The Last Empress of China – A Misunderstood Figure
by Zoe Yu Jiang
Empress Tzu Hsi is a much-maligned figure in the Chinese history. She is often portrayed as a vicious and scheming leader whose ineffective rule ruined China by failing to resist Western imperialism. However, this monstrous image of Tzu Hsi originated from people with decidedly biased political and personal agendas, and may not be historically accurate. Some of the accusations of and rumors associated with Tzu Hsi need to be analyzed in terms of source motive and accuracy, and may allow readers to see her in a rather different light. T
zu Hsi entered Beijing, the Forbidden City, in 1851. She was later chosen to be the concubine of the Qing Emperor Hsien Feng. In 1856, Tzu Hsi gave birth to Tung Chih, first son of the emperor. Following Hsien Feng’s death, Tzu Hsi became empress dowager and governed China with another concubine of Hsien Feng, Empress Hsi An, since Tung Chih was at that time too young to rule. Shortly after coming of age to take on the full powers of the imperial throne, young Tung Chih died of smallpox. Following Tung Chih’s death, Kuang Hsu, another youngster of the royal family, became emperor, and Tzu Hsi continued her co-regent rule. With the death of Hsi An in 1881, Tzu Hsi in effect became the sole ruler of China.
In the 1890’s, Kuang Hsu came of age, and Tzu Hsi voluntarily retired to the countryside. However, from her seclusion, Tzu Hsi kept a watchful eye on the emperor through an extensive network of palace insiders and played an active role in governing China. In 1898, Kuang Hsu initiated the One Hundred Days Reform with the guidance of court official and reformist thinker K’ang Yu-wei. The reform outraged conservative forces in the imperial court, who then urged Tzu Hsi to return to Beijing and reclaim power. With support from the anti-reformists, Tzu Hsi crushed the reform movement, confined Kuang Hsu to his living quarters, and once again became ruler of China, until her death in 1908.
In the 1900’s, the Boxer Uprising, foreign encroachments, and revolutionary movements shook the foundations of imperial China and eventually lead to its demise. Kuang Hsu died shortly after Tzu Hsi, in 1908. The Qing Dynasty disintegrated soon after, in 1912. Was Tzu Hsi, in fact, a vicious individual who allowed imperial China to fall into ruin? The destruction of Tzu Hsi’s international and domestic reputation can be attributed to a few contemporaries of hers, who carried distinct personal and political motives for their attacks on the empress.
The first character in question is Dr. George Ernest Morrison, Beijing correspondent for Times of London. Though Morrison traveled in China extensively and lived there for many years, he did not master Chinese, and always relied on his translator. Morrison also lacked a reporter’s impartiality. Morrison kept a diary of events he witnessed or wrote about, and the diary contents contrasted with the highly distorted and sensationalist versions he presented to Times readers. Another source responsible for Tzu Hsi’s poor reputation is Edmund Backhouse, a London linguist. After the death of Tzu Hsi, he, together with another Times correspondent in Shanghai, published “China Under the Empress Dowager” in 1910. Backhouse claimed that he had gained access to court archives and even the diary of a Manchu monk, Ching Shan. At that time, Westerners knew very little about Tzu Hsi, and most readers readily accepted Backhouse’s account of the empress’s personal life. Lastly, Chinese reformist, K’ang Yu-wei was yet another contributor to the popular view of Tzu Hsi. Along with Morrison and Backhouse, K’ang played a central role in negatively portraying the empress dowager by spreading rumors and half-truths.
One rumor about Tzu Hsi concerned the death of Emperor Tung Chih. According to official palace records, shortly after Tung Chih’s sixteenth birthday (the legal age to take over the throne), he died of smallpox. People were quick to blame Tzu Hsi for Tung Chih’s death. It was believed that the power-craving Tzu Hsi encouraged Tung Chih to engage in orgies and visit brothels, so that he could contract syphilis and die an early death. According to K’ang, Tzu Hsi ordered Li Lien-Ying, one of her favorite eunuchs, to give a smallpox contaminated handkerchief for Tung Chih to wipe his face. Tung Chih, already sickly due to his indulgent lifestyle, was unable to survive the combination of syphilis and smallpox. With Tung Chih’s death, Tzu Hsi’s detractors claimed, the empress was able to continue her rule as regent by putting yet another child-emperor, Kuang Hsu, on the throne.
It would be a mistake, however, to say with certainty that Tzu Hsi was responsible for Tung Chih’s death. If Tung Chih had indeed died of foul play, there would have been other suspects who had the motives to kill him. For example, many princes, including Prince Kung, an ally of Tzu Hsi, were embarrassed by Tung Chi’s decadent lifestyle, and feared that the empire would fall apart if such an inept figure took on the full powers of the throne. This great concern might have led to the murder of Tung Chi. Furthermore, Tung Chi and Tzu Hsi were described as quite affectionate toward each other in their mother-son relationship, making it less plausible that the empress dowager would kill her beloved son for the sake of power.
Despite these facts, in many historical accounts Tzu Hsi was the scapegoat for Tung Chi’s death, primarily due to the rumors spread by K’ang. K’ang claimed that he had many personal encounters with Tzu Hsi, and that he had many insights into the imperial life in Beijing. Following the failure of the One Hundred Days Reform, K’ang evaded capture by Tzu Hsi and fled to Japan, where he would launch venomous attacks against the empress’s reign, accusing her of the grossest indecencies. Hailed as “the sage of modern China,” K’ang easily gained the belief of Westerners and Chinese readers despite the obvious tendency for bias in his description of Tzu Hsi.
