What Did Empress Dowager Cixi Do?

China has seen quite a number of emperors and empresses who have significantly contributed to Chinese civilization and overall national development. One of the most influential empresses of all time was Cixi, Empress Dowager of Qing China. Read on to learn more about her!

Who is Empress Dowager Cixi?

Empress Dowager Tzu Shi, who was popularly known as Cixi, was a Chinese concubine and noblewoman from the Machu Yehe Nara clan in China. She was appointed to govern the state, and during her reign in the late Qing dynasty for forty-seven years, she controlled the state affairs of the Chinese government. According to several historical records and other literary works around the world, she was thoroughly depicted as a villain. Various English contemporaries in the foreign service often described her as a very cunning woman who was traitorous and a sex maniac. Throughout her life as an empress, she received the worst press in the history of women leaders across the world. Regardless, she was powerful and made a great impact in China that greatly influenced civilization and development patterns in the country.

Why was Empress Cixi important?

Cixi is considered one of the most important Empresses in ancient China. She was not only a powerful woman in China’s history from the 1860s to the 1900s, but she was also a shrewd leader and a force of change in the country. Among the main reasons she is valued is because she was the adoptive mother of two Chinese emperors, and she had to take up the power on their behalf before they came to age. This means that she was able to fill up any ruling gaps that arose along the way.

In 1951, she was part of the lineup along with 60 other candidates of ladies who wanted to become the Xianfeng emperor’s wife. She was chosen among the few, and when she entered the Forbidden City in 1852, she was placed in the 6th rank of concubines, which was pretty low at the time. In 1854, she went up the ranks to the fifth rank of consorts, and her new name became Concubine Yi. The following year, in 1855, she became pregnant and gave birth to the emperor’s first and only son. Because of this, she automatically went up the ranks, and as her son grew older, she ranked even higher among Xianfeng’s wives.

She was greatly valued by the emperor and everyone around him for her ability to read eloquently and write proficiently. Through her literacy skills, she was able to take up multiple opportunities to help the emperor, who was sick at the time, in governing the state. Often, the emperor would give her the chance to read critical palace memorials for him when the need arises and would leave several instructions on the memorials according to how his will is to be distributed. In the process, Cixi was slowly acquainted with the affairs of the state, and eventually, she was able to understand the art of governance. Through this, she slowly gained the power to rule.

Empress Dowager Cixi’s achievements 

Cixi became Empress Dowager right after Emperor Xianfeng died in 1861, and she ruled from that time up until 1908 when she died. Her reign as empress lasted for 47 years, which was much longer than any other female rule in ancient China.

She was the first female ruler to ban the Chinese culture of foot-binding among women in China. Generally, foot binding was considered a status symbol that allowed Chinese women to marry women, and it was an extremely painful procedure that hurt very women at the time.

In addition to that, she constantly encouraged modern education for all Chinese women regardless of their age and background. During her reign as empress, she set up an institute of higher education for women and another school for Aristocratic women. 

Also, China’s relationships with her neighbors and other countries across the globe grew during her reign as empress of the Qing Dynasty. It was during this time that China opened up its trade relations. Consequently, China was able to build powerful and mutually benefitting relationships with Britain, Japan, and the USA, among several other countries.

Besides that, she guided the installation of the first telegraph in China and was successful in lifting the ban on Han-Manchu intermarriage. She lifted the ban on unfair punishments such as the brutal practice of death by a thousand cuts that were popular in China, and she brought in multiple advancements in the railway and manufacturing industry in China. Also, it was she who initiated the lucrative coal mining industry that brought wealth to China, modernized the military and adopted Western-based navy regulations into China’s military. Empress Cixi also updated the currency of China from the standard ingots that existed at the time to proper mass-manufactured coins that were compatible with other superpowers in the world.

When did Cixi rule? 

Cixi is considered an infamous and exceptional rule of the Qing Dynasty between 1861 and 1908. She ruled the Qing dynasty for 47 years until her death. She is often described as fearless and ruthless throughout her rule in China. Her ruling style was greatly informed by everything she had to learn from Emperor Xianfeng on his deathbed.

When did Cixi die?

Cixi died a day after the Guangxu Emperor died in 1908. It is believed that she may have poisoned the emperor at the time considering a large amount of arsenic found in his body. Various historical accounts of Cixi identify that Cixi may have died after ingesting the same poison she had given the emperor. Supposedly, her tomb was destroyed in 1928 as a basis for revenge for all the errors she may have made when ruling the Qing Dynasty.


Despite having a terrible rapport, she is still valued and remembered for her political shrewdness and style of ruling. She is also remembered as a powerful ruler who reformed China’s legal code as well as an assertive feminist who championed for women’s participation in the education system.

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