two empresses of China-- 2/23/15

Today's selection -- from Empress Dowager Cixi by Jung Chang. Upon the death of Emperor Xianfeng his five year old son succeeded to the throne under the supervision of a Board of Regents. At the time of his father's death, his mother, imperial consort Cixi, had no political standing. In fact, she was not even considered the young emperor's official mother. The widowed Empress Zhen was officially the empress dowager. Distrusting the young emperor's Regents, after they had poorly advised Emperor Xianfeng during the opium wars, the two women worked together so that they were both recognized as Dowager Empresses and then they staged a coup:

Portrait of Empress Dowager Ci'an (co-regent with Cixi) 

"The Two Dowager Empresses ... decided on different honorific names. Empress Zhen took 'Ci'an', which means 'kindly and serene', and Cixi, hitherto called Imperial Concubine Yi, took Cixi, meaning 'kindly and joyous'. ... They went on to form a political alliance and launch a coup. Cixi was twenty-five years old and Empress Zhen a year younger. Facing them were eight powerful men in control of the state machine. The women were well aware of the risk they were taking. A coup was treason, and if it failed punishment would be the most painful ling-chi, death by a thousand cuts. ...

"Cixi devised an ingenious plan. She had noticed a loophole in her husband's deathbed arrangements. The Qing emperors demonstrated their authority by writing in crimson ink. For nearly 200 years, beginning with Emperor Kangxi as a young adult, these crimson-inked instructions had always been written strictly by the hand of the emperor. Now, however, the monarch was a child and could not hold the brush. When the decrees were issued by the Board of Regents in the child's name, there was nothing to show authority. ... This deficiency was pointed out to the Board after it issued the first batch of decrees. It was told, then, that the late emperor had given one informal seal to the child, which was kept by Cixi, and another similar seal to Empress Zhen. It was suggested to the Board that these seals could be stamped on the decrees as the equivalent of the crimson-ink writing, to authenticate them. ...

"The Board of Regents accepted the solution and announced that all future edicts would be stamped with the seals. ... The authority of the seals was thus established, an accomplishment that would be vital in the forthcoming coup. ... Next the women tried to secure Prince Gong as an ally. The prince was the foremost nobleman in the land and was held in high esteem. ...

"[W]ithin days of her husband's death, Cixi quietly extracted an edict out of the Regents allowing Prince Gong to visit the Hunting Lodge to bid his late half-brother farewell -- in spite of the late emperor's order. ... Prince Gong was [given] a very long audience [with the Empresses], much longer than any the Regents had been given. But it rang no alarm bells with them. ...

"Knowing how prudent the prince was, Cixi, it seems, did not broach the idea of a coup at this first meeting. Overturning the late emperor's solemn will was not something he would readily contemplate. What the conversation seems to have achieved was an acceptance from Prince Gong that the empire should not be left entirely in the hands of the Board of Regents, who, after all, had such a woeful track record. On this basis, the prince agreed to get someone in his camp to petition for the Two Dowager Empresses to take part in decision-making, and for 'one or two close princes of the blood to be selected to assist with the affairs'. The petition would not mention Prince Gong by name. He clearly wanted to avoid the impression that he coveted power, even though he had solid ground to stake a claim.

Empress Dowager Cixi

"This idea was secretly conveyed to Prince Gong's camp in Beijing, and a relatively junior subordinate was designated to write the petition. Prince Gong feared that the Board of Regents might detect the link with him when they saw the petition, so he left the Hunting Lodge before it arrived. ... As expected, the Regents rejected the petition unequivocally, on the grounds that the late emperor's will could not be altered, plus the cast-iron rule that women must be kept away from politics. Cixi now had to make the Regents do something inexcusable so that Prince Gong would agree to oust them. She and Empress Zhen set out to provoke an offence. Cradling the child emperor, they summoned the Regents and engaged them in a heated confrontation about the petition. The men grew angry and replied contemptuously that, as Regents, they did not have to answer to the two women. As they roared, the child became scared and cried and wet his pants. After a prolonged row, Cixi gave the impression that she bowed to their verdict. The petition was publicly rejected in the name of the child emperor.

"Cixi had engineered a major offence by the Regents -- that they dared to shout and behave disrespectfully in front of the emperor and had frightened him. Citing this event, she drafted by hand an edict in her son's name condemning the Regents. ...

"On the last day of the ninth lunar month of 1861 ... Cixi ignited the fuse of her coup. She told Prince Gong to bring his associates to her and Empress Zhen, and when they arrived she had the coup edict declared to them. In a winsome show of grief, the Two Dowager Empresses denounced the Regents for bullying them and the child emperor. All present showed great indignation. In the middle of the denunciation, the Regents who had been travelling with Cixi rushed into the palace and shouted outside the hall that the women had broken a cardinal rule by calling the male officials into the harem. Cixi, looking mightily incensed, ordered a second edict written and stamped there and then: for the arrest of the Regents, on the grounds that they were trying to prevent the emperor from seeing his officials, which was a major crime.

"The original edict had only ordered the Regents' dismissal from their positions. Now Prince Gong took the new decree and went to arrest the Regents who had been shouting. They bellowed: 'We are the ones who write decrees! Yours can't be proper since we did not write them!' But the two magic seals silenced them. Guards brought
by the prince dragged them away. "


Jung Chang


Empress Dowager Cixi: The Concubine Who Launched Modern China


Alfred A Knopf


Copyright 2013 by Globalflair, Ltd


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