Another rumor concerning Tzu Hsi involved her alleged sexual escapades with palace eunuchs. There were hints that Tzu Hsi’s favorite eunuchs, An Te-hai and Li Lien-ying, were not castrated, and that they served as sex slaves of Tzu Hsi. Lim Boon Heng, K’ang’s host in Singapore, made tantalizing references to sex and intrigue in the palace: “after the death of [Tzu Hsi’s] husband, she was obliged to exhibit her beauty to vulgar eyes within the palace.” Lim was also a reformist publisher of anti-Manchu articles, and left readers with a twisted image of Tzu Hsi: “She… did not hesitate to repeat in almost every detail the crimes and intrigues of Catherine de’s Medici.”
The rumor about Tzu Hsi’s sex life probably was a slander. The procedure for choosing eunuch was meticulous, and the imperial palace had a strict rule on the selection of the eunuchs. In the inner palace where the concubines lived, the emperor was the only intact male present. It was impossible for a false eunuch to escape detection at court because every eunuch was required to pass an entrance examination which made fraud impossible. Furthermore, after the death of Hsien Feng, Tzu Hsi was not firmly in power yet, and her virtue was constantly under inspection, especially by powerful rivals like Empress Hsi An. Any misdeed would have led to fatal consequences. It is quite hard to believe that Tzu Tsi would have dared to violate palace laws for the sake of a few eunuchs during her early days as co-regent.
Another accusation surrounding Tzu Hsi involved the empress’s role in the Boxer Uprising. The Boxers were a group of anti-Christian and anti-foreign peasants from the impoverished province of Shantung. In 1900, Boxer rebels occupied Beijing and besieged foreigner churches and consulates. The Chinese government did little to remedy the situation, and an allied coalition of Western troops stormed Beijing to rescue the besieged foreigners. In Beijing, the allied troops conducted massive looting, and many Chinese residents were killed in the chaos.
There were many versions told about Tzu Hsi’s role in the Boxer Uprising. In Princess Der Ling’s account, Prince Tuan was the one who supported the Boxers. Tzu Hsi was initially hesitant to go against the foreigners due to their armed might, but Prince Tuan arranged a clever hoax to demonstrate that the Boxers were immune to Western firearms in front of the empress dowager. By fooling Tzu Hsi, Tuan gained authorization to aid the Boxers, and led to the ruinous occupation of Beijing by Western troops. In some other accounts, Tzu Hsi was goaded into action when Prince Tuan presented to Tzu Hsi a forged letter from foreign governments demanding that Tzu Hsi step down from power. Enraged beyond control, Tzu Hsi proceeded to side with the Boxers against the foreign governments.
From the above two versions, it can be concluded that Tzu Hsi did not intend to attack foreigners, that she was fooled by Prince Tuan. Furthermore, according to Seagrave, contrary to popular Western belief, Tzu Hsi did not “declare war on the world.” It was the allied fleet which initiated official hostilities by attacking Chinese forts en route to Beijing in 1900. Nevertheless, at the time of the Boxer Rebellion, most Westerners believed Morrison’s account of the storming of Beijing, which was published in the Times and then in various adaptations by other newspapers around the world. In Morrison’s narration, the cause of the Rebellion was blamed solely on Tzu Hsi: “The anti-foreign, anti-Christian movement which has now culminated in the occupation of Peking by the allied Powers… was from the outset encouraged and fostered by the Empress Dowager and by the ignorant reactionaries whom she selected as her advisers”. In another article that Morrison published, he pointed out that General Tung, “a favorite bodyguard of the empress dowager,” was responsible for the death of a Japanese consulate official during the Rebellion. Morrison did not mention, however, that Tzu Hsi had issued an edict stating her regret and sorrow for the official’s death. As the only foreign correspondent in Beijing, Morrison easily established his biased accounts as the official Western version of events surrounding the events of 1900.
The aforementioned rumors and other negative accounts of Tzu Hsi can been seen in Backhouse’s book. Backhouse portrayed Tzu Hsi as a ruthless, single-minded, and oversexed tyrant whose corrupt misrule caused the collapse of an imperial system that had endured for over two thousand years. By publishing this book, Backhouse established himself as an expert Sinologist. Riding on his popularity, Backhouse sold many of his so-called rare Chinese imperial documents to museums and people. These same documents were later found to be fakes, and Backhouse was exposed as a liar. However, Tzu Hsi’s tarnished image was not ameliorated by Backhouse’s demise, and was continually repeated by later writers.
Due to the scarcity of historical evidence, one can never be exactly sure of Tzu Hsi’s personality, and whether she was solely responsible for the events in China during her rule. However, malicious writers such as Morrison, K’ang, and Backhouse popularized an ugly portrayal of the empress, and Tzu Hsi’s reputation today remains an unfortunate victim of the pen.
Zoe Yu Jiang (’06) is a final year student at Brandeis University majoring in Biology.
Laidler, Keith. The Last Empress: The She-Dragon of China. England: John Wiley & Sons, 2003. p. xxii – xxvi
Seagrave, Sterling. Dragon Lady: The life and Legend of the Last Empress of China. New York: Alfred A. Knopf, 1992. p. 6
Seagrave p. 7
Seagrave p. 9
Bland, J.O.P, and E. Backhouse. China Under the Empress Dowager. Boston and New York: Houghton Mifflin Company, 1914. p. 166
Laidler p. 19 – 42
Seagrave p. 137
Seagrave p. 9
Laidler p. 201
Seagrave p. 10
Seagrave p. 270
Der Ling, Princess. Old Buddha. New York: Dodd, Mead & Company. 1929. p. vii
Der Ling p. 245-249
Laidler p. 222
Seagrave p. 332
Trevor-Roper, Hugh. Hermit of Peking: The Hidden Life of Sir Edmund Backhouse. New York: Alfred A. Knopf, 1977. p. 209-213