Empress Cixi 1861-1908

Today, China tends to be taken for granted as a communisitic colossus on the world stage. And though there is a vague sense of China's long and rich imperial past, it is rare indeed to hear any discussion at all of the process by which China transitioned from one form to the other. This neglected area of world history is all the more conspicuous given China's enormous impact on the world stage, given how recently its political tranformation occurred, and given the enormous amount of internal death and suffering inflicted within China in the process. Furthermore, it is amazing to learn just how easily it might have all turned out very differently.

By the late 18th century, China had long considered itself the center of the Earth. Highly self confident in this way, the empire had been unimpressed with the emergence of Great Britain, and uninterested in British efforts to broaden trade relations. For centuries, China had been a remarkably insular empire. But eventually, British merchants did find an effective entry-point into the Chinese market, with the illicit sale of opium. Addiction to opium within the Chinese population quickly reached staggering proportions, as did British addiction to opium trade profits.

By the time Chinese officials finally began enforcing its opium prohibition with seriousness, British merchants were far too invested to be cooperative. When the Chinese seized huge stockpiles of the opium contraband, it prompted an indignant British response. As Britain demanded reimbursement for its seized property, conflict quickly escalated to violence, and then came war.

[The Opium Wars Alter China's Standing.]

The industrialized British military quickly pounded China into submission. Various unfavorable trade agreements were forced upon China as a result, including the formalized legalization of the opium scourge, with all of its vampiric effects. As such, the Chinese empire which had long considered itself to be the center of the world, was now brought to bear witness to a very different geopolitical reality. No longer could China deny the wide margin of military superiority in the hands of the Western "barbarians." Nor did China any longer have the luxury of choosing its preferred level of economic involvement with regard to the West. The Earth seemed to have shifted overnight.

Japan, coming to grips with similar geopolitical revelations, chose to steam headlong directly into the new phenomenon of "Westernization." The situation presented a critical precipice for China. How would China respond? The nature of the Chinese response was to be of enormous consequence.

[The Chinese Response]

Chinese leadership, by contrast to Japan, did not proceed with nearly as much solidarity. Some voices did urge immediate adoption of Western technology and institutions. However, many others insisted instead on a stringent conservatism, and were deeply reluctant to abandon any part of their Confucian world which had indeed proven so enduring. When the Chinese emperor died in 1861, he left only a four-year-old son to take the Dragon Throne. The resulting power vacuum only magnified the challenges for an imperial court which already lacked a unified voice.

Nevertheless in 1861, Prince Gong managed to spearhead China's "Self Strengthening Movement" to effect Western reforms. For the first time, a Ministry of Foreign Affairs was established and the study of foreign languages was promoted. Western arms and shipbuilding projects were set in motion. Railroads, telegraph lines, and Western schools were introduced. But Prince Gong's voice, and pro-Western voices like his, were soon overshadowed by another figure.

[Empress Dowager Cixi]

The Empress Dowager Cixi was the mother of the young boy emperor, and virulently anti-Western. Cixi soon demonstrated an uncommon level of political shrewdness, thoroughly consolidating power around herself. Indeed Empress Cixi proved to be such a politically irrepressible force of nature, that she dominated the Chinese Imperial Court for the next 47 years, all the way until her death in 1908.

While the "Self Strengthening Movement" officially continued until 1895, critical momentum steadily faded. Cixi and her cohorts saw to it that this would be the case, as they continuously undermined and sabotaged various aspects of the movement along the way. At one point, Cixi insisted that the train cars in China be pulled by horses. At another point, Cixi embezzled 30 million taels of shipbuilding silver, redirecting necessary funds to instead restore the imperial summer palace. From this point on, no new naval ships were put into service.

With so much internal resistance, it is little wonder that China fared poorly when tested militarily during this period. In 1885, China was badly beaten by the French in IndoChina. In 1895, China was badly beaten by the Japanese, losing Korea. When in 1898, a young emperor made yet another concerted effort to institute sweeping Westernization with "Hundred Days' Reform," it is suspected that Cixi poisoned the emperor and dispensed with him.

The Empress Cixi died in 1908, just before the fall of the empire in 1911. In the twentieth century, with the Chinese Civil War and the ensuing Communist reign of Mao Tse Tung, the Chinese people experienced more death and destruction than perhaps any other single nation in history.


In hindsight, it is a wonder how much longer the Chinese Empire might have lasted, and how much differently the twentieth century might have turned out if Empress Cixi had embraced the pro-Western voices within her royal court. Of course, it must be pointed that the 19th century British insertion into Chinese affairs was inarguably abusive (by modern standards) and inflicted enormous suffering for the Chinese people, by pushing drug addiction on a national scale, and then militarily pounding China into acquiescence. At the same time, once China had the opportunity to close some of the critical capability gaps with the West, the prevailing voices within Chinese leadership appear to have been tragically relectant to do so. And while the British treatment of China was indeed horrific, it is hard to deny that the carnage inflicted upon China in the twentiteth century was not exponentially worse.

Remembering the nature of the Chinese political transormation is valuable for us today, an important chapter of our history, as we put our modern world into context in order to best live in the present, and to prepare for the future. If that sounds too preachy, like something you might find on the back of a Hallmark card, well at Exoteric Apparel we believe you can handle it; we believe in you.

Source: Baum, Richard. University of California, Los Angeles. The Fall and Rise of China. The Great Courses, 2010.

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