Eminent Chinese of the Ch'ing Period/Hsiao-ch'in Hsien Huang-hou

HSIAO-ch'in Hsien Huang-hou 孝欽顯皇后 née Yehe Nara (Yehonala) 葉赫那拉, Nov. 29, 1835–1908, Nov. 15, is referred to in these biographies as Empress Hsiao-ch'in, but was also known by her title, as Tz'ŭ-hsi Huang-t'ai-hou 慈禧皇太后, or by her residence as Hsi T'ai-hou 西太后. In Western works she is generally known as the Empress Dowager or "The Old Buddha", the latter a translation of the Chinese term, "Lao Fo-yeh" 老佛爺. In the Palace she was sometimes referred to as "Lao Tsu-tsung" 老祖宗, or "Venerable Ancestor", in reference to her position in later life as head of the Imperial Family. Her own family belonged to the Manchu Bordered Blue Banner. Her father, Hui-chêng 惠徵 (posthumous name 端恪), was a clerk in the Board of Civil Office, at least during the years 1836 to 1837. He later rose to be intendant of the Circuit of Southern Anhwei (Hui-Ning-Ch'ih-T'ai Tao 徽寧池太道) but was cashiered in 1853 for leaving his post in the face of the advancing Taiping forces. He seems to have died soon after.

In 1851 Empress Hsiao-ch'in, then seventeen sui, was selected to enter the Palace as a low ranking concubine of Emperor Wên-tsung (i.e. I-chu, q.v.). Her status was raised in 1854, and again in 1856 when she gave birth to a son, Tsai-ch'un [q. v.], and was made a second class concubine with the title, I Fei 懿妃. Since her son was the only heir of Emperor Wên-tsung, and therefore destined to succeed the throne, her position in the Palace was greatly strengthened. In later years she confided to Ch'ü Hung-chi (see under Sun Chia-nai) that she learned about affairs of state from Emperor Wên-tsung who let her classify his memorials for him. In 1860, when the British and French allies advanced on Peking she and the child, then five sui, accompanied the Emperor to Jehol. On August 21, 1861, the day before the Emperor died, the child was proclaimed Heir Apparent. During his minority affairs of state were entrusted, according to his father's will, to a regency composed of eight men, including four adjutant generals, and four Grand Councilors, then in Jehol (see under Su-shun). In issuing decrees, however, the eight regents were to obtain the consent of the Dowager Empresses, namely, the child emperor's mother, and the senior consort, Empress Hsiao-chên 孝貞顯皇后 (née Niuhuru 鈕古祿, 1837-1881), also known as Tz'ŭ-an (慈安) Huang T'ai-hou, or Tung (東) T'ai-hou. Before his death the Emperor is said to have entrusted to Hsiao-chên a seal bearing the characters Yü-shang 御賞 to be impressed at the beginning of every edict issued by the regency. To Tsai-ch'un, in whose name the edicts would be issued, was given a seal bearing the characters T'ung-tao-t'ang 同道堂, to be impressed at the close of each edict. But as the child was still in his minority this seal was entrusted to his mother. Hence without her consent to use the seal no edict could be issued or recognized as authentic.

One of the first edicts issued by the regency from Jehol, in the name of the child Emperor (Mu-tsung), raised both Hsiao-chên and Hsiao-ch'in to the rank of Huang-t'ai-hou, or Dowager Empresses—the former with the designation Mu Hou 母后 "Empress Mother", the latter with the designation, Shêng Mu 聖母 "Saintly Mother". Another edict ordered I-hsin [q. v.], half-brother of the deceased Emperor, to look after affairs in Peking—the Allied Forces having by then departed and foreign ministers having taken up residence there. Early in September 1861 I-hsin went to Jehol, with Kuei-liang and Wên-hsiang [qq. v.], to persuade the Court to return to Peking and perhaps also to find out how the regency was functioning. What took place at the conference is not known, but in view of subsequent events the visit foreshadowed a series of acts which led to the overthrow of the regency.

