Tz'u-hsi (1835-1908), concubine to the Hsien-feng emperor and later empress dowager, was the power behind the throne in China from 1860 to 1908.
Tz'u-hsi, who is also known as Yehonala, Empress Hsiao-ch'in, or "The Old Buddha, " was born on Nov. 29, 1835. At the age of 16 she became a low-ranking concubine to the Hsienfeng emperor (reigned 1851-1861), but in 1856, when she gave birth to the Emperor's only son and heir, she was made a second-class concubine. When the Emperor died on Aug. 22, 1861, in Jehol, where he had fled before the allied British and French advance on Peking in 1860, Tz'u-hsi's son became the T'ung-chih emperor (1862-1875). During his minority the new emperor, according to his father's will, would rule through a regency, but all decrees had to be approved by the two empress dowagers—his mother and the senior consort, Empress Tz'u-an.
Three Decades of Regency
The ensuing power struggle between the regents and the two empress dowagers, with the aid of Prince Kung (the deceased emperor's half brother), was resolved in favor of the two women when the court returned to Peking in October 1861. The regents were arrested, and the two empress dowagers formed a joint regency. Prince Kung was made prince counselor and head of the Grand Council.
Of the two dowager empresses, Tz'u-hsi was the more able and ambitious and gradually gained control of the state. She entrusted military power to Tseng Kuo-fan, Li Hung-chang, and Tso Tsung-t'ang and in international affairs relied on Prince Kung and Wen-hsiang in the Tsungli Yamen. She loved money and power, had tremendous physical vitality, used the weaknesses of her officials for her own ends, and in matters of state was extremely realistic. When Prince Kung appeared to be acquiring too much power in 1865, she had him removed from all his offices on a pretext. He was later restored to power but was no longer prince counselor. Tz'u-hsi was strongly anti-Western and conservative but permitted a limited amount of Westernization in order to preserve her own power and the dynasty.
When the T'ung-chih emperor died in 1875, from excesses, which his mother seems to have encouraged, Tz'uhsi placed her 3-year-old nephew on the throne as the Kuang-hsü emperor (1875-1908), with Empress Dowager Tz'u-an and herself once again acting as regents. This was a direct violation of the dynastic law of succession, as the new emperor should have been chosen from the next generation, but Tz'u-hsi was able to crush all opposition. When Tz'u-an died suddenly in 1881, Tz'u-hsi became the sole regent and autocrat.
Usurpation of Power
The Emperor reached his majority in 1889, and Tz'uhsi relinquished nominal control of China. She retired to the Summer Palace, which had been rebuilt at the expense of a much-needed navy, but through her own niece, who had recently been married to the Emperor, she kept a watchful eye on palace and state affairs. Under the influence of his tutor Weng T'ung-ho and the reformer K'ang Yu-wei, the Emperor began to put through a series of much-needed Western-style reforms early in the summer of 1898. As these reforms would have been a threat to her power position, on Sept. 22, 1898, Tz'u-hsi, through a coup d'etat, once more assumed full powers as regent and placed the Emperor in confinement—where he remained until his death in 1908.
The Boxer Uprising in the summer of 1900, which forced Tz'u-hsi to flee to Sian when an eight-nation allied force occupied Peking, resulted in Tz'u-hsi's final acceptance of the need for reforms, the same reforms that her nephew had tried to implement 2 years earlier. The most far-reaching of these was the abolition of the old-style examinations in 1905.
Tz'u-hsi died on Nov. 15, 1908—one day after the Kuang-hsü emperor. The closeness of their deaths occasioned rumors of foul play, but whether he died a natural death or was murdered has never been determined.
Further Reading on Tz'u-hsi
J. O. P. Bland and E. Backhouse, China under the Empress Dowager (1910; rev. ed. 1939), is the standard English work on Tz'u-hsi. Harry Hussey, Venerable Ancestor: The Life and Times of Tz'u-hsi (1949), is interesting but of questionable authority. A biography of Tz'u-hsi appears in the U.S. Library of Congress, Orientalia Division, Eminent Chinese of the Ch'ing Period, 1644-1912, edited by Arthur W. Hummel (2 vols., 1943-1944).
Additional Biography Sources
Carl, Katherine Augusta, With the empress dowager of China, London; New York: KPI; New York, NY, USA: Distributed by Methuen, 1986.
Seagrave, Sterling, Dragon lady: the life and legend of the last empress of China, New York: Vintage Books, 1993.
Warner, Marina, The Dragon Empress; the life and times of Tz'uhsi, Empress Dowager of China, 1835-190, New York, Macmillan 1972.