Modern-day China differs greatly from its days of imperial monarchy. The origins of this change are rooted in the events of the 19th century. Here, Chris Galbicsek explains how Empress Dowager Cixi played a key role in resisting internal attempts at Westernization in 19th century China.
Today, we know China as a modern communist colossus, and yet we also know China as a nation steeped in a long history of imperial monarchy. In our busy lives, most of us carry around these two images of China without really thinking much about the connection. But how and why did the Chinese monarchy fall in the first place, prior to taking its modern form? Given that China looms so large on the world stage, and given that the Chinese political transformation occurred so recently in history, this lack of public awareness is striking. A closer look reveals some important insight into the ideological and political forces at play in the world around us, as well as a fascinating chapter in the human story.
By the eighteenth century, China had been a remarkably insular empire for hundreds of years. The British had long tried to gain access to the Chinese market by reaching out to the Manchu dynasty, but had little success. However, British merchants eventually did find an effective entry point with the illicit sale of opium. As the Chinese addiction to opium grew to staggering proportions, so did the British addiction to the profits.
By the time Chinese officials finally got around to enforcing its opium prohibition with more seriousness, British merchants were not cooperative. When the Chinese then seized huge stockpiles of opium contraband, this only prompted an indignant British response. As the British demanded reimbursement for their seized property, conflict quickly escalated into violence, and then came war.
The Opium Wars Changed China
The industrialized British military quickly pounded China into submission. Various unfavorable trade agreements were forced upon China, including the formalized legalization of the opium scourge, with all of its terrible effects.
As a result, the Chinese empire, which had long considered itself to be the center of the world, was now brought to humbly 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 vis-à-vis the West. If China had indeed been the center of the Earth, then the Earth seemed to have shifted overnight.
The situation represented a critical precipice for China, and the nature of the Chinese response was to be enormously consequential. Japan, coming to grips with similar geopolitical revelations, chose to steam headlong directly into this new phenomenon of "Westernization".
The Chinese leadership, in contrast to Japan, did not proceed with nearly as much solidarity. While there were some voices that did urge immediate adoption of Western technology and institutions, many others insisted instead on a stringent conservatism, and were deeply reluctant to abandon any part of their Confucian worldview, which had 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 an initiative known as the "Self Strengthening Movement", in an ambitious effort to bring about Western reforms. For the first time, a Ministry of Foreign Affairs was established, modern schools were formed, and the study of foreign languages was promoted. Additionally, Western arms and shipbuilding projects were set in motion, along with railroads and telegraph lines. Initially, the program seemed to be creating meaningful change in China.
What Went Wrong?
But Prince Gong's voice, and pro-Western voices like his, were soon drowned out by others, and most notably by the young emperor's mother: the Empress Dowager Cixi. Virulently anti-Western, the empress soon demonstrated an uncommon level of political shrewdness, and managed to thoroughly consolidate power around herself within the royal leadership. It has been reasonably presumed that part of the motivation behind Cixi's strong ideological stance, resulted from her calculation that Western governmental reforms would only serve to reduce her influence. In the end, Cixi would prove so politically irrepressible, that she would go on to profoundly influence China for an astonishing forty-seven years.
While the "Self Strengthening Movement" officially continued, Cixi (pronounced "tsuh-shee") and her cohorts steadily undermined (and even outright sabotaged) various aspects of the project, and set out to marginalize its proponents. As a result, critical momentum was stymied.
On one occasion, Cixi refused to approve construction for an important railway line from Beijing, and when the project finally did move forward, she insisted that the train cars be pulled by horses, so as not to disturb the souls resting in nearby tombs with engine noise. On another occasion, Cixi sent for seven de-commissioned British warships, but then for seemingly trivial reasons, ordered the ships to turn around and head back to England upon their arrival.
In 1893, Cixi continued to frustrate national affairs when she allegedly embezzled thirty million taels of silver, which had been set aside for naval shipbuilding. Instead, Cixi redirected the badly needed funds toward the restoration of the imperial summer palace. Significantly, it was the case that no new Chinese naval ships were put into service from that point forward.
But the tactics of the empress included more ruthless measures as well. Historians widely believe that Cixi was responsible for the poisoning of her own emperor son in 1875. Likewise, she pushed Prince Gong (the architect of the Self Strengthening Movement) into semi-retirement in 1884. And when the subsequently installed emperor (who had replaced her son) later attempted another sweeping national reform movement (known as the "Hundred Days' Reform") in 1898, the empress again intervened. This time Cixi led a coup to overthrow the young reformist emperor, banishing him to house arrest on an island for the remainder of his life.
As might be expected, with all of this internal resistance, China did not fare well when tested militarily during this period. In 1885, China was badly beaten by the French in Indochina. In 1895, China was again beaten badly by the Japanese, losing its hold on Korea and Taiwan, and revealing just how much more industrial progress Japan had managed to achieve.
After orchestrating the coup against the emperor in 1898, reactionary conservatism, atavism and xenophobia were ratcheted up by the Manchu government. Soon Cixi was cracking down on reformist-minded intellectuals, and even blaming natural disasters on Westerners.
When the empress openly endorsed the "Boxer Rebellion" at the turn of the century, the Manchu dynasty further alienated itself. Believing themselves to be invulnerable to Western weapons, over ten thousand “boxers” rampaged throughout the country against anyone and anything pro-Western. After great loss of life, the rebellion was soon put down, and the resulting war reparations exacted by the West left the Manchu royalty desperately in debt. Not long after, with the dynasty barely hanging on and the situation now increasingly precarious, the mighty Cixi died in 1908.
Within three years of her death, the spark of revolution caught fire, and spread across China. Province after province began to declare independence. Having been continually rebuffed, the impulse toward reform gave way to revolution. The weakened dynasty was now powerless to defend against the wave of resistance, and the monarchy was soon toppled. In 1911, the two hundred and sixty-eight year Manchu dynasty had come to an end.
What followed for China was nothing short of disaster for most of the twentieth century. After a valiant attempt at republicanism failed, China fractured and fell into a chaotic decade of rule by warlords, followed by a bloody national civil war, and then by the now infamous (though not infamous enough) communist reign of Mao Zedong. The result for the Chinese people was more death and destruction than perhaps any other single nation in history over a similar span of time.
Looking back, it is hard not to wonder how much longer the Chinese monarchy might have lasted, had pro-Western technology and political institutions been more fully embraced within the royal court. Even after the British shamefully imposed the scourge of opium upon China, the Manchu dynasty was left standing for another half century. And while it may not be fair to lay responsibility for the fall of the monarchy directly at the feet of any one individual, the outsized nature of Cixi's direct and decades-long personal anti-Western impact certainly was a key contribution which invites attention, and begs questions. Under different guidance, how much longer might the monarchy have lasted? How much of the political turmoil and human suffering in the century that followed might have been mitigated? How much differently things might have turned out for China and the world, both in the twentieth century and today.
Chris Galbicsek studied Philosophy at Colgate University. He came to intensely appreciate history in the time since, and has recently launched a historically-themed t-shirt site, Exoteric Apparel, which aims to raise historical awareness through fashion.
Baum, Richard. University of California, Los Angeles. The Fall and Rise of China. The Great Courses, 2010.
Chang, Jung. Empress Dowager Cixi: The Concubine Who Launched Modern China. Knopf Publishing, 2013.