About this time a censor memorialized, recommending that Empress Hsiao-chên should become regent to rule with the assistance not only of the eight men then in power but with the help of one or two princes closely related by blood to the deceased emperor. On September 14, 1861 the eight co-regents drafted a decree rebuking the censor and reminding him that precedents of the dynasty forbade the elevation of an empress to supreme control of the Empire. The Empresses, of course, disapproved this draft decree, and for some time refused to impress their seals upon it; but the co-regents forced them to do so by holding up all matters of state until it was issued. The Dowager Empresses summoned I-huan [q. v.], husband of Hsiao-ch'in's sister, to an audience in Jehol, but the co-regents refused to report his arrival, compelling him to wait outside the Palace, though he had come all the way from Peking. Finally, with the help of a eunuch, I-huan obtained the audience at which it seems a plan was drafted for the removal of the eight co-regents. The necessary military support came from General Shêng-pao (see under Lin Fêng-hsiang) who on September 17 or 18 published a memorial denouncing the eight co-regents. Soon after, a date was set for the return of the Court to Peking and also for the transfer of Emperor Wên-tsung's remains to that city. The Court left Jehol on October 26 and entered the capital five days later. Immediately a decree was issued blaming the regents for having brought on the calamitous war with the Allied Forces in 1860; for having wrongly counselled Emperor Wên-tsung to remain at Jehol, and so contributing to his death; and for having forced the Empresses to issue the edict condemning the above-mentioned censor. Seven regents who had returned to Peking were arrested by I-hsin, and the eight, Su-shun [q. v.], who was escorting the deceased emperor's coffin, was arrested north of Peking by a detachment of cavalry under I-huan. On November 8, Su-shun was beheaded and the other seven regents were punished (see under Su-shun). The Dowager Empresses, Hsiao-chên and Hsiao-ch'in, formed a joint regency, known as Ch'ui-lien t'ing-chêng 垂簾聽政 ("Listening from behind Screens to Reports on Governmental Affairs"). I-hsin was made Prince Counselor (議政王) to advise the regents on all state affairs. At this time Hsiao-ch'in had very little power, but was included in the regency, probably because her knowledge of written Chinese was useful to the senior Dowager Empress.

I-hsin was deprived of his special status in 1865, and thereafter the regency of the Dowager Empresses increased in power. By entrusting military powers to such able Chinese as Tsêng Kuo-fan, Li Hung-chang and Tso Tsung-t'ang [qq. v.], the campaigns against the Taipings and other rebels were carried to a victorious conclusion. The Taiping Rebellion was crushed in 1864, the bandits of the northern provinces were pacified in 1868 (see under Sêng-ko-lin-ch'in), and the Muslim uprising in Yunnan and Kweichow was put down in 1873 (see under Ts'ên Yü-ying). International affairs were entrusted to I-hsin, Wên-hsiang and other members of the Tsung-li Yamen (see under I-hsin). The gradual Westernization of China began at this time with the establishment of schools of foreign languages at Canton, Shanghai and Peking; the opening of a Navy Yard at Foochow; the creation of arsenals at Shanghai, Nanking and other cities; and the formation of a modern Customs Service, with the help of foreign experts. The Russian occupation of Ili in 1870 (see under Tso Tsung-t'ang and Ch'ung-hou) and the Japanese invasion of Formosa in 1874 (see under Shên Pao-chên) were events that strained relations with foreign countries, but in general the successes of the regency caused the T'ung chih reign-period to be known in history as one of national revival (中興).

As Empress Hsiao-chên was neither able nor ambitious, Empress Hsiao-ch'in gradually assumed more responsibility in appointing officials to important posts and in determining national policies. She won the loyalty of these officials and through them controlled the state. Inside the Palace she ruled through her favorite eunuchs. The execution of her chief eunuch, An Tê-hai, in 1869 (see under Ting Pao-chên), was a set-back to her authority, and she suspected I-hsin and Hsiao-chên of plotting his downfall and death. She is said to have turned against Hsiao-chên for alienating the affections of Tsai-ch'un and for siding with the latter in his choice of a wife. Being his mother, Hsiao-ch'in naturally regarded the selection of a daughter-in-law as her own prerogative. After Tsai-ch'un's marriage to Empress Hsiao-chê (see under Tsai-ch'un) in 1872 and the termination of the regency in 1873, he was still bound by the rules of filial piety to obey his mother, with the result that her control over state affairs continued almost unabated. Rumors arose that she thwarted him in his companionship with his wife, that she encouraged him in various excesses, and that from these excesses he finally died. Some biographers aver that the immediate cause of his death was a shock received one day when his mother in anger unexpectedly appeared as he was talking confidentially with his wife. Since reports of this nature are manifestly difficult to confirm we are left with the official statement that he died of smallpox (January 12, 1875). He left no heir.

