and behaviour in that place and era are accurate and a first-hand job. Beyond the veracity/fantasy question is the fact the writing is very good, and the sex scenes hilariously over-the-top, the stories recounted with wonderful intellectual pixieness. I enjoyed spending time with this fascinating, over-educated and over-sexed man. He deserved to be given the chance to respond to Hermit, even if from beyond the grave. I am proud to have published it.

“My mentor Gareth Powell had the following comments on Backhouse and Kent Ewing's review which I think worth passing on: It is a well written criticism but the writer fails to grasp the importance of the book. For all his manifest faults Backhouse was an educated man who had access to a court that was pretty much totally closed to all foreigners. That we have an eccentric, a man much given to boasting and often a liar there is no doubt. But his writings have great value simply because of their rarity.

We have the same situation with Anna Leonowens. Yes, we can prove that some of what she wrote was bollocks. And yes, her life after the period in Thailand takes some strange twists and turns. But although she was a liar, and although her depiction of the king left much to be desired she is worth reading and publishing because we have no one else. A distorted view through a telescope is better than no view at all.

Decisions and Eunuchs in the Empress Dowager's Court

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Empress Cixi's eunuchs

Describing the decision making process of Empress Dowager Cixi, one courtier said, "In the morning an order is issued; in the evening it is changed. Unavoidably outsiders will laugh, But there is nothing that can be done about it." Another court member said: "She is very changeable; she may like one person today, tomorrow she hates the same person worse than poison."

Describing her temper on official said, her eyes "poured out straight rays; her cheekbones were sharp and the veins on her forehead projected; she showed her teeth as if she were suffering from lockjaw." Another court member said, "It was characteristic of Her Majesty to experience a keen sense of enjoyment at the troubles of other people."

With the exception of the Emperor, the 6,000 residents of the Forbidden City were eunuchs or women. Much of the day to day operation of the imperial court was taken care by Li Liyang, the Empress Dowager's favorite eunuch. He headed an imperial staff that oversaw thousands of cooks, gardeners, laundrymen, cleaners, painters and other eunuchs that were ordered around in a complex hierarchy with 48 separate grades.

"Each eunuch was apprenticed to a master," wrote Marina Warner, biographer of the Empress Dowager, "and his eventual success or promotion depended on the favor in which his master was held. On his master's death, a young eunuch might be forgotten...until the day he himself died but if he was apprenticed to the chief he might rapidly acquire influence."

Last Years Death of the Empress Dowager

Isabel Hilton wrote in The Guardian, “The last few years of Cixi's career were no less dramatic and mirror the contradictions in her record. Her biggest mistake was to encourage the disastrous Boxer rebellion, a violent anti-foreign and anti-Christian movement that culminated in a bloody siege of the foreign legations in Beijing. That ended in a punitive foreign rescue and huge indemnities to the countries concerned. China, and Cixi, paid a heavy price for what she later admitted was a mistake. She herself had to flee the capital, pausing only to order the killing of Guangxu's favourite concubine. When she returned to the capital she was chastened, and set about making friends with the ladies of the Legation quarter, the wives of the resident diplomats, in a belated effort to restore her reputation in the world. She launched her own reform programme within two years, using the exiled Kang Youwei's blueprint. [Source: Isabel Hilton, The Guardian, October 25, 2013]

The Empress Dowager Cixi died at the age of 72 on November 15, 1908. Three years later the Qing Dynasty (1644–1911) came to its end with the Revolution of 1911. The day after she died, court officials announced that the death of imprisoned Emperor Guangxu. The cause of his death remains a mystery. One rumor has it he was poisoned with arsenic on the empress dowagers orders. According to a Penguin Biographical Dictionary of Women, she "almost certainly ordered the simultaneous death by poisoning of the young emperor and empress the day before she died in 1908."

Near the end of her life the Empress Dowager said, "I have often thought that I am the cleverest woman that ever lived and that others cannot compare with me. Although I have heard much about Queen Victoria...still I don't think her life is half as interesting and eventful as mine. Now look at me, I have 400 million people all dependent on my judgment."

Just before she died Cixi arranged for Guangxu’s nephew---her grandnephew Puyi---to be named the last emperor of China. On February 12, 1912, the 6-year-old child emperor of the Qing Dynasty abdicated, ending more than 2,000 years of imperial rule in China. The Qing Dynasty was brought down by a highly organized revolutionary movement with overseas arms and financing and a coherent governing ideology based on republican nationalism.

Funeral and Tomb of Empress Dowager Cixi


Last photo of Cixi

Laramie Mok wrote in the South China Morning Post: “Cixi was laid to rest with jewellery and other luxury items worth 1.2 million taels of silver Cixi died in the Hall of Ceremonial Phoenix on November 15 1908, one day after the death of Emperor Guangxu. Her funeral was a lavish occasion. “The funeral activities continued for almost 12 months. According to an essay published by the Imperial Museum in 2002, she was buried with jewellery and other luxury items worth about 1.2 million taels of silver. [Source: Laramie Mok, South China Morning Post, November 15, 2017]

“The various activities held to mark her death included the burning of a giant funeral boat on August 30, 1909. The boat, which was 72 metres long and seven metres wide, was made of high-quality wood and covered in expensive silk fabric. The boat was also filled with numerous paper effigies of towers, chambers, pavilions, and dozens of life-size servants dressed in clothes. “It was set on fire near the East gate of the Forbidden City, in a ceremony that was believed to grant Cixi a better afterlife.

The Tomb of Empress Dowager Cixi inside the Eastern Qing tombs features a lavish complex of temples and pavilions and was demolished and reconstructed 12 years before her actual death. Her tomb was looted by the warlord Sun Dianying and his army in 1928 under the KMT (nationalist) government. Her grave was dynamited and desecrated by graverobbers who pulled her pants down and stole her jewels and her teeth and left her body exposed.

Ci Xi's tomb was exquisitely constructed in a unique style. It ranks as the best for building details among the tombs of the Qing Dynasty (1644–1911). Railings around Long'en Palace are replete with carved motifs of roaring waves, floating clouds, dragons and phoenixes symbolizing auspicious omens. The stone steps in front of the palace are carved with three-dimensional phoenixes and dragons playing with pearls appearing as living dragons and phoenixes moving and dancing in fleecy clouds. Motifs of phoenixes are purposefully arranged above those of dragons. According to tradition, dragon symbolizes emperor while phoenix stands for empress so dragon should be put above phoenix.

Carved on walls are intricate designs marking happiness, prosperity, and longevity. On the arch beams and ceilings are gilded golden paintings such as a golden dragon coiled around all exposed pillars. These kinds of designs are not seen in other mausoleum palaces. The underground palace of Ci Xi's tomb has been opened to visitors. This is the first underground tomb of an empress to be excavated in China, so far.

Image Sources: 1) Cixi, Columbia University; 2) Shanghai train, Tales of Shanghai website; 3) Cixi, China Pag website; 4) Guangxu, Brooklyn University; 5) Summer Palace, photo Ian Patterson ; 6) Eunuchs, China Today; 7) Images from Pu yi website

Text Sources: New York Times, Washington Post, Los Angeles Times, Times of London, National Geographic, The New Yorker, Time, Newsweek, Reuters, AP, Lonely Planet Guides, Compton’s Encyclopedia and various books and other publications.

Last updated August 2021


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