Famous Rulers in History Empress Dowager of China Tzu Hsi Part 2

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


China was in a state of chaos and change. The Taiping Rebellion, begun in 1850 under the puritanical Hung Hsiu-ch'uan (he called himself Jesus' younger brother), grew until its army of poor peasants numbered 250,000; in 1853 they took the city of Nanking. The revolt was to go on until 1864, a continual drain on the fortune and military strength of the ruling classes. Moreover, foreign powers, previously almost unknown to the Chinese, were whittling away at outlying parts of China and its protectorates. With them they brought Western technology. Confronted with it, the Chinese reactionaries resisted building railroads and factories and telegraph systems because they were afraid such innovations would destroy the ancient Confucian way of life. Of course they were right.

To avoid all this (for he was not challenged by other men, but defeated by problems), Hsien Feng played in the brothels and opium dens, drawn to transvestites and the Chinese "lily-footed" women with their erotic, 3-in.-long bound feet. As Hsien Feng played, Tzu Hsi studied, improved her calligraphy, and read the classic works of Confucius and other thinkers. According to author Marina Warner in The Dragon Empress, "While her memories of squalor, poverty, and graft evaporated, her spirit was not refined on the strop of a long formal education in the classics, so she retained, under the veneer of literacy and of learning, the more primitive beliefs in Buddhism and magic with which she had been surrounded in the south and in Peking."

In 1855, Niuhuru, who had entered the Forbidden City at the same time as Tzu Hsi to become empress, remained barren. Hsien Feng, seeking to father an heir to the throne, began looking over the neglected concubines for a potential mother. He chose Tzu Hsi. As was the custom, he turned over the jade tablet bearing her name, which lay with those for the other concubines on a teak table outside his bedroom, and the chief eunuch wrapped Tzu Hsi naked in a red rug, carried her to the emperor's bed, and dumped her at the foot of it. She crawled to the head to meet the emperor's embrace. What embrace it was remains lost in history; it is more than likely that he knew a variety of positions described in sex handbooks of the time--the Jade Girl Playing the Flute (fellatio), the Fish Interlocking Their Scales (woman on top), and many more. In any case, he liked her; to show it, he raised her status one rank.

On Apr. 27, 1856, at the age of 20, Tzu Hsi gave birth to a son, Tsai Ch'un, in the summer palace, Round Bright Garden. Again the emperor raised her status, and more significantly, he began to involve her in affairs of state from behind the scenes. By then he was suffering from the effects of his hedonism; he had dropsy in one leg, and his health was failing.

Meanwhile, the "big-nosed hairy ones," the "barbarians from the Western Ocean" (Europeans), were becoming difficult. A British army under Lord Elgin approached Peking, and when the French looted the beautiful palace of Yuan Ming Yuan, Lord Elgin finished the job by razing the palace and buildings surrounding it. Meanwhile the Russians gained control over a large piece of territory, including what became Vladivostok. In his typically cowardly fashion, Hsien Feng hid in his summer palace; Tzu Hsi, who had to go with him, was disgusted with his behavior and let him know it. Prince Kung, half brother to the emperor, an arch diplomat, stayed on in the city to negotiate with the foreigners.

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