China · Pocket Profiles

Pocket Profile – The East and West Empress Dowagers

Conniving, coups, and two women who survived to rule one enormous male-dominated country. Intrigued?

Xianfeng Era

In early 1850, Xianfeng Emperor of the Qing dynasty in China came to the throne. It was customary that the young Emperor would maintain a harem of wives. He would also need a primary consort, as his previous consort had died, quite young, the year before. In 1851, the Emperor’s foster mother hosted the selection of the harem and new the primary consort. Candidates from suitable backgrounds were invited, and from this large pool, a few young women were selected.

The women chosen for positions as concubines and consorts during this selection entered the harem at the Forbidden City, the seat of the ruling dynasty. They lived lives of luxury, strict protocol, and extreme seclusion kept away from the gaze of other men and guarded by eunuchs. A position in the harem was difficult to secure and membership was considered an honor. It was a closed society. Working one’s way up the ranks was an achievement, and the title of Empress was the pinnacle.

Gentlewoman of the Forbidden City, Wikimedia


Empress Dowager Cixi was born in 1835, probably in Beijing. Her father was a “third rank duke”, a member of the military establishment. The family lived a comfortable life. Like all girls of the society and era, Cixi was not formally educated but it was believed she could read and write her native language, which would change the course of her life. In her youth, the goal of her family was only that she make a good marriage.

In 1851, she was invited to the selection for wives to the newly crowned Xianfeng Emperor where she was chosen as a sixth rank consort. In 1856, she had her only son,  Zaichun, the future Emperor.

  • Empress Dowager Cixi
    • Born 1835, Yehe Nara Xingzhen
    • 1851, Noble Lady Lan (Sixth Rank Consort)
    • 1854, Concubine Yi
    • 1856, Consort Yi
    • 1857, Noble Consort Yi
    • 1861, Empress Dowager Cixi
    • (West Empress Dowager)

On the personal front, she was considered a diplomat within the harem, an excellent negotiator. Her charm and personality in private were often noted, although her public persona was quite stern. As one of the few of the harem with basic literacy and writing skills, she often did administrative work for the Emperor. This, coupled with her ability to learn quickly, allowed her to become well-versed in affairs of the government, understand the personal machinations and protocol of the court, and rise through the ranks in the harem.


Empress Dowager Ci’an was born in 1837, and her first name at birth was not recorded. She was more highly born than Cixi, and she was personally recommended as a consort for the Emperor by his foster mother.

It is unknown if she entered the Forbidden city in the late 1840s, or during the selection process in 1851.

  • Empress Dowager Ci’an
    • Born 1837, Lady Niohuru
    • 1852, Concubine Zhen
    • Late 1852, Empress Niohuru
    • 1862, Empress Dowager Ci’an
    • (East Empress Dowager)

She was a favorite and rose very rapidly to Empress. The Emperor was impressed by her respectability and even temper. She was said to be a calm influence on him. She remained childless, but as primary consort was the de facto mother to all the Emperor’s children.

Portrait of Two Imperial Consorts, Wikimedia Commons (not necessarily Cixi and Ci’an, but representative of the era)

The First Regency – Tongzhi Era

In 1861, the Emperor died and both women were elevated to the rank of Empress Dowager. Cixi, whose natural shrewdness and political skill had been honed by navigating her way upward through the harem, persuaded Ci’an to enter an alliance. Driven by Cixi, they initiated the Xinyou Coup, which established Cixi’s son Zaichun as the heir and the two women as co-regents.

It cannot be overstated: this was an incredible feat for two women, living in seclusion in a harem, with little formal education and severely limited options. As part of “ruling behind the curtain”, Cixi, (with the quiet approval of Ci’an), issued two imperial edicts on behalf of the boy emperor. The Empresses Dowager were to be the sole decision-makers “without interference,” and the second changed the emperor’s regnal title to Tongzhi (同治; “collective stability”). It was the women, though, who would rule. Particularly Cixi.

Fast Fact: In this highly structured society, it was improper for a women to be within the gaze of men. This posed a problem when the de facto ruler of the country was a woman. Women had to hold power by proxy. Thus, the female ruler would physically sit behind a curtain when meeting with male officials.

Cixi, who lived in the western Chuxiu Palace, “Palace of Gathering Excellence” (hence the “West Empress Dowager”), was the political force and de facto ruler of the country, although all political decisions had to be at the least rubber stamped by Ci’an. Ci’an (East Empress Dowager) lived in the eastern “Palace of Gathering Essence”, and was responsible for all family matters and the running of the enormous household. For twenty years, through war, rebellion and political upheaval, it was a Yin and Yang balance that was rarely disrupted.

Cixi’s son Zaichun became the Tongzhi Emperor in 1873. Unlike his mother, he was a slow learner and uninterested in the minutae of Imperial rule. He lived a life of personal excess and poor decisions, dying only two years after his enthronement. Although he had three concubines and one primary consort, he left no heirs. This created a succession crisis. Cixi and Ci’an experienced some unprecendented personal disagreement over the next move, but Cixi, not surprisingly prevailed.

The Second Regency – Guangxu Era

Cixi made some shrewd family and political negotiations and in 1875, Cixi’s nephew, Zaitian, was installed as the heir and next emperor. He called Cixi, the de facto ruer, qin baba (“Dear Father”), and Ci’an huang e’niang (“Empress Mother”). Thus began their second regency.

Ci’an suddenly died in 1881, and there was speculation that Cixi – attempting to consolidate power – had been responsible. This was never officially stated, and is historically debated (and doubted by many) to this day. Cixi continued as head of the Imperial family, but eventually, in 1889, Zaitian was enthroned as the Guangxu Emperor. Cixi retired (offically but not effectively) and moved from the Forbidden City to the Summer Palace.

The Guangzu Emperor was progressive, and proposed the “100 Days of Reform”. Although these reforms were well-intentioned, there was significant evidence of foreign influence about, and there was little support within to government. The Emperor was exiled to Ocean Terrace, an island connected to the Forbidden City by a causeway. Cixi came out of retirement in 1898 to become regent and de facto leader of the country, yet again.

Empress Dowager Cixi poses with the wives of foreign envoys in Leshoutang, the summer palace in Beijing, circa 1903-04.

Xuantong Era

With the Guangzu Emperor in exile and stripped of all real power, Cixi maintained her role as chief executive and the real power of the the country until her death in 1908. . Cixi died one day after the Guangzu Emperor, and the last bit of gossip about her was that she had him poisoned while on her deathbed. The veracity of that claim has been disputed, but, fair or not, it sealed her fate as forever being known as the “Dragon Queen”. She was, however, so much more.

Cixi had identified a successor, Puyi, from a branch of the Imperial family. Puyi would become the last Emperor of China, and the last of the Qing dynasty

Note: Both featured women were born under different names and lived the first part of the lives in the Imperial household under various monikers. For the sake of clarity in this post, we are going to refer to them throughout as Empress Dowager Cixi (West Empress) and Empress Dowager Ci’an. (East Empress).