On December 18, 1874, because of Tsai-ch'un's illness, the Dowager Empresses again became regents. On the afternoon of his death Empress Hsiao-ch'in, having made certain that troops favorable to her were in complete control of the city, called, with Empress Hsiao-chên's nominal consent, a meeting of the Princes, Grand Councilors, Ministers of the Household, and Tutors and Secretaries of the deceased Emperor. Though the Empresses presided jointly, it was Hsiao-ch'in who assumed the leadership and opened the conference by asking the group whether or not a return to rule by Ch'ui-lien t'ing-chêng was desirable. Noting no obstinate objections, she declared herself opposed to the placing of a mature person on the throne, and in favor of selecting a child amenable to education, for the duties that would later be his. She then informed the Assembly that she and Empress Hsiao-chên had already agreed upon the three-year-old child, Tsai-t'ien [q. v.], eldest son of I-huan, as their choice. The announcement came as a surprise to all present—even to I-huan, the father of the child in question. It was a flagrant violation of the dynastic law of succession which provided that in case of adoption the one chosen should belong to the next generation below the deceased, in order not to throw into confusion the relative positions of the Imperial Family group. If, however, she had chosen, as the regulations required, a nephew of the deceased, she would have been compelled to yield her position as Empress Dowager to Empress Hsiao-chê whom she disliked and had treated with cruelty, and from whom she would have every reason to fear reprisals if placed under her authority. Empress Hsiao-chê, on the other hand, understood clearly the precariousness of her position under the new arrangement. Seeing no hope for herself, or (as some sources maintain) for her unborn child, she committed suicide (see under Tsai-ch'un).

As soon as the Council agreed to the adoption of Tsai-t'ien, Hsiao-ch'in ordered the child to be brought from I-huan's home to the Palace. Although it was midnight, the proper imperial costumes for the child-emperor were promptly produced, indicating that the decision had been made some time previously. The child, later known as Emperor Tê-tsung, was escorted through the streets by the soldiers under Jung-lu [q. v.] and entered the Palace early in the morning of the following day. He became Emperor with the reign-title, Kuang-hsü (see under Tsai-t'ien), meaning "Glorious Succession", and the two Dowager Empresses again became co-regents. A few courtiers ventured to object to the choice, on the ground the Tsai-ch'un was thus left without an heir, but Empress Hsiao-ch'in soon took steps to silence such criticism by issuing an edict, promising that as soon as Emperor Tê-tsung had a male heir that son would become the adopted son of Tsai-ch'un, and would continue his line. Opposition, nevertheless, continued, and when four years later Wu K'o-tu [q. v.] committed suicide near Tsai-ch'un's grave, so great was the storm aroused that Hsiao-ch'in was forced to re-affirm her solemn promise that the deceased Emperor would not be left without heirs to worship at his tomb.

