Generosity fosters alliances


Chinese Empress Cixi. 1900/Alamy


Generosity fosters alliances

Cixi, a Manchu hailing from a high-ranking official family, had been deemed attractive since childhood and was listed as a potential candidate for the role of a palace concubine. Back then, the rulers were emperors from the Manchu dynasty, and Chinese women were not usually selected as concubines for them, fearing their influence and potential attempts on their lives due to the strong anti-Manchu sentiments in China since the Manchu conquest of the country in the 17th century. Within the palace, numerous concubines and servants resided, and the emperor couldn't personally acquaint himself with all the women attending to him. The future empress, then addressed as Xiaode Lanhuai (Little Orchid), swiftly grasped the pivotal nature of her circumstances. She would selflessly bestow nearly all the money and valuables that came into her possession upon the eunuchs serving in the Forbidden City, expecting nothing in return. The eunuchs began to empathize with her, updating her on the emperor's habits and actions. They even discreetly orchestrated encounters between the concubine and the ruler.

Never await a stroke of luck; engineer it

During an exceptionally sweltering day, the emperor sauntered through the expansive palace garden. The accompanying eunuchs pointed out a shaded nook to the ruler. At the far extremity of this spot stood a pavilion adorned with freshly-picked orchids. Suddenly, the emperor was greeted by a beguiling voice in song. Seated behind the pavilion was a beauty attired elegantly, her hair bedecked with recently plucked orchids. She appeared oblivious to the emperor's presence, singing of spring and flowers for her own delight. The emperor was captivated. Before long, Little Orchid was summoned to his chambers. With time, she bore him a son, earned the designation of "precious concubine," and ascended the ranks of the harem, achieving a status akin to that of an empress.

Portrait of Empress Cixi/Alamy

Portrait of Empress Cixi/Alamy

Know the value of gratitude

According to all chroniclers, Cixi was known for her vengeful nature; however, she also remembered acts of kindness towards her family. Her biographer, Yuh Jung-lin, recounts: "Following her father's demise, Cixi's family fell into poverty. His widow, left with five children, managed to journey to Beijing on a simple boat, aided by friends. When they reached the town of Tunchzhou, a mourning boat docked nearby. An area official dispatched a servant from this vessel with a hundred silver taels as a tribute. Regrettably, the servant erred and presented the money to Cixi's mother. Upon discovering the mistake, the official was too embarrassed to reclaim the silver. Not only that, he personally visited to convey his condolences to the widow. This gesture deeply moved Cixi and her mother, prompting them to retain his calling card. Later, when Cixi rose to power, she traced the service location of the official who had shown them kindness. In a state council meeting, she declared,

«This individual possesses great talent and must be promoted.»

This official's name was Wu Tan, and he evolved into one of the empress's most loyal associates, playing a pivotal role in quelling the Taiping Rebellion—a peasant uprising against Manchu rule.

For a strong woman, a weak man is essential

A formidable and robust individual may require rivals to sharpen their skills, yet they cannot tolerate such competition in their immediate vicinity. This is why some of history's most exceptional rulers were women. Notably, under female leadership, the world's grandest empires thrived (British, Spanish, Russian). Figures like Isabella, Elizabeth, Victoria, and Catherine weren't hesitant to surround themselves with exceptional, strong men—commanders, ministers, and politicians. Empress Dowager Cixi, however, operated differently due to circumstances. She had limited options. Female rule (or "rule behind the bamboo curtain") was perceived as disruptive to China's societal order. A woman could only assume control of the state as a regent for a young emperor, although this changed during the Manchu era. Cixi's son, Tongzhi, ascended the throne at a young age, with Cixi and Empress Dowager Ci'an designated as great empresses. However, real authority lay with a council of regents. Cixi devoted substantial effort and cunning to confront this council, eventually eliminating or bribing its members.

Nonetheless, her growing son had to eventually replace her in state affairs, a notion vehemently opposed by Cixi. Consequently, the young man grew accustomed to idleness from an early age, indulging in entertainment with concubines and adopting opium smoking. By 17, as per biographers, he had become mentally feeble and soon perished. Following her son's demise, Cixi maneuvered her three-year-old nephew onto the throne, the son of her sister from an imperial family branch. While wielding genuine power, she intimidated young Guangxu to the extent that he never dared to challenge her. Despite his formal title as emperor, he remained more of a hostage than a relative. After Guangxu's passing, Cixi succeeded in placing another infant on the throne—her two-year-old grandnephew, Puyi. She herself passed away the subsequent day in 1908, leaving behind a fractured country embroiled in a full-scale civil war.

Never forget those who harbor enmity against you

The ease with which Cixi ordered executions in China left foreigners appalled, and the sheer magnitude of these executions seemed surreal: forty thousand "Yihetuan" Boxer insurgents executed, one hundred thousand executed... Throughout the 19th century, China endured ceaseless wars, revolutions, and uprisings—Han Chinese against Manchus, citizens against officials, and all Chinese against foreigners, with Opium Wars and European forces supporting one faction or another. Empress Dowager Cixi long epitomized boundless cruelty in Chinese history, yet modern researchers find her leadership style not significantly distinct from her predecessors'. It's accurate that she never pardoned those who opposed her, even after granting formal forgiveness and reconciliation. Former adversaries typically met sudden demise within a few weeks, or at most a few months. Even the most steadfast defenders of Cixi concede that she regarded poison as the preferred remedy for minor domestic issues.

Hubert Vos. Empress Dowager Cixi. 1905/Alamy

Hubert Vos. Empress Dowager Cixi. 1905/Alamy

People form judgments based on your appearance

The empress's wardrobe encompassed a suite of rooms adorned with shelves containing labeled boxes, each holding shoes, jewelry, and ceremonial robes. Cixi paid meticulous attention to her appearance; even in old age, she never neglected the application of powder and blush. She adorned herself lavishly with jewelry, and her most cherished piece was a shoulder cape intricately woven from large pearls. Majestic presence in any, even the most domestic and informal setting, was of principle importance to Cixi. Only the wise and the insane do not bow their heads and do not humble their hearts at the sight of a person dressed in precious attire. However, among the courtiers there were few in both categories,. The rest needed to understand who the empress was – the venerable Buddha and mother of the country and who was just mere dust beneath her gilded shoes on elevated platforms.

To garner favor, one must appear unpretentious

Catherine Carl, an American artist who painted a portrait of Cixi for the 1904 World's Fair, strikingly echoes Yu Zhonglin, a renowned Chinese dancer who enjoyed Cixi's favor. The dancer frequented the palace and left behind memories of the empress. Both women depict Cixi as delightfully unassuming, given to laughter, somewhat naive, genuinely inquisitive about everything, and warm-hearted. Cixi engaged in conversations with the artist and the dancer as if they were close friends. She playfully poked fun at imperial court formalities, possessed a broad perspective, and exhibited remarkable wisdom. As both Catherine Carl and Yu Zhonglin were invited guests at the court, representing the wider world and international stars, we are inclined to believe that the portrait of Cixi they conveyed to the world aligns with reality. Nevertheless, the extent of this alignment remains a subject of debate. Thanks to these enthusiastic accounts, we can at least discern the guidelines Cixi adhered to when she aimed to captivate her conversational partners.


1. Jung Chang's "Empress Dowager Cixi: The Concubine Who Launched Modern China, 1835–1908."

2. V.I. Semyonov's "From the Life of Empress Dowager Cixi."

3. "The Last Emperor" directed by Bernardo Bertolucci (1987).