Although there may not be an extremely extensive amount of knowledge about the Empress Dowager Cixi, she is often considered one of the most powerful women in history. She ruled for almost fifty years, maintaining and expanding her own power. During her ‘behind the curtain’ reign, she made all decisions and always had the final say. Though she was very sharp and understood and executed politics well, she was (what some might consider today) corrupt. She was insistent on keeping her power in the Qing dynasty, to the point of (being suspected of) killing others. Though this seems despotic, recent reports say that she was just like any other ruler, and was blamed for events that would also have occurred under any other’s rule. Perhaps the saying she was in the wrong place at the wrong time could be applicable. Why does she get so much blame when many of the other emperors from other dynasties had similar faults (and even larger ones – their whole dynasties fell, Cixi helped perpetuate the Qing dynasty until her death – as tumultuous as it may have been)? One could argue that it was because she did not have the Mandate of Heaven since she was not traditionally supposed to have any power; or, because she was a woman.
From a feminist perspective, Empress Cixi can be considered a role model. In a society where women were not considered equals, Cixi became extremely influential, and controlled what many women today cannot. Though she could not truly take advantage of her power as openly as a man would have, she did not let her gender hinder her.
Cixi began as a concubine to the Xianfeng (Hsien-feng) Emperor, but when both his consort and his wife could not produce male heirs, he found hope in Cixi, who soon gave him a son. There are a few ideas as to how the Emperor chose Cixi as his next choice: Cixi, consumed with the idea of being powerful ever since her youth, befriended the eunuchs in the Imperial court – one of the reasons the Ming dynasty had fallen was due to eunuchs having too much power. The Qing dynasty “curtail[ed] eunuch power, had forbidden them to hold office or high rank, to collect rents or be received in audience.” – Cixi cleverly kept them close, because she knew that they had enough power to persuade the Emperor in certain aspects. It is believed that they recommended Cixi to him. Another report suggests that the Emperor heard Cixi singing to herself and was captivated. Storytellers prefer the latter version.
From early childhood, Cixi was obsessed with the idea that her peoples’ “former Manchu spirit be regained” She looked down upon those who were not Manchus, and the distinction between Manchu and Chinese was strengthened even in her education. Traditionally, Manchu girls have much power:
“She ranks as high as her brother, and always takes precedence of her brother’s wife, even if that wife be double her age and married before she was born. She precedes her mother even…Not only has she these social privileges, but she has...