Empress Dowager Ci'an

From Academic Kids

Empress Dowager Ci'an (慈安太后) (1837 - April 8, 1881), popularly known in China as the Eastern Empress Dowager (東太后), and officially known posthumously as Empress Xiaozhen Xian (孝貞顯皇后), was the empress consort of the Xianfeng Emperor (b.1831– d.1861) of the Manchu Qing Dynasty in China, and then empress dowager after 1861. Born Lady Niohuru, she was the daughter of Muyangga, an official from a powerful Manchu family, the Niohuru clan. Her mother was the concubine Lady Giyang, of the Giyang clan.

Missing image
Ci'an, perhaps around the time she became empress consort

She entered the Forbidden City in the late 1840s, and served as a maid, or lady-in-waiting, in the apartments of the crown prince, the future Xianfeng Emperor. At the time, the principal wife of the crown prince was the Lady Sakda (Sakota), of the (Manchu) Sakda clan, who was made posthumously Empress Xiaode Xian (孝德顯皇后). The Lady Sakda died on January 24, 1850. The next month, on February 25, the Daoguang Emperor also died. Thus, the crown prince became the Xianfeng Emperor, but was left without an empress.

Two years later, in the end of March or beginning of April 1852, after a proper mourning period, the Lady Niohuru was made an imperial concubine of the fourth rank (嬪), and was given the name Zhen (貞 - meaning "upright", "virtuous", "faithful to the memory of one's husband" [i.e. by remaining chaste after his death and not remarrying]). In the end of June or beginning of July of the same year, she was promoted from Concubine of the fourth rank Zhen (貞嬪) to Concubine of the second rank Zhen (貞貴妃). Then on July 24, 1852 she was officially made empress (皇后).

She was unable to produce a male heir, and it was the concubine of the fourth rank Yi (懿嬪), later known as Empress Dowager Cixi, who succeeded in giving a son to Xianfeng in April 1856. On August 22, 1861, in the wake of the Second Opium War, Xianfeng died at the Rehe Traveling Palace (熱河行宫), 230 km./140 miles northeast of Beijing, where the imperial court had fled. His heir, the son of the concubine Yi, who was about to become the Tongzhi Emperor, was only 5-year-old. As a consequence, the imperial family was shaken by a struggle over who would assume the regency. Eventually, in November 1861, the concubine Yi, with the help of Prince Gong (恭親王), staged a palace coup known as the Xinyou Coup (辛酉政變), had the opposing princes commit suicide and their leader the Manchu official Sushun (肅順) beheaded, and succeeded in securing the power into her hands and those of the empress consort.

The concubine Yi was officially made "Holy Mother ¹ Empress Dowager" (聖母皇太后), a high privilege considering that she had never been empress consort while Xianfeng was alive. She was privileged to become empress dowager only because she was the biological mother of the new emperor. She was also given a honorific name (徽號) which was Cixi (慈禧 - meaning "motherly and auspicious"). As for the empress consort, she was made "Empress Mother Empress Dowager" (母后皇太后), a title giving her precedence over Cixi, and she was given the honorific name Ci'an (慈安 - meaning "motherly and calming"). As she dwelled in the eastern part of the Forbidden City, Ci'an became popularly known as the Eastern Empress Dowager (東太后), while Cixi, who dwelled in the western part of the Forbidden City became known as the Western Empress Dowager (西太后).

On several occasions after 1861, Ci'an was given additional honorific names (two Chinese characters at a time), as was customary for emperors and empresses, until by the end of her life her name was a long even string of characters starting with Ci'an.

For the next twenty years until her death in 1881, Ci'an assumed the regency of the Empire of the Great Qing, along with co-regent Cixi, first during the minority of Emperor Tongzhi, then during the minority of the Guangxu Emperor after the premature death of Tongzhi in January 1875. Although in theory she had precedence over Cixi, she was in fact a self-effacing person and seldom intervened in politics, unlike Cixi, who was the actual master of China. Her only notable intervention in politics was in 1869. The most feared grand eunuch of the imperial court An Dehai (安德海), close confidant of Cixi, was on a trip south to buy some dragon robes for Cixi. While traveling in Shandong province, he used his power as an envoy of Cixi to extort money from people, which caused great trouble. The matter was reported to the court by the governor of Shandong, and Ci'an who heard about it ordered the immediate execution of An Dehai, who had been the all powerful figure at the imperial court until then. This was quite an unusual reaction for Ci'an, and the execution of An Dehai is said to have greatly displeased Cixi.

On April 8, 1881, during an audience at the court, Ci'an did not feel well and was accompanied to her private apartments, where she died within an hour. Her sudden death was a shock for people, as the health of the empress dowager had always been excellent. It is only natural that rumor would spread that she had been poisoned by Cixi, perhaps in revenge for the execution of An Dehai 12 years before. However, such claims have never been substantiated and new evidence has not appeared in the many years since.

A popular view of Ci'an is that she was a highly respectable person, always quiet, never hot-tempered, unlike Cixi, and that she treated everybody very well, and was highly respected by Xianfeng. Her good-hearted personality was no match for the perfidious and maneuvering Cixi, who managed to sideline the naive and candid Ci'an, and is even supposed to have killed her in the end. This is still the majority view in China, the image of a quiet Ci'an perhaps stemming from the meaning of her honorific name. However, some historians have painted a very different reality, mainly that of a self-indulgent and idle Ci'an, who did not care as much for government and hard work as she cared for her pleasures and sweet life inside the Forbidden City. Cixi, on the other hand, was a shrewd and intelligent woman who was ready to make sacrifices and work hard in order to obtain the supreme power, and who faced the complex problems that were besetting China at the time, while Ci'an was indulging in an easy life. As often, reality may lie in between these two extreme visions.

The posthumous name given to Ci'an, which combines the honorific names which she gained during her lifetime with new names added just after her death, was:


which reads:

"Empress Xiao ² -zhen ³ Ci'an Yuqing Hejing Chengjing Yitian Zuosheng 4 Xian 5 ".

This long name is still the one that can be seen on Ci'an's tomb today. The short form of her posthumous name is:

"Empress Xiaozhen Xian" (孝貞顯皇后).
Missing image
The Dingdongling
(Puxiangyu Dingdongling on the left, Putuoyu Dingdongling on the right)

Ci'an was interred amidst the Eastern Qing Tombs (清東陵), 125 kilometers/75 miles east of Beijing, in the Dingdongling (定東陵) tomb complex (literally: the "Tombs east of the Dingling tomb"), along with Empress Dowager Cixi. More precisely, Ci'an lies in the Puxiangyu Dingdonling (普祥峪定東陵) (literally: the "Tomb east of the Dingling tomb in the Vale of wide good omen"), while Cixi built herself the much larger Putuoyu Dingdongling (菩陀峪定東陵) (literally: the "Tomb east of the Dingling tomb in the Vale of Putuo"). The Dingling tomb (literally: the "Tomb of quietude") is the tomb of the Xianfeng Emperor, the emperor of Ci'an and Cixi, which is located indeed west of the Dingdongling. The Vale of Putuo owes its name to Mt Putuo (literally: the "Mountain of the Dharani of the Site of the Buddha's Enlightenment"), at the foot of which the Dingdongling is located.


1. i.e. mother of Tongzhi
2. "filial"; during the Qing Dynasty this was always the first character at the beginning of empresses' posthumous names
3. same character as when she was a concubine
4. this string of 12 characters are the honorific names that she received while alive, with possibly the last characters having been added only just after her death
5. "the Clear", or "the Illustrious"; this is the posthumous name of the Xianