The Last Empress came to power in 1861, during a period marked by chaos and conflict. The Opium Wars (1840-1842) had taken place a mere 20 years before, followed by the 1850 Taiping revolt that spread to Yangzi and Nanjing. In 1860, an Anglo-French force attacked Beijing and looted the summer palace. At the same time, an American mercenary, Frederick Ward, joined the mêlée by forming, what would later be known as The Victorious Army, to defend Shanghai against Taiping. In all the commotion, the Emperor died at his hunting estate without naming his successor.
The petite and beautiful Cixi presided over the last vestiges of China’s imperial history. Born into a minor Manchu family, she entered the imperial court at the age of 16 and was soon granted the title of “Royal Concubine Yi” when she gave birth to Xianfeng’s only son. At 5 feet tall, she was known for her sweet voice and her fashion statement of high-heeled shoes and heavy makeup. She was notorious for refusing to embrace a subordinate role expected of women in China.
In 1861, Cixi became the major power at court following the ascension of her infant son to the throne. During her lifetime, she would be accused of ruthless behaviours including the murders of her rivals. But she thrived and exerted her authority in a male-dominated world operating from behind the throne through emperors under her control.
The Empire established by the first Emperor, Qin Shi Huangdi, came to an end in 1912, four years after the death of Empress Dowager Cixi. On January 1, 1912, in the city of Nanjing, the Republic of China was proclaimed with Dr. Sun Yat-sen as the first president. China entered the modern world.
Map Position: # 15 – Yaletown
The Last Empress
Artists: Amy Lau & Rob Dolphin