In April 1880 Empress Hsiao-ch'in became ill, and Empress Hsiao-chên acted as sole regent for about a year. On April 7, 1881, Hsiao-chên died suddenly, after only a day's illness. Rumors spread that she had been poisoned by Hsiao-ch'in, but the real cause of her death will probably never be known. In deference to her more able and far more aggressive co-regent, Hsiao-chên had gradually relinquished much of the power which as wife and Empress of Emperor Wên-tsung were rightfully hers, and now her life, too, was forfeited. Left as sole regent, Empress Hsiao-ch'in at once took steps to consolidate her authority. Long dissatisfied with I-hsin, probably because of his hand in the execution of An Tê-hai, she finally displaced him in 1884. Taking advantage of the attack of certain irresponsible censors upon him for his conciliatory attitude toward France over the question of Annam, she had him deprived of all his posts and cleverly divided his offices among the following Princes: I-huan, father of the Emperor, was ordered to be consulted on all national affairs; Prince Ch'ing (I-k'uang, see under Yung-lin) was entrusted with affairs at the Tsung-li Yamen; and Prince Li (Shih-to, see under Chao-lien) was placed in charge of the Grand Council. Control of affairs inside the Palace was placed in the hands of several eunuchs. For advice on matters outside the capital she relied chiefly on the seasoned stateman, Li Hung-chang. When the Office of Naval Affairs was established in 1885 it was entrusted to I-huan and Li Hung-chang, with two assistants.

In 1886 I-huan inspected the new navy, accompanied—be it noted—by Hsiao-ch'in's favorite eunuch, Li Lien-ying 李蓮英 (d. 1911). In the course of the tour a censor reprimanded the eunuch for insolence, and warned of the dangers of eunuch rule, but I-huan defended the culprit, and the censor was degraded. In the same year I-huan led the courtiers in entreating the Empress to continue her regency and not to transfer the government to Emperor Tê-tsung as previously promised. After a proper show of reluctance, the Empress consented and ruled as regent two years longer. Finally, on March 4, 1889, six days after the Emperor had married her niece, a daughter of Kuei-hsiang (see under I-tsung), she relinquished nominal control, doubtless, however, counting on her niece to help direct the Emperor, or at least to report matters to her.

Thereupon Empress Hsiao-ch'in retired to the Summer Palace northwest of Peking, known as I Ho Yüan 頤和園, or Wan Shou Shan 萬壽山. In the years 1886–91 this Palace was reconstructed from an old imperial garden, Ch'ing-i Yüan 清漪園, which had been partially destroyed by the British and French forces in 1860. The rebuilding was financed by funds intended for the construction of a navy (see under I-huan). Though a masterpiece of landscape gardening, its construction deprived the country of a much-needed navy. At this retreat the Empress Dowager each year inspected the troops on parade. But the expense for building and maintaining it was enormous, so that aside from large drafts on the treasury, she had to invent her own sources of revenue. High officials paid to her large sums for brief audiences and minor officials paid for promotions—the power of appointment having never been fully conceded to the Emperor. In 1894 preparations were made for the celebration of Hsiao-ch'in's sixtieth birthday, and officials and men of wealth were invited to contribute funds for the occasion. Officially, at least 1,206,900 taels were received—unofficial contributions doubtless being much greater. Even the outbreak of the Sino-Japanese War did not prevent the preparations from going on, but when reports of continual defeats came to Peking Empress Hsiao-ch'in reluctantly cancelled the event.

During the next four years friction between the Empress Dowager and Emperor Tê-tsung increased. Under the tutorship of Wêng T'ung-ho [q. v.]—which was abolished, however, by Hsiao-ch'in after 1896—and later with the encouragement of K'ang Yu-wei (see under T'an Ssŭ-t'ung) and others, the emperor became convinced of the necessity of specific reform measures which, by the summer of 1898, he was eager to put into effect. But actual power was still in the hands of conservative officials who, fearful of losing their posts, rallied to the support of the Empress Dowager. She, too, was fully aware of the danger to her power should the Emperor succeed in carrying out his plans, and so immediately took steps to maneuver her supporters into key positions. The loyal Jung-lu was made governor-general of Chihli in command of the best trained and best equipped troops of the day. On June 15, 1898 Wêng was ordered to retire and thus the Emperor was deprived of the last person who might have effected a reconciliation between the two factions. The only great official with military power whom the reformers believed they could hold to their side was Yüan Shih-k'ai (see under Yüan Chia-san) but in the end he betrayed them by revealing the plans to the Empress Dowager. On September 22 the latter summoned the Emperor to her presence and ordered him placed in confinement. Once more she assumed full powers as regent, keeping at her side all the reactionary and corrupt officials and eunuchs who certainly would have been removed if the reform movement of that summer had succeeded. Six of the leading reformers were executed, others found refuge in foreign countries, and the rest were cashiered (see under T'an Ssŭ-t'ung). Although Hsiao-ch'in and her followers thus completely wrecked the Emperor's projected reforms they were unsuccessful in their plan to dethrone him. Early in 1900 P'u-chun, son of Tsai-i (for both see under I-tsung), was made Heir Apparent as a preliminary step to dethronement. Congratulations to Tsai-i from the foreign ministers were then in order, but when these were not forthcoming his pride was piqued and from then on he lent his hand to anti-foreign activities.

