The Child Slave Who Grew up to Become China’s Last Empress

Empress Dowager Cixi

Cixi, the empress who reigned from 1861 to 1908, deserves a reassessment after a century of vilification as a megalomaniacal murderer and sexual predator.

Evidence that history has given her a bad rep and an undeserved rep emerges after skimming biographies of the empress by typing the key words “opium addict” into’s “Look inside this book” feature.

No bio mentions her addiction to opium, a critical omission. Her culpability for the Boxer Rebellion’s atrocities remains unsubstantiated. The palace orgies she hosted never happened.

Cixi’s erratic behavior, such as wasting the Chinese navy’s entire budget on a marble boat too heavy to float, becomes more fathomable with the revelation that her mind was befuddled by the botanical source of heroin.

Her alcoholic mate, the emperor, addicted her to the debilitating drug. While Westerners pillaged China’s wealth and ravaged society by importing the crack of the Victorian era, the imperial couple spent all their time in bed, intoxicated.

An American nonfiction account of the two opium wars waged between China and Britain in the 19th century contains a rare reference to the empress’ substance abuse, which 90 percent of the court and army shared:

“China issued an imperial edict with a curious sunset clause. Opium users over 60 were exempted from criminal penalties for one reason alone. The dowager empress was an opium addict.”

No English-language biography of Cixi (pronounced “tsíh siih”) mentions the clause or the reason for its inclusion. The empress’ alleged sexual voraciousness also goes unchallenged.

The Chinese Empress’ Horrific Childhood

If Cixi does deserve her sanguine reputation, childhood brutalization might explain her cruelty as an adult.

Her debt-ridden father sold the 12-year-old as a sex slave to a rageaholic government official who adopted the girl but beat her. That was the second sale of this child chattel. A wealthy peasant had purchased her when she was four.

How did these early traumas affect her later actions as the ruler of almost half a billion Chinese? No biography provides a comprehensive psychological portrait.

Cixi’s demonization reached preposterous levels with a lurid fantasy published a year after her death by a British pornographer who claimed he had participated in palace orgies she hosted.

Credible eyewitnesses insisted she was a prude whose only extramarital dalliance was a platonic “romance” with a soldier-bodyguard.

China’s future ruler was born in 1835, the daughter of an impoverished army officer, and named Lan Xeu (Little Orchid). By law, the infant had to be registered as a potential addition to the emperor’s Olympic-sized harem.

At 16, she became engaged to a soldier when word of her beauty reached the emperor, who added her to his human collection as a concubine, a slave mistress, not a wife.

After the emperor became enamored of another slave, the discarded concubine would have disappeared from history if she hadn’t given birth to his only male heir.

Following the emperor’s death in 1861, their five-year-old son came to the throne. His mother was appointed regent and renamed, Cixi (“Motherly and Auspicious”). Hiding behind a screen in the throne room, she whispered instructions to the child.

Childhood abuse and poverty had not destroyed her prodigious self-confidence. She confided to a lady-in-waiting, “I have often thought that I am the most clever woman who ever lived. I have 400 million people dependent on my judgment.”

Unfortunately, that judgment tended to be reactionary. After China’s second defeat by Britain in 1860, reformers pushed for modernization to avoid future domination by foreigners.

Lifestyles of the Nouveau Riche and Infamous Ruler of China

Cixi resisted reform while embracing extravagance. Besides her marble boat, she owned 3,000 jewel boxes and hosted banquets with 150 courses and solid-gold chopsticks. A new palace the size of a city displayed more conspicuous consumption.

Her son lacked his mother’s ambition. An alcoholic drug addict, the boy emperor preferred affairs with male and female prostitutes over affairs of state. After surviving smallpox, the precocious slacker succumbed to a venereal disease while still a teenager.

The replacement Cixi chose was a three-year-old nephew whose youth preserved her monopoly of power. At 17, he tried to modernize and reform the empire, but his aunt vetoed the attempt, claiming the youth was mentally retarded.

A coup d’etat she orchestrated led to her nephew’s solitary confinement in a palace with blacked-out windows. After his death, enemies alleged that she had poisoned her luckless prisoner.

His aunt installed another nephew, a three-year-old named Puyi, the subject of the 1987 film, The Last Emperor.

Cixi’s Responsibility for the Boxer Rebellion

The empress’ greatest claim to infamy comes from allegations that she instigated the Boxer Rebellion of 1900, named after peasants who practiced martial artists.

The Boxers massacred 250 foreign merchants and missionaries during a 55-day siege of Peking’s European legation until an international force of 20,000 troops easily routed rebels armed with Medieval weaponry, then looted the capital and raped and tortured innocent civilians.

It’s more likely Cixi feared rather than supported the anarchic power of the Boxers because she eventually had the ringleaders beheaded.

Although the empress’ collusion was never confirmed, the Chinese government paid war reparations equal to $130 million today. The expensive humiliation finally persuaded her to modernize and reform the empire.

In 1908, the empress died of dysentery at 72. Looters dynamited her mausoleum, an Ali Baba’s cave of gold and gems.

In 1949, the new Chinese government restored the tomb as a tourist attraction, a morbid Disneyland of capitalist excess and decadence.

One eyewitness disagreed with posterity’s caricature of an incompetent tyrant who poisoned family members and hosted catered orgies.

Katherine Carl, an American artist, spent 10 months painting four portraits of the empress. In a 1903 memoir, Carl praised her employer’s “unusually attractive personality.”

The Chinese Empress’ Equivocal Legacy

Whether she was charismatic, monstrous, or a contradictory combination of both, an impartial obituary of China’s last empress remains unwritten. This may be a start.


  1. Carl, Katherine. With the Dowager Empress of China. Kessinger, 2004.
  2. Seagrave, Sterling. Dragon Lady. Knopf, 1992.