A contemporaneous account of Empress Dowager Cixi.



It is safe to predict that in the future history of China the name of Tz'ŭ Hsi Tuan Yu Kang I Chao Yü Chuang Chêng Huang T'ai Hou will be prominent as that of one of the most remarkable sovereigns who ever guided the destinies of the "black-haired people." And, in fact, there are many features of special interest in the personality and antecedents of the lady about whom we have lately heard so much in connection with the Franco-Chinese campaign, and whose indomitable force of will has been alone instrumental in securing for her the unrivalled position she now occupies. To begin with, it is a remarkable thing for a woman to hold the reins of empire for so long a period as that enjoyed by her present Majesty. The Salic law is rigorously enforced in China, and although a woman may be Regent, she can never become the acknowledged equal of an Emperor in his own right. She may be de facto Empress of China, governing as well as reigning; but there must always be an Emperor, in whose name and as whose representative she wields the supreme power. Under no circumstances is a female ever permitted to succeed to the Dragon Throne in her own person; and while this law was undoubtedly the result, in the first instance, of the same just conviction on the part of the Chinese as that which is now working in England to keep Miss Helen Taylor out of Parliament, the inflexibility of its observance is justified by the infamous examples of female imperial profligacy which in two cases have disgraced the annals of China. The first occurred in the dynasty of Han, an epoch which is regarded by every good Chinese as one of the most glorious in the history of his country. The Emperor Kao Tsû, or Lofty Ancestor, having abdicated in favour of his son, who died soon afterwards, the Empress Dowager, Lü T'ai Hou, usurped the throne, and reigned wickedly and unjustly for eight years. Jealousy of a more youthful and beautiful rival, the Lady Ch'i, had, even in the lifetime of the Emperor, developed all that was evil in the nature of this woman; and it is related that her vengeance at length prompted her to cut off her rival's hands and feet, put out her eyes, render her deaf and dumb, and then throw her alive upon a dunghill, bidding her young son go and inspect for himself the "human sow." When, on the death of both the old and young Emperors—the latter of whom died a drivelling imbecile, in horror at his mother's crimes—she assumed full power in the state, her reign was a series of the most mischievous political intrigues, and her decease was hailed with deep and heartfelt satisfaction in all parts of her dominions. The other instance occurred in the time of the T'angs, the period when China was most brilliant, most luxurious, most cultured; the golden age of poets and courtiers, musicians and fair women; the time, in short, when China excelled in everything but domestic virtue and political strength. One of the inferior concubines of the reigning sovereign, the future Empress Wu, a woman of low birth, retired from court on the death of her protector and embraced a religious life. She is said to have been extraordinarily fascinating,—though it must be confessed that the only portrait of her we have ever seen represents her as particularly plain. But eventually she was discovered in her convent by the successor of the monarch, and after years of the cleverest and most audacious intrigue, found herself in a position of power which for an entire generation proved absolutely unassailable. She was the female counterpart of the great, bad sovereign who burnt the books, boiled the sages, buried courtiers alive, and arrogated to himself the title of The First Emperor. From a purely artistic standpoint, it is a thousand pities that this woman was so vile; for the splendid audacity of her genius, and her wonderful originality and independence of character, would otherwise have combined to make her a true heroine of romance, and one of the most extraordinary and attractive characters in the history of the world. Stories of her strange extravagances are legion. Everybody has read how she claimed authority over nature, and pretended to make the peonies bloom at her command as she walked in the palace gardens; how she had one good, great counsellor, to whom she remained steadfast throughout in spite of her evil propensities; how she strengthened her power by foreign alliances; how she altered the style of her reign no fewer than seventeen times; how she attempted to change the mode of writing Chinese characters; how she held the reins of government for over twenty years in the teeth of the universal execration with which she was regarded; and how, in spite of the actual existence of a real Emperor on one hand, and the Salic law on the other, she assumed and was accorded the title of "Most Holy Emperor" herself. The end of this woman was in violent antagonism to poetical justice. She was eventually