Late in 1889 the secret society known as I-ho ch'üan (see under Jung-lu), or Boxers, became active in Shantung province, but when Yüan Shih-k'ai was made governor the agitators were driven to Chihli and Shansi, and by May 1900 anti-foreign riots and the destruction of churches became ominous in those provinces. By June, with the connivance of Tsai-i and other high officials, the Boxers entered Peking and on the 11th of that month unruly Kansu soldiers, who earlier had been brought in to guard the city, killed a secretary of the Japanese Legation. The foreign ministers took steps to guard the Legation Quarter and asked the assistance of their governments for troops. On the 17th the Allied Forces took the Taku forts. On the 19th the Empress Hsiao-ch'in and Tsai-i overruled all opposition, and a manifesto was issued asked all foreign envoys to leave Peking within twenty-four hours under the escort of Chinese troops. On the following day the German Minister, Baron von Kettler, was murdered by soldiers who had Tsai-i's orders to kill any foreigner at sight. Thus began the siege of the foreign communities in Peking. One group of 473 foreign civilians, some 400 guards, and several thousand Chinese converts and servants barricaded themselves inside the Legation Quarter, and a similar but smaller group defended itself in the Pei T'ang 北堂, the Catholic Cathedral, in another part of the city. Rioters burned and pillaged in many places—not even the homes of princes and high officials were spared. In Shansi province more than a hundred foreigners were killed and many others, including Chinese Christians, suffered cruelly. That the ravages did not spread to central and south China was due chiefly to the efforts of intelligent officials like Chang Chih-tung, Liu K'un-i and Li Hung-chang [qq. v.]. On August 14, the Allied Relief Expedition entered Peking and the siege of the Legations and the Cathedral was lifted.

Very early the next morning the Empress Dowager fled from the capital with the Emperor, a few officials, and servants. After many deprivations the party reached Taiyuan, Shansi, on September 10; and Sian, Shensi, on October 26. On the way a number of edicts were issued in the name of the Emperor in which he and his officials were made to take the blame for the disasters that had overtaken the Empire. Thus did Empress Hsiao-ch'in clear herself of responsibility and cannily prepare for return to power when the time was ripe. The Court remained at Sian for more than a year, entrusting to Li Hung-chang and to I-k'uang the difficult task of negotiating with the Powers. There was little these representatives could do except to agree to the demands incorporated in a protocol signed on September 7, 1901. While still at Sian the Empress Dowager began to issue decrees—in reply to demands of Liu K'un-i and Chang Chih-tung—looking toward various political and social reforms. Her belated interest in these matters may properly be interpreted as gestures to win the approval of foreigners and the support of the governors.

On January 7, 1902 the Empress Dowager, the Emperor and their entourage returned to Peking. Her attitude toward foreigners was now one of gratitude for having spared her from deserved humiliation and for allowing her to return to power. She gave many receptions to foreign diplomats and their wives, to missionaries and tourists, and soon won many friends by her cordial and charming manner. The reforms in government which she decreed were now essentially those which the Emperor had sought in 1898. The most far-reaching of these was the abolition of the old style examinations in 1905; others concerned the establishment of modern schools and the sending of a few students abroad for study, particularly in Japan. A decree was issued allowing inter-marriage between Manchus and Chinese, but when a Cabinet was formed in 1906 it was composed of nine bannermen and only four Chinese, thus actually very little was done to mitigate the growing animosity between the two races.

