Empress Dowager Cixi – Her Later Years (Part two)

(public domain)

Read part one here.

Empress Dowager Cixi is known as one of the most powerful women in Chinese history. She is known as the woman who caused the downfall of China. In my previous article, I stressed the early years of Empress Dowager Cixi’s life. This time, I will focus on her later years. It is through her final years that Empress Dowager Cixi gained a negative image that started with the Boxer Rebellion. However, it was during the empress’s later years that she made many modern contributions to China.

Empress Dowager Ci’an’s death in 1881 left Empress Dowager Cixi as the sole regent in imperial China. She was now the most powerful woman in the land. Three years later, she dismissed Prince Gong. They already had a falling out in 1875, when Empress Dowager Cixi chose her nephew, Guangxu on the throne. Prince Gong saw it as an act of violation against the dynastic law of succession.[1] When Emperor Guangxu reached the legal age in 1887, Empress Dowager Cixi continued to “assist” him until 1889. She resided in the summer palace and declared her official retirement without losing any influence in the court. Daily she was kept informed about the happenings in court, and replacements in the Council of State were not made without her consent.[2]

In 1894, China went to war with the Japanese over a struggle for Korea, which was a tributary country of China. This became known as the First Sino-Japanese War. The Chinese suffered a devastating defeat against the Japanese. The Chinese fleet was destroyed, and the Japanese advanced toward southern Manchuria. This made China lose its role of military power in East Asia.[3] The war caused conflict between Emperor Guangxu and Empress Dowager Cixi. Empress Dowager Cixi was disappointed in how Emperor Guangxu had handled the war.[4]

At first, Emperor Guangxu and Empress Dowager Cixi worked together to make reforms with their country. However, in 1896, when Empress Dowager Cixi initiated the Russo-Chinese Secret Treaty in the aftermath of the First Sino-Japanese War, tensions escalated between them. Empress Dowager Cixi had made all the decisions on her own without informing Emperor Guangxu.[5] Emperor Guangxu thought that it was an act against his authority. Because of this, during the Hundred Days Reform in 1898, Emperor Guangxu began to make reforms that Cixi had disapproved of.[6] Cixi refused to authorise them.

The conflict between Emperor Guangxu and Empress Dowager Cixi came to a head. Empress Dowager Cixi orchestrated a coup against her nephew and placed him under house arrest.[7] The leading reformers of the Hundred Days of Reform were killed and exiled. Empress Dowager Cixi resumed the regency. This coup against Emperor Guangxu marked the final period of Empress Dowager Cixi’s rule.[8] 

In 1900, Empress Dowager Cixi supported the Boxer movement. The Boxers were a rebel group that was against foreign penetration.[9] However, the Boxer Rebellion erupted into an international fight against the West. The Boxer Rebellion was blamed on Empress Dowager Cixi. This rebellion became a massive global event, and it gave the west a negative image of Empress Dowager Cixi.[10] This image of the Empress Dowager still exists today. When the allied forces invaded Beijing on August 14, Empress Dowager Cixi fled to Xi’an with Emperor Guangxu.[11] She left Li Hongzhang in charge of peace negotiations with foreign relations.

Empress Dowager Cixi arrived back in Beijing in 1902. She made a series of reforms that was called the “new policy”.[12] Emperor Guangxu no longer participated in government affairs.[13] She banned foot-binding.[14] The ban between the marriages of Han Chinese and Manchus was lifted. She allowed students to study abroad. By 1906, 12,000 Chinese students lived in Japan.[15] In order to modernise the army, she established military training and military academies. She even tried to change imperial rule from autocratic rule to constitutional rule.[16] However, it never happened because most of the government officials were Manchu.[17]

On 14 November 1908, Emperor Guangxu died from poison. In 2008, it was established that Emperor Guangxu died from consuming large amounts of arsenic.[18] Although the report didn’t say who the poisoner was, the suspicion has largely been pointed toward Empress Dowager Cixi.[19] This may be because she was worried the Emperor Guangxu would continue his reforms that she disapproved of after her death. Empress Dowager Cixi named Emperor Guangxu’s successor, Puyi.[20] Puyi was Cixi’s great-nephew and was two-years-old. She appointed Zaifeng to be the regent. Empress Dowager Cixi died a day after Emperor Guangxu on 15 November 1908. The Qing Dynasty did not last long after Empress Dowager Cixi’s death. On 12 February 1912, the eight-year-old Emperor Puyi formally abdicated his throne, and it became a republic.

Empress Dowager Cixi definitely deserved her reputation as one of the most controversial rulers in history. She was ruthless. She was so concerned about state matters that she resorted to murdering her own nephew. However, she was important in contributing to make China a modern state. Most of her accomplishments weren’t recognised until many decades after her death. Empress Dowager Cixi ruled for nearly five decades. Historians have been very biased with her image. Hopefully, in the future, there will be a more balanced image of this infamous figure.


Chang, Jung. Empress Dowager Cixi: the Concubine Who Launched Modern China. Vintage

          Books, 2014.

“Cixi.” Britannica Academic, Encyclopædia Britannica, 17 Aug. 2017. Accessed 8 Jan. 2018.

“Cixi, Empress Dowager 1835 – 1908.” Encyclopedia of Modern China, edited by David Pong,

         vol. 1, Charles Scribner’s Sons, 2009, pp. 273-276. Global Issues in Context.

[1] Cixi, Empress Dowager 1835 – 1908, para. 5

[2] Cixi, Empress Dowager 1835 – 1908, para. 9

[3] Cixi, Empress Dowager 1835 – 1908, para. 10

[4] Chang, p. 183

[5] Chang, p. 226

[6] Chang, p. 228

[7] Cixi, Empress Dowager 1835 – 1908, para. 11

[8] Cixi, Empress Dowager 1835 – 1908, para. 11

[9] Cixi, Empress Dowager 1835 – 1908, para. 12

[10] Cixi, Empress Dowager 1835 – 1908, para. 12

[11]Cixi, Empress Dowager 1835 – 1908, para. 12

[12] Cixi, Empress Dowager 1835 – 1908, para. 13

[13] Cixi, para. 6

[14] Chang, p. 371

[15] Cixi, Empress Dowager 1835 – 1908, para. 14

[16] Cixi, Empress Dowager 1835 – 1908, para. 13

[17] Cixi, Empress Dowager 1835 – 1908, para. 13

[18] Chang, p. 365

[19] Cixi, para. 7

[20] Chang, p. 366

About Lauralee Jacks 178 Articles
I am a former elementary teacher in Tennessee. I have a bachelor’s degree in Liberal and Civic Studies from St. Mary’s College of California, a master’s in Elementary Education from the University of Phoenix, and a doctorate in Educational Leadership from the College of Saint Mary. Because my family are from East Asia, I have a passion for historical Chinese and Korean television shows. I always wanted to separate fact from fiction in dramas. Writing articles from History of Royal Women gives me a chance to dig deeper and explore these royal women as they might have been in real life. Also, it gives me a chance to look at the history and culture of where my family originated. I love researching East Asian royalty because they rarely get enough attention in the West often being overshadowed by European royalty. I find these royal women to be just as fascinating and their stories deserve to be told. Thus, I am excited to write for History of Royal Women!

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