Famous Rulers in History Empress Dowager of China Tzu Hsi Part 3

About the famous Chinese Empress Dowager Tzu Hsi, history of China, her rise to power, and her reign.

THE EMPRESS DOWAGER OF CHINA

Rise to Power: Knowing that the emperor would soon die. Tzu Hsi worried that her son might not succeed to the throne. (It was up to the dying monarch to name the next ruler, and he need not choose a relative.) In a dramatic gesture, she burst into the emperor's room, where he lay in the last month of his life on imperial yellow sheets, and, in her words, "I took my son to his bedside and asked him what was going to be done about his successor to the throne. He made no reply to this, but, as had always been the case in emergencies. I was equal to the occasion, and I said to him. 'Here is your son'; on hearing which he immediately opened his eyes and said, 'Of course he will succeed to the throne.'"

He was as good as his word, appointing eight regents and the two empresses dowager (Niuhuru and Tzu Hsi) to run things while his son (now T'ung Chih) grew up. Palace intrigue being what it was, his last wishes were not sacrosanct, and the emperor had hardly breathed his last before the plotting, mainly by the Princes Cheng and I, began. As Tzu Hsi and her retinue went with the funeral procession from the summer palace to Peking. Jung Lu rode along to guard her in case of ambush. Prince Kung met her, and she was carried into the city on a yellow quilted chair. The eight regents were arrested; Princes Cheng and I were given the privilege of hanging themselves with government-supplied silk ropes.

In Power: The regency of the two empresses was called "Listening behind Screens to Reports on Government Affairs"; they acted as puppeteers behind bamboo screens, putting words into the mouth of the infant-emperor. It was Tzu Hsi, rather than the "rather illiterate" Niuhuru, who really ruled, though Prince Kung, as Tzu Hsi's teacher, also had great influence. Each morning at dawn. Tzu Hsi and Kung came together in a formal, dignified meeting to discuss issues. From him she picked up an attitude of belligerence toward foreigners, a hesitant acceptance of some Western technology, and a last-ditch clinging to Confucianism.

In 1864 the armies of the Taiping Rebellion rose for the last time; before they were wiped out by provincial leaders like Tseng Kuo-fan and Li Hung-chang (who dominated northern China with his army), they took 600 cities. The instigator of the rebellion, the half-crazy Hung Hsiu-ch'uan, poisoned himself and was found dressed in regal, dragon-decorated yellow, lying in a sewer, when Nanking fell.

After 1884, when she removed Kung as adviser by the simple expedient of throwing a tantrum, Tzu Hsi held most of the power. The tone she set was low-key, Confucian, autocratic, but non-attention-getting, for to the Chinese, as one writer said, a woman ruler was as absurd as a crowing hen.

Foreigners were nibbling away at the edges of China or making large inroads by demanding and getting long-term leases of Chinese territory. In the 1870s and 1880s, the Russians moved into central Asia, Britain took over Burma, the French completed the taking of Vietnam, and the Japanese took Korea; and that was not all.

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