On November 14, 1908 Emperor Tê-tsung died, and on the following day the Empress Dowager who had dominated his entire career, also died. Before her death she named as the next emperor, P'u-i (see under Tsai-t'ien), son of Emperor Tê-tsung's brother, Tsai-fêng (see under I-huan). He was to carry on the line of both Mu-tsung and Tê-tsung, but as he was then only three sui, Tsai-fêng was appointed Prince Regent. The posthumous name, Hsiao-chin Hsien Huang-hou was given the Empress Dowager, and her remains were buried in the Eastern Mausoleum. Her tablet was placed in the Imperial Ancestral Hall. The close proximity of the deaths of Empress Hsiao-ch'in and Emperor Tê-tsung gave rise to many suspicions as to the manner of the latter's decease. Whether he died a natural death, or was murdered, has never been determined.

Hsiao-ch'in's appointment of Tsai-fêng as regent, and his son as heir to the throne, was not made out of consideration for the security of the dynasty or the welfare of the Empire. Tsai-fêng was lacking in nearly every quality necessary to a Prince Regent, as shown by his inability to restrain his brothers and other high princes when they forced him to appoint them to high positions in the government, irrespective of their qualifications. He thus lost the support of many able Chinese officials who might otherwise have come to his aid when the revolution broke out in 1911. Having yielded at every point on essential matters he had finally to yield to the abdication of his son and to the extinction of the dynasty.

The career of Empress Hsiao-ch'in in the Palace began in 1860 and ended with her death in 1908. For thirty-seven of those years she ruled the Palace and those nearest her with virtually absolute power, and for eleven years she ruled indirectly—a total of forty-eight years. Her outstanding endowments were an unquenchable ambition, a love of power, a love of money, and a physical vitality which almost never failed. She knew both the strength and weaknesses of men in high places; tactfully she used their talents to carry out great policies, and did not scruple to take advantage of their foibles for ends both selfish and cruel. She was superstitious, but in matters of policy was realistic. Considering her limited advantages, she gained a broad view of Chinese literature and a good working knowledge of Chinese documentary style. She was interested in music and art, and the theatre owed much to her patronage. Her calligraphy was better than average and she could also paint. After the Boxer turmoil she took sufficient interest in Western customs and modes of social intercourse to appoint, as ladies-in-waiting, two daughters of Yü-kêng 裕庚 (T. 朗西, d. 1905), one-time minister to Japan (1895–98) and to France (1899–1902). These young women knew several foreign languages and served as interpreters when the Empress Dowager entertained Western guests. One of them, known as "Princess" Der Ling, wrote several accounts of her experiences in the Palace, giving interesting sidelights on the Empress Dowager and her Court.

[1/220/17a; Ch'ing Huang-shih ssŭ-p'u (see under Fu-lung-an); Ch'ing lieh-ch'ao hou-fei chuan kao (see under Su-shun); Chin-liang, 清后外傳 Ch'ing-hou wai-chuan; ibid, 四朝佚聞 Ssŭ-ch'ao i-wên; Li Tz'ŭ-ming [q. v.], Yüeh-man t'ang jih-chi; Hsi-hsün ta-shih chi (see under I-hsin); Tso Shun-shêng, Chung-kuo chin pai-nien shih tzŭ-liao (see under Li Hsiu-ch'êng); Ch'ü Hung-chi, 聖德紀略 Shêng-tê chi-lüeh; Ch'ai E 柴萼, 梵天廬叢錄 Fan-t'ien lu ts'ung-lu, chüan 2, 3; Johnston, R. F., Twilight in the Forbidden City (1934), chapters 1–6; Wu Yung 吳永, The Flight of an Empress (1936), translated by Ida Pruitt; Der Ling, Two Years in the Forbidden City (1911); Conger, Sara P., Letters from China (1909); Headland, I. T., Court Life in China (1909); Carl, Katharine A., With the Empress Dowager (1905); Malone, C. B., History of the Peking Summer Palaces Under the Ch'ing Dynasty (1934), pp. 194–218; See also bibliographies under I-hsin, Jung-lu, and Su-shun.]

Fang Chao-ying