Cixi, the controversial concubine who became queen, led China into the modern age

After Cixi seized power, the brilliant queen regent of China never let it go and guided her people into the 20th century.

The Empress Cixi at around age 70 in a 1905 portrait by artist Hubert Vo
Photograph by AKG/Album

Born in 1835, the girl who would gain fame as the Empress Dowager Cixi showed no obvious signs of future greatness. This girl, both through good fortune and unyielding determination, would rise to power in China, becoming the Dowager Empress, ruling as the queen regent from 1861 until her death in 1908, one of the most turbulent periods in China’s history. With her iron will and shrewd mind, she helped transform China from a medieval society to a modern power on the global stage.

Few concrete records remain of Cixi’s life before age 16. She was Manchu, the ethnic minority in power since the 1600s, and her heritage kept her feet from being bound, a tradition of China’s ethnic majority, the Han. Her family were most likely government employees. She probably could read, write, draw, and sew. Some historians say her father sought her advice and valued her opinion as highly as he would a son’s.

A respected position in her birth family would not win Cixi respect in the outside world. Because she was born female, her opinions meant little to men. Like other teenage girls at that time, 16-year-old Cixi had to be presented by her family to be considered as a concubine to the newly crowned Chinese emperor, Xianfeng. Selected as a low-ranking consort, Cixi left her family to live in the Forbidden City with the other women in the emperor’s harem. (See also: Beijing's Forbidden City built on ice roads.)

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