14. The Empress Dowager Cixi had her own nephew, the Guangxu Emperor, placed under house arrest and then set about modernizing China
She started out as an imperial concubine – a sexual plaything for the royal court – but made her way up to become the most powerful figure in all of China. What’s more, she remained in such a position for almost 50 years. In more way than one, the Empress Dowager Cixi can be credited with bringing her country into the 20th century, pushing through hugely significant social and economic reforms. So, how did Cixi go from concubine to being the power behind the throne of not just one but two Chinese Emperors?
Born in 1835, Cixi was chosen to be one of the favored concubines of the Xianfeng Emperor while she was still in her teens. She gave birth to a son, Zaichun in 1856 and, when the ruler died just five years later, the boy was named the Tongzhi Emperor. Since he was just six-years-old, a group of regents ruled in his place. Using her charms as well as her political cunning, Cixi ousted the group and installed herself as the regent. Over the next couple of years, she built her power up to such an extent that, when the Tongzhi Emperor died in 1875, she was able to crown her nephew his successor. This completely broke with the rules of succession that had been in place for 200 years, proof that it was Cixi rather than the old elites who was really calling the shots.
From that point on, while her nephew ruled as the Guangxu Emperor, it was the Empress Dowager Cixi who was the real power behind the throne. She supported a wide range of reforms, introducing new technology from the West while making sure to avoid importing Western political models of social trends. Around the turn of the century, fearing the Emperor was planning to assassinate his own aunt, she had him arrested and placed under house arrest. She would then rule almost completely unchecked until her death in 1908.
To her critics, Cixi was a despot who broke the traditional rules of imperial succession to satisfy her own thirst for power. To many, however, she was a smart, albeit ruthless politician. Thanks to her leadership, China was set on the course to becoming a constitutional monarchy, bringing the traditional, conservative nation into the 20th century.