4. Empress Dowager Ci’an


A Tale of Two Dowagers

Empress Dowager Ci’an carefully pressed the seal onto the paper. It had been a gift from her dying emperor. The other Empress Dowager had also received one; had she done the same thing, seeing what the seal would be like and imagining that even the most trivial business would only happen if that seal was attached? Without a doubt she had: as Noble Consort Yi she had sometimes read state documents for the emperor, and she had been overjoyed to give birth to the emperor’s only son. Now, as Empress Dowager Cixi, she was plotting to overthrow Sushun and the other regents and make herself ruler of China.

Ci’an was still a little stunned from Cixi’s visit. The former concubine had been persuasive, arguing that Sushun and the other regents had certainly advised the late emperor badly enough – the ashes of the Summer Palace proved that. If they continued to advise the boy emperor, it would be the Forbidden City that burned next. Cixi was right about that; they wouldn’t survive another war with the foreigners. Ci’an could see that to leave the government in the hands of the regents could lead to the end of their dynasty, but should she agree to “share” power with Cixi? Cixi understood politics better than her, and was ambitious – Ci’an knew that she was included only because Cixi couldn’t be dowager alone. She had been a concubine, not empress, and no matter whose womb had nurtured him, as empress Ci’an was Zaichun’s mother.

Ci’an looked at the lines of the seal. Her seal. Everyone had seals, but most of them held no power. Hers had never held power, and what power would it hold if Cixi refused to add hers? But, what power could Cixi claim on her own? Cixi couldn’t be regent alone; she was only a concubine. Her family belonged to the Bordered Blue Banner, lowest of the eight; Ci’an was born under the Bordered Yellow Banner. Prince Gong would never rebel for a concubine of low status. Would he do it for an empress?


I cannot say whether the recent news is good or bad. Hardly had the new government of regents been installed, before it was thrown down. For the consort of the late emperor, the dowager Ci’an, joined with Prince Gong in a coup against the appointed regents, and had herself and the prince declared regents for the boy emperor. The Baron Gros suspects that they plan to marry and take the throne as Emperor and Empress, but our interpreter was outraged at the suggestion: an emperor’s widow is to remain chaste the rest of her life. Time will tell.

I have been informed that as the emperor’s official wife and empress, the dowager Ci’an is considered the mother of the boy, and thus it seems only reasonable that she be regent for him. Certainly she could do no worse than the regents, who had proved so obstinate in our earlier misadventures. And of course Prince Gong is a fine, sensible man – you may remember that it was with him that I negotiated the treaty which put an end to the wars. I do think that China will benefit a great deal from this government.

Peace with China is what I most desire, and it is my dear hope that once this new regency is settled, our treaty will be observed with all honour, and I can at last return home. The country does not agree with me, and I am quite exhausted from having to constantly adopt such a haughty manner when dealing with the imperial representatives. It will be much more pleasant to return home, where I might have more restful conversation.

Letter from Lord Elgin, High Commissioner and Plenipotentiary in China

What really happened…

Empress Dowager Ci’an was the empress, but she lacked Cixi’s ambition – instead, she joined forces with her fellow Dowager, and their combined weight was enough to convince Prince Gong to stage a coup. But Cixi couldn’t have done it without the support of Ci’an, who was generally content to remain in the background. Empress Dowager Cixi would be the main force in imperial politics for nearly 50 years.

And yes, Lord Elgin really DID complain that it was exhausting having to be haughty and threatening to everyone. Burning down civilisations can really wear a guy out.

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