Empress Cixi

Last Dowager Empress of China

In the center: Dowager Empress of China, Cixi. In front of her: Empress Xiao Ding Jing.
In the center: Dowager Empress of China, Cixi. In front of her: Empress Xiao Ding Jing, wife of the Guangxu Emperor, nephew of Cixi, for whom Cixi ruled as regent. 1904. Hulton Archive/The Print Collector/Print Collector/Getty Images

About Cixi, Last Dowager Empress of China

Known for: Cixi was the last Dowager Empress of China. She took power as an empress, contrary to tradition and policy. She wielded enormous power, opposing foreign influence and supporting the 1898-1900 Boxer Rebellion

Dates: November 29, 1835 - November 15, 1908

Occupation: Dowager Empress of China

Also known as: Tz'u-hsi (Wade-Giles romanization), Hsiao-ch'in, Hsien Huang-Hu, Xiaoqin, Xianhuanghou (Cixi is the Pinyin spelling)


  • family name Yehonala or Yehenara
  • concubine of emperor Xianfeng (Hsien-feng)
  • mother of his only son, Tongzhi (T'ung-chih), born 1856


Cixi was a minor concubine of the emperor Xianfeng (Hsien-feng) when she became mother of his only son, Tongzhi (T'ung-chih), in 1856. Soon after Xianfeng died in 1861, Cixi along with the senior wife Ci'an (Tz'u-an) became regents for the boy. With the late emperor's brother Gong Qinwang providing key leadership as counselor, the two Dowager Empresses ruled until 1873 when Tongzhi came of age.

Two years later, the young Tongzhi was dead, and his mother, it is rumored, had a part in the death. Cixi violated the normal succession and had her three year old nephew named the new heir. The two Dowager Empresses continued as regents until the death of Ci'an, the other Dowager Empress, in 1881, when Cixi became the de facto ruler of China.

When Guangxu (Kuang-hsu), the nephew, attained maturity, Cixi retired to the country, though she kept herself informed through a network of spies. After China lost the Sino-Japanese war (1894-1895), Guangxu implemented many reforms in what came to be known as the "Hundred Days of Reform." In reaction, Cixi worked with the military and conservative forces to stage a coup and take power again as active regent, confining the emperor to his palace.

The next year, Cixi supported the forces behind the Boxer Rebellion, an anti-reform and anti-foreign rebellion. When foreign troops retaliated by entering the Forbidden City and capturing Beijing (Peking), Cixi accepted the offered peace terms. As appeasement, she eventually implemented the reforms that she'd stopped her nephew from instituting. She continued to rule, her power much diminished, until her death in 1908. The Emperor Guangxu died as she was dying, reportedly poisoned at her direction.

Her actual power surpassed that of another great Queen who was her contemporary, England's Queen Victoria. In addition to her part in the politics of her day, she's also remembered for her patronage of the arts including the opera, and the founding of the Peking Zoological Garden (1906), later the first zoo to breed the giant panda.

In 1911, Princess Der Ling, a lady-in-waiting, published Two Years in the Forbidden City, a memoir of life in Cixi's court.