Famous Rulers in History Empress Dowager of China Tzu Hsi Part 5

About the famous Chinese Empress Dowager Tzu Hsi, history of China, her reign, the Boxer Rebellion.


In the north, the organization known as I Ho Ch'uan ("Righteous Harmony Fists") was fomenting rebellion. Called Boxers by the foreigners, its members hated Christians and proceeded to kill as many as possible in as gory and vicious a manner as they could. Tzu Hsi did not stop them. They supported the Mandate of Heaven, and moreover she herself was antiforeigner. When they marched into Peking shouting, "Burn, burn, burn; kill, kill, kill," she still did not stop them. The atrocities shocked the Europeans; for example, they captured aged Prof. Hubert James, tortured him for three days, then cut off his head and impaled it on a spike as a gruesome display. Foreign women at the legations made sandbags out of silk pajamas as part of the now famous siege. As European troops marched toward Peking, Tzu Hsi, breathtakingly (or ignorantly) defiant, declared war on nine countries: the U.S., Great Britain, France, Germany, Italy, Austria, Belgium, Holland, and Japan. She had a bull by the tail. Fascinated by the Boxers' macho attitudes and vaunted abilities to perform miracles, she was also aware that their barbarity could cause them at any moment to get completely out of hand. Moreover, not all Chinese leaders--not even the powerful Li Hung-chang and Jung Lu--were in favor of what they told the Europeans was a "rebellion."

Foreign troops entered Peking while Tzu Hsi was combing her hair. Cutting off her 4-in. nails and putting on a peasant's blue cotton, she buried her treasure and took off with the emperor and empress. On the trip west to Sian, she saw firsthand and for the first time the poverty of the Chinese people. In Peking, the conquerors desecrated shrines, ran a railroad through a cemetery, and penned graffiti on the royal bedroom walls. Li Hung-chang and others negotiated settlement of the war, which ended in that same year, 1900. The Chinese were to have 10 high officials executed, 25 forts destroyed, and pay $330 million over 40 years in reparation for the killing of 247 missionaries, 66 legation personnel, and 30,000 Chinese converts to Christianity. Tzu Hsi was restored to the throne. Perhaps because of a change of heart brought about by her flight west or because of recognition of the inevitable, she started to promote the reforms she had so long resisted. Her nine-year plan provided for mass education, elimination of unusual punishments like beheading and slicing ("death of 1,000 cuts"), improvement of the legal system, monetary reform, the taking of a census, and slow establishment of a constitutional monarchy. Foot-binding was declared illegal, Chinese and Manchus were at last allowed to intermarry, and the import and growing of opium were banned.

By 1907 Tzu Hsi was a wrinkled old woman with black and missing teeth, her face paralyzed by a slight stroke. In 1908 she developed dysentery. On Nov. 14, Kuang Hsu died, possibly of a poisoning ordered by her, and on Nov. 15, she too succumbed, but not before choosing her successor, the two-year-old son of Ch'un II and Jung Lu's daughter.

She had ruled one fourth of the human race. During her reign, China lost territory and was brought, mostly against her wishes, into the world of the 20th century. She was tyrannical and inconsistent and made quixotic decisions. The costs of the Boxer Rebellion alone burdened the country for years after her death. Had she not been such a reactionary, China might have been industrialized sooner, made trade agreements more easily with European countries, and avoided the bloodshed of foreign wars.

Yet had she been more tolerant of reform, had the monarchy been less corrupt, then the strain on the Chinese people might not have been so unbearable that they came to overthrow the weak regime under the boy-emperor she named as her successor. And China might not have become a republic quite so quickly as it did.

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