Famous Rulers in History Empress Dowager of China Tzu Hsi Part 1

About the famous Chinese Empress Dowager Tzu Hsi, history of her early and personal life.


Vital Statistics: She was born with the name Lan Kuei ("Little Orchid") on Nov. 29, 1835 (the 10th day of the 10th moon), probably in Peking, to a minor Manchu official, Hui Cheng, and his wife.

In 1852, she was named concubine to Emperor Hsien Feng, and her name became Tzu Hsi (or Tz'u Hsi). Her personality was mercurial and therefore fascinating. Those who defied her usually regretted it. This dynamo--and she was a dynamo until she died--was barely 5 ft. tall in stocking feet (5 ft. 6 in. in the high heels she affected), with a small, compact body, which became pudgy in middle age. Her somewhat coarse face, dominated by a prominent chin (it tripled with time), was enlivened by her intelligent expression and vivid smile. Obvious makeup turned that face into a white mask, with spots of rouge on each cheek and on her lower lip, which was supposed to look like a cherry. Her silky black hair was uncut, worn in an elaborate headdress. Because she was a Manchu, she never had her naturally tiny feet bound as the Chinese did. Her hands, too, were delicate, and the nails on her third and fourth fingers were 4 in. long, covered with fancy protectors. (Someone at the time commented that her hand felt like a bunch of pencils.)

Tzu Hsi's son, born in 1856, was Hsien Feng's only recognized male offspring and became emperor on his father's death in 1861. With Empress Niuhuru (also called Tz'u-an), the barren wife of Hsien Feng, Tzu Hsi ruled as regent for the child-monarch--a role she played intermittently throughout her life.

She died on Nov. 15, 1908, leaving behind a huge fortune and a crumbling empire.

Personal Life: Tzu Hsi probably spent much of her childhood and adolescence in the southern part of China. She was a Manchu, of the people originally from Manchuria who had overrun China in 1644 and had controlled its upper echelons ever since. In spite of the fact that Chinese girls were not encouraged to be literate, she somehow learned to read and write.

As a teenager, she may have been engaged to a tall, handsome general, Jung Lu, the "Alcibiades of China," one of a macho type she was always interested in. Rumor had it that he became her lover after she entered the Forbidden City and that she cast him off when she reached middle age. Whatever their intimate relationship was, he played a major role in her life.

It was her destiny--and she believed in destiny--to become concubine to Emperor Hsien Feng when she was 17 years old; this was a coveted position of honor, open only to Manchu girls. The sumptuous royal household of 6,000 people (all women and eunuchs except for the emperor) was walled inside the walled Forbidden City, which in turn was inside another walled section of Peking (a system of Chinese boxes in the large). The eunuchs, many of whom freely chose the castration necessary for a job in the palace as an alternative to poverty (a fact that reveals something of the miserable state of the Chinese at the time), were often undercover powers in the court, practiced in the intrigue and graft that riddled the corrupt bureaucracy. Several of them became important to Tzu Hsi as confidants and assistants.

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