Tz'u-hsi or Cixi: The Dowager Empress of China

Tzu-Hsi (pronounced "Tsoo Shee"), or Cixi, was one of the most formidable women in modern history. She was famed for her beauty and charm. She was either a great friend or terrible enemy. She was power hungry, ruthless and profoundly skilled in court politics. She would rise from a middle class family to a dowager empress affecting Chinese life forever.

She was born on November 29, 1835. Her given name was Yehonala. She was born to parents of the middle ranks of Manchu society. By the time she turned 17, she was one of the concubines of the Emperor Hsien-Feng. "Tzu-Hsi", meaning kindly and virtuous, was her court name. When the emperor would chose to sleep with her, she would be escorted to his room by eunuchs and left naked at the foot of the bed. This was done in order to insure no weapons were brought into his room. The emperor had many wives and concubines, but only Tzu-Hsi gave him a son. Upon the birth of their son, she immediately moved up in the court and upon the death of her husband she was given the title of Empress of the Western Palace. Tzu-Hsi was now the dowager empress.

However, her relations with the Emperor were never that fulfilling. According to Wu, a noted Chinese historian, the relations between the two were never anything but strained. She resented all attempts on his part to exercise real power. Their fights were always a struggle for power between them. When the Emperor died in 1861, her son, Chih, became the Emperor. She was one of the eight regents named by the emperor to rule during Tung Chih's youth, since he was only 5 years old when he took the throne. The other seven regents could have removed her from power, but she had allies. With the support of Jung Lu and his banner men, revolutionary eunuchs, the empress seized control of the government.

However, she still could not rule openly; she had to rule through her son. When Chih turned 17, his mother's reign had come to an end. She selected a wife and four concubines for him, supposedly to keep him so busy that she could rule for him. After a few years, the emperor died of venereal disease in 1875 and Tzu-Hsi became  ruler once again. However, the empress still was not totally free to rule, for her son's favorite concubine was pregnant and if she delivered a boy, the boy would be the new emperor and his mother dowager empress. Mysteriously, the concubine died before giving birth. Many historians conjecture that this was done at the request of Tzu-Hsi, while others simply believe that she was mentally unstable and took her own life.

The Boxer Rebellion of 1900 was a key turning point of her reign.  The Boxer Rebellion was named after the secret society of the "Righteous and Harmonious Fists" who were poor Chinese who blamed Westerners and their imperialism for their poor standing of living. First organized in 1898, they may have been tacitly supported by Tzu-Hsi's government.  Rising in rebellion in early 1900, the empress and her government both helped and hindered the revolt.  The Boxers attacked Western missionaries and merchants, as well as the compound in Peking where foreigners lived, beginning a siege which lasted eight weeks. On August 14th the 19,000 troops of the allied armies of the Western imperialist Powers captured Peking and ended the siege. Tzu-Hsi decided to flee the city with the emperor. The Boxer Rebellion was over; at least 250 foreigners had been killed and China had to accept a humiliating peace settlement.

In 1901, she returned to the city with a whole new outlook. She was now in favor of modernizing China and making moral and social reforms. One of her major reforms was to outlaw slicing, a practice of killing people with thousands of small cuts. The empress even promised the people a constitution and representative government. However, this was too little too late.

In 1908, Tzu-Hsi suffered a stroke and, realizing she was dying, she began to think about who she wanted to succeed her. She chose her three year old nephew, P'u Yi.  Upon her death she was buried in splendor, covered in diamonds.  In 1928, revolutionaries dynamited her tomb and looted it while desecrating her body. 

Tzu-Hsi's legacy is clearly an important one. Whether the people liked her or not does not take away the pivotal role she played in the history of China.  During her life in politics, Tzu-Hsi was clever and masterful.  Her narrow-mindedness and ultra-conservatism in government policy delayed what China needed to do to keep pace with the rest of the world in the late 1800's. By the time she realized, it was too late. Therefore, many historians believe that Tzu-Hsi's success in the politics of her country helped put an end to any realistic hope of a modernized imperial China.  


Anderson, Mary M. Hidden Power: The Palace Eunuchs of Imperial China. New York: Prometheus Books, 1990.
This book provides a general overview of the role eunuchs played in China. The book provides brief mention of Tzu-Hsi, however, I would not recommend it for use in researching this topic. The reason is that it is arduous to trudge through and only provides basic information on the Empress dowager. The index does help the cause but the language is still very difficult to handle.

Anon. "Definition of Empress Dowager Cixi."  Word iQ. n.d. URL: <> (9 November 2004).
Good neutral survey of key ideas and topics in her life, with a few pictures.

Bland, J.O.P., and Edmund Backhouse. China under Empress Dowager. New York: Houghton Mifflin Company, 1914.
This book provides a scandalous look at the life and times of the Empress Dowager. Many modern historians consider Backhouse to have prepared the book based on his own forgeries. The authors do a great job in bringing to life the court intrigues and political decisions that surrounded her time in power. It has been relied on for decades, but must be carefully used by the serious Tzu-Hsi researcher. 

Buschini, J. "The Boxer Rebellion." 2000. Small Planet Communications.  URL: <> (Accessed: 9 Nov 2004).
This site provides a well-written essay on the Boxer Rebellion. It does lack some depth but is an excellent tool for beginning research. It provides the reader with a little information on Tzu-Hsi but does not even cover all of her impact. It allows the reader to better understand the role she played in the Boxer Rebellion. Progressing from her intial support before the rebellion to her fleeing of the country towards the end. This cite will not be helpful in finding any advanced, in depth information but can serve as a starting point for research.

Cameron, Maribeth Elliot. The Reform Movement in China. New York: Octagon Books, 1963.
This book covers the Reform Movement in China which took place from 1898 to 1912. It is an insightful and provocative book which provides good insight into the rationale and results of the reform movement. The book mentions Tzu-Hsi in a positive manner crediting her with reforming the country. This book is an extremely useful source when studying the dowager empress because it portrays her in a positive light. This is not very common in regard to most books written about her. This is because most books focus on her negative, court politic playing behavior. I found this book to be just as credible as the others in this bibliography. It was just written from a different perspective.

Cavendish, Richard. "Empress Tzu-Hsi's Coup," History Today (Sept. 1998), Vol. 48; Issue 9, p. 39.
This article is about the dowager empress of China. It covers her characteristics and personality. It is a good overview of her life. The article specifically focuses on how how she came to power through various court intrigues. The article is only a brief overview on her and therefore lacks any type of in depth analysis. This article would serve as a good introduction to the topic but by no means is it enough to get a total picture of her life and times.

Cinderella. "Dowager Empress Tzu-Hsi." 2004. The World of Royalty.  URL: <> (Accessed: 9 Nov 2004).
This site provides for readers a clearly written in depth look at Tzu-Hsi. It covers her relationship with the emperor, how she comes to power, how she stays in power, her role during the Boxer Rebellion, and the end of her reign. I found this cite to be extremely useful to my study of Tzu-Hsi and would strongly recommend use of this page. It is an ideal place to begin research on Tzu-Hsi. The cite also provides extremely useful information on where to find other books on this topic. This cite was the best source of information I found on my topic.

Elliot, D. China - Kings & Rulers, in Newsweek, 26 Sept. 1988.
The professional journal article discusses the rule of the last emperor. However, it does provide some information on Tzu-Hsi. Although this information is of no great extent, it nonetheless allows the reader to gain a better perspective of her life as a ruler. This journal article is much weaker than the other one in this annotated bibliography. It is much weaker because it does not go into great detail on Tzu-Hsi.

Fairbank, John K. The Great Chinese Revolution: 1800-1985. Philadelphia: Harper and Row Publishers, 1986.
This book takes a broad overview of the history of China. It focuses much more on institutions and places than on people. Therefore, for studying Tzu-Hsi it is only useful in getting some well known facts. However, this book can still be effectively used by anyone researching the empress because it provides a good historical look at the time period in which she ruled. It can be effectively used to establish good background on the dowager empress.

Rhodes, Murphy. A History of Asia. Harper-Collins College Publishers, 1996. 
This college level textbook provides a concise history of Asia. Its coverage of Tzu-Hsi is fairly good and does leave the reader with a vivid picture of who she was. However, the picture it paints is an extremely negative one. It focuses on Tzu Hsi as solely a power hungry, miserable, rotten woman who would do anything to get power and then to stay in power. Therefore, this book would be useful for the study of the empress dowager because it gives the researcher yet another perspective.

Seagrave, Sterling and Peggy Seagrave. Dragon Lady: Life and Legend of the Last Empress of China. New York: Vintage Books, 1993.
The authors give a fascinating, and according to reviewers, reliable and revisionist biography of Tzu-Hsi. They do this through dispelling the exaggerated falsehoods that hover around her. One of the falsehoods they eliminate is that she helped to kill the emperor through a slow poisoning process. While the authors dismiss the more lurid and negative images of the empress, the authors make no qualms about the fact that Tzu-Hsi wanted to rule the country. This book would be extremely beneficial for anyone studying Tzu-Hsi.

Warner, Marina.  The Dragon Empress: Life and Times of Tz'u-hsi, 1835-1908, Empress Dowager of China. New York: The Macmillan Company, 1972.
Warner, a jounalist, describes Tz'h-hsi as trapped by superstition, nepotism, and a corrupt court. Readable account with some good pictures.  

Vare, Daniele. The last empress. New York: Doubleday, Dorant & Co., 1936.
This book provides an in depth look at Tzu-Hsi. The book includes both social and political aspects of her life. Vare is successful in writing this primarily because she does not attempt to judge whether the actions of the empress were good or bad. The strict reporting of the facts with very little speculation makes this book extremely useful to anyone studying Tzu-Hsi. Her point of view is that even if she did do many things that were negative along with some that were positive this only goes to show she is human. The analysis she gives is one of looking at Tzu-Hsi as a normal person in extraordinary times.

Wu, Yung. The Flight of an Empress. Translated by: Ida Pruitt. Connecticut: Hyperion Press, 1973.
This book is an excellent narrative about events which occurred in Tzu-Hsi's life during the time of the Boxer Rebellion. It is only useful in studying the period of the empress's life during the Boxer Rebellion. However, it does give a fascinating in depth look at her role in the event and how she was forced to flee. She was forced to flee during the Boxer Rebellion because she feared if she didn't she would lose her power. This is an excellent book for anyone interested in the study of Tzu-Hsi because it gives insight which is not found in other books about the empress. Again, its only drawback is that it only covers part of her life.

COMMENT from  Philippe Bischoff, <> (Oct. 27, 2002):  
I'm glad to see something written about the last empress of China but it is surprising to see how many myths and lies are still circulating, this after more than a 100 years....
Tzu Hsi was neither a monster nor an authoritarian ruler and she never supported the boxer rebellion, she was simply in the middle of a power struggle that lasted for 40 years. Other people had far more power than her. The so called siege of Peking was actually nothing more than a standoff. Western forces had then a good occasion to start a war ( as they did before!) they had themselves provoked and looted the entire city of Peking, including the forbidden city.
It is sad to see that what 2 or 3 "journalists" wrote a 100 years ago knowing exactly that is was a lie is still believed to be the official version; what they wrote in their personal diary was very different....


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