deposed; but she lived her life out in a splendid palace, and passed peacefully away at the last. Her memory and the memory of the Empress Lü are both infamous, and the Chinese point to the reigns of these two women as justifications of the national policy with respect to the exclusion of women. But now another precedent appears on the page of history. The late Eastern Empress, Tz'ŭ An Tuan Yü Chien Ching Chao Ho Chuang Ch'ing Huang T'ai Hou, who died some years ago, is said to have been a virtuous and amiable woman, but devoid of commanding genius. The Chinese speak differently of the Western Empress, the lady who then became sole Regent. She, according to all accounts, is a person of great originality and force of will. Some years ago she was dangerously sick, and for months her condition caused the gravest anxiety at Court. The only food it was possible for her to take was milk, and no fewer than sixty wet-nurses were engaged to keep Her Majesty alive. Physicians were sent for from all parts of the empire, some of whom, in despair of their own nostrums, went secretly and begged medicine from Dr. Dudgeon of Peking, a well-known practitioner who reckons some of the highest mandarins in the metropolis among his patients. The applicants, however, were unsuccessful; the doctor told them plainly that if the Court chose to swallow its pride and call him in he would undertake the case of the illustrious patient with pleasure, but that he certainly objected to confiding his drugs to other people, and letting them reap all the credit in the event of Her Majesty getting well. Suddenly it was announced that the Empress was dead. But it was the wrong Empress,—the Dowager or Eastern Empress, who was believed to be in perfect health! The event caused a profound sensation in the capital, and numberless were the rumours that passed from mouth to mouth. It was, however, shrouded in mystery, and we shall probably never know the truth about it. Suffice it to say that Tz'ŭ An unexpectedly died, and Tz'ŭ Hsi unexpectedly recovered; and she has continued in excellent health ever since. It is she who now holds the reins of power, and is the undisputed mistress of China. When the present writer saw her a few years ago, she was about three and forty years of age. Her hair was dressed "butterfly-fashion"—that is, twisted in thick coils along a sort of bar stretching across the top of the head, and protruding on either side—and fastened with gold hair-pins; her straight, well-formed features had an austere look, as she gazed stolidly straight in front of her; and she wore a plain robe of lavender or light-mauve silk, as half-mourning for her son, the late Emperor T'ung Chih. That was before the death of her sister-Empress. Since then her personal influence has very materially increased, and she has dared on several occasions, to set all precedent and etiquette aside whenever such restrictions interfered with her own caprices. Tired of her long confinement to the Winter Palace, and in defiance of popular opinion, Her Majesty now goes constantly to the beautiful gardens known as the Nan and Chung Hai, and there gives audiences and holds her court. So thoroughly is she said to throw off the restraints of royalty as to practise archery, and is even reported to have taken lessons in boxing, attired in a sort of Bloomer costume, from an old eunuch. The sight must be vastly entertaining. Her Majesty, who is no longer in the first bloom of youth, has a dignified presence and a set, stern expression of face. Her appearance, at the age of fifty, in short skirts, hitting out at her venerable preceptor, and, we presume, occasionally receiving punishment herself, must, to say the least of it, cause some scandal to the strait-laced Censors who recently remonstrated with her upon the undue smartness of her headdress; for if it be indecorous for a lady, to say nothing of an Empress, to so far forget her age, her widowhood, and her dignity as to wear showy caps, what must they think when they see her actually pummelling and being pummelled? Many widow ladies are not insensible to the consolations of pretty cap-ribbons; but how many indulge in the relaxation of la boxe? We, however, who are only barbarians, can afford to take a more generous view; and it is pleasant, to our mind, to see the Manchu Empress of China credited, even by rumour, with setting so good an example of independence. According to precedent, it would have been more virtuous for Her Majesty, on being left a widow, to have dressed in sackcloth for the rest of her life, used thorns instead of hair-pins, and perhaps even starved herself to death. The Empress Tz'ŭ Hsi has, happily for herself and for China, far more human nature about her; and her name will certainly descend to future generations, in the histories now being compiled, as that of the best Empress that China has ever had, in spite of the archery, the boxing-matches, the smart caps, and the too great economy of skirt.