In thousands of years of Chinese history, there have only been three reigning Empresses. The last Empress of China, the legendary Cixi or Tzu Hsi (1835-1908) was not Chinese but Manchu.

The Manchus who ruled China from 1644 -1911 (Ching/Qing Dynasty), made their Han Chinese male subjects shave their foreheads and wear their hair long in a queue, Manchu-style as a mark of subservience - an edict that was brutally enforced. The Manchus were ultimately unable to cope with the tide of great change and internal rebellion in the 19th century even as stronger nations from Europe and nearby Japan pounded on their doorstep.

In her lifetime and for nearly 70 years after her death, Tzu Hsi was vilified as the stereotypical "Dragon Lady", a beautiful, seductive woman who was also cunning and cruel. Although she was regent for nearly 50 years, she was in reality a pawn used by vengeful and ultra-conservative Manchu princes in a power struggle between reformers and foreigners.

Her wicked reputation was all a hoax, perpetuated by an Englishman, Sir Edmund Backhouse (1873-1944) whose fertile imagination forged most of his Chinese sources. His titillating accounts of her supposed sexual exploits and murderous plots fed the curiosity of Westerners hungry for any information about life behind the walls of the Forbidden City. Alas, other earlier biographers relied on his "information" resulting in several unflattering books.

The real Tzu Hsi, daughter of a minor Manchu official and a pretty 5 foot tall girl, was chosen to be an Imperial concubine when she was just 16. Contrary to Western belief, being an Imperial concubine was not considered demeaning but a great honour. A luxurious life and exalted status was preferable to a harsh life outside the palace. The concubines became permanent members of the royal family and spent their whole lives in the Forbidden City. They even had their own retirement home in the northeast complex - the Hall of the Forgotten Favourites.

Imperial concubines competed intensely for the Emperor's favor. Tzu Hsi's future was secured when she bore the Emperor his only male heir. After the death of her weak husband, she became co-regent with the official Empress, with thousands of eunuchs at her beck and call. Coming from humble beginnings, Tzu Hsi paid great attention to her dress and accessories. Over her lifetime, she accumulated over 3000 boxes of "every day" jewelry! Mostly gifts from admirers and those seeking her favour, they ranged from gold, pearl and jade bracelets to gem encrusted hair pins. Tzu Hsi changed her accessories and clothing several times a day to display these jewelry items as much as possible.

Imperial audiences took hours to prepare. In addition to her rich robes and elaborate head-dresses, she wore a cape covered with 3500 canary-egg sized pearls, secured by jade clasps. She also wore pearl and jade bracelets and jade rings. Adhering to ancient custom, she wore long gold fingernail protectors on her little and ring fingers of one hand. Her other fingernails were trimmed short.

Tzu Hsi outlived her syphilitic son who led a very short life of utter debauchery and her weak and sickly nephew. She was also regent for the last Emperor of China, PuYi. The Ching dynasty was to last only three years more after her death. The end of the dynasty also saw the end of long hairstyles for Chinese men,  as queues were cut off literally overnight.

Picture source : Hand coloured photograph c.1890 of the Dowager Empress taken when she was in her fifties.

Reference and recommended biography
Sterling Seagrave (1992) Dragon Lady: The Life and Legend of the Last Empress of China

Original Post by THE BEADING GEM
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