The Last Empress of China ruled the Qing Dynasty as a coregent after her husband, the Xianfeng Emperor died in 1861, and her son, The Tongzhi Emperor (1856 – 1875), was too young to rule China.
Technically, The Empress Dowanger Tzu Hsi (Cixi) wasn’t the last empress.
However, she was the last empress to rule China as a regent for her son, and then her nephew after her son died at age 19.
Sterling Seagrave, the author of Dragon Lady, writes, “Absurdly little was known about her life. The New York Times printed a long, error filled obituary calling her Tzu An, the title of her coregent, who had died twenty-seven years earlier.”
Many current history texts have slandered the Dowager Empress Tzu Hsi (1835 – 1908) without much evidence as one of history’s most monstrous women—a ruthless Manchu concubine who seduced and murdered her way to the throne in 1861 to rule China through prevision, corruption and intrigue.
This is how many still think of Tzu Hsi. In addition, she has been accused of murdering her son, and then years later her nephew, who died the day before she did.
Instead, her son may have died of syphilis because it was rumored he preferred prostitutes to the hundreds of virgin concubines that belonged to him.
Some rumors claim that Tzu Hsi had her nephew poisoned, but Yuan Shikai may also have poisoned him. There is no evidence to support either theory.
How did the Tzu Hsi earn such a bad reputation? It seems that she earned this reputation similar to how today’s China has been smeared in much of the Western media.
To understand how this came about, I will make a comparison to Jayson Blair, a young reporter for the New York Times who wrote more than 600 articles for the newspaper. During his short career with the New York Times, Blair committed repeated “acts of journalistic fraud”, including stealing material from other papers and inventing quotes.
Blair’s fraud was revealed in 2003, while he was still working for the newspaper. Source: BBC News
However, Jayson Blair was not the first reporter to commit “acts of journalistic fraud”.
Edmund Backhouse did the same thing writing about Empress Dowager Tzu Hsi at the beginning of the 20th century, and his lies and deceit wouldn’t be discovered until Sterling Seagrave was researching for his book Dragon Lady decades later.
And Backhouse’s journalistic fraud served as the foundation for most history texts still used today that continue to slander Tzu Hsi.
To do Tzu Hsi justice and to discover the truth, one should read Seagrave’s Dragon Lady, The Life and Legend of the Last Empress of China.
To learn who the real woman was we may want to consider what Robert Hart had to say about Hzu Hsi in his letters and journals. Robert Hart arrived in China from Ireland in 1854 to learn the language and work as an interpreter for the British consulate in Ningpo. In 1859, almost five years later, Hart quit his job with the British and went to work for the Emperor of China as an employee. He returned to England in 1908.
For most of his stay in China after 1859, Hart was Inspector General of Chinese Maritime Customs and worked closely with the Imperial ministers and Manchu princes. Before returning to England, Hart met with the Dowager Empress in a private audience.
Hart referred to Tzu Hsi as “the Buddha” and later “the old Buddha” since she was a devout Buddhist and it is obvious that he thought of her with affection and admiration.
In fact, Hart, who is considered the Godfather of China’s modernization, at no time indicated in anything he wrote that Tzu Hsi was conspiratorial, sinister or manipulative. However, he did indicate that she was strong-willed and hot-tempered, clever and had ability.
Tzu Hsi died in 1908 a few weeks after Robert Hart left China. The Qing Dynasty collapsed in 1911.
Discover more of The Qing Dynasty (1644 – 1911)
Lloyd Lofthouse is the award-winning author of My Splendid Concubine [3rd edition]. When you love a Chinese woman, you marry her family and culture too. This is the love story Sir Robert Hart did not want the world to discover.
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