15 September 2010

Women Did It Better: Cixi and Ci'an

By Isabel Roman

These two women, especially Cixi--who started her political career as a teenage concubine--ruled the final days of imperial China with an iron hand. They were wives of the Xianfeng Emperor and seized power from the Eight Regent Ministers who governed China upon Xianfeng's death, becoming co-Empress Dowagers to Cixi's son, the Tongzhi Emperor. Cixi was de facto ruler of China from 1861-1908, the year or her death.

It was through shrewd alliances with enemies of the Eight Regent Ministers that Cixi wrestled power from them. Ci'an, the principle wife and more traditionally powerful of the two, wisely allied herself with Cixi but kept herself out of most court meetings. She died in 1881.

Cixi continued to rule China as all Qing emperors had, but times changed. Contact with the West, especially Britain and the Eight-Nation Alliance, had forever changed China's place in the world. Cixi, who was staunchly against Western-style governmental policies, changed too little too late. She installed Han Chinese in positions of power--rather than reserve all top positions for Manchu--and it was a Han Chinese military man, Zeng Guofan, who became general of the Chinese Imperial Army against the Taiping Rebellion.

Though Cixi attempted minor reforms of the bloated bureaucracy, China is a vast country and corruption was rampant. Cixi was also reluctant to give up her authority. Her nephew, the Guangxu Emperor, attempted to initiate the Hundred Days Reform, but Cixi lead a coup against him in 1898. She kept him under house arrest until his death in 1908, a mere 17 days after Cixi died.

But the question remains: How did Cixi and Ci'an do it better, ruling all of China for nearly 50 years? The times forced them, and indeed all of China, to change, but they also managed to bend an entire nation to their powerful wills.