Guest Author - Caroline Baker
In the movie, The Last Emperor, many of the Western World were introduced for the first time to Pu Yi, the last Emperor of China. The world he came from seemed like a whole other dimension, hard to believe that everything occurring in that movie took place only a decade ago.
Not many, however, have studied how he came into this illustrious position.
Pu Yi became the Emperor of China at the age of two, when he was named such by the Empress Dowager Cixi. The title, "empress dowager", was given to the mother of a Chinese Emperor.
Not much is known about Cixi's youth as it was forbidden for a long time to speak of any person in the royal family prior to their entrance into the Forbidden City. It is recorded that she came to the Forbidden City as a concubine, and not one of very high standing.
Her status in the Court quickly rose to second in command when she gave birth to the first, and only, son of the current Emperor Xianfeng. In 1861, when Emperor Xianfeng died, her son became Emperor Tongzhi and she became the Empress Dowager.
Since she was just the concubine to the Emperor, her and the Emperor's primary wife, Cian, both served as Empress Dowager, and ruled the land as regents.
Because women could not openly rule, the governed China behind a screen that separted them from the throne. Upon the throne was Cixi's eight-year-old son.
In his late teens, her son died of smallpox. Since he had no offspring, there was no one to take over the thrown. Cixi orchestrated the rise of her sister's three-year-old son, Guangxu, to the throne. Her sister died shortly after this as did the other Empress Dowager Cian.
From a distance, Cixi continued to rule through Guangxu. When Guanxu became seventeen, a man in Chinese standards, Cixi surrendered the power of the throne over to him. However, it is rumored that she continued to try to influence him and the direction of China.
However, Emperor Guanxu began to listen to people who wanted to Westernize China and began the "Hundred Days of Reform". He created many enemies, including the former Empress Dowager. She devised a coup that left Emperor Guanxu locked in tower in the middle of the Forbidden City.
This period of time in the Chinese history was filled with a great deal of turmoil. The Western world was invading and new, emerging philosophies of politics, such as Capitalism and Communism, were starting to take hold in the land.
The Boxer Rebellion swept through China, calling for removing the Western influences on the world. The movement backfired and the foreigners overtook Peking. A great deal of blood was shed and when a peace treaty was signed to end this conflict, much had changed in China. The Chinese people saw this as a weakness in their government and a humiliation. Cixi created many enemies and increased disintegration of her powers.
In a last ditch effort to maintain control, she brought the three-year-old son to the Emperor's brother to the Forbidden City. Under mysterious circumstances, the imprisoned Emperor Guanxu died and the next day Pu Yi was placed on the throne. His father was established a regent, with a promise to Cixi that he would follow her. However, the next day, Cixi herself had died at the age of seventy-three.
Thus ends the story of Empress Dowager Cixi and how Pu Yi came to the throne to become the Last Emperor of China.
The Last Emperor
The movie that put Pu Yi up on the big screen and brought to life the turmoil of the Last Emperor's life. This story, set very close to the actual events, made for a movie that showed all the changes happening in China.
From Emperor to Citizen: The Autobiography of Aisin-Gioro Pu Yi by Aisin-Gioro Pu Yi
An autobiography by the Last Emperor himself, this story goes through his life. This firsthand description of all the events that shaped not only his life but the essense of China itself as many changes spread across her landscape.
Dragon Lady: The Life and Legend of the Last Empress of China by Sterling Seagrave
An acclaimed account of the life of Empress Dowager Cixi. This book does a wonderful job of capturing all of the major events that occurred during the time. It presents a somewhat controversial depiction of the Empress Dowager, one that paints her as a real woman with a lot of pressures all around her.
Imperial Woman by Pearl S Buck
Author of The Good Earth, Buck has captured yet another masterpiece of depicting the Chinese culture. Buck's image of Empress Dowager falls in line with the more traditional view of how ruthless she was and how filled her court had been with intrigue. We may never know what truly happened behind the walls of the Forbidden City, but at least we can enjoy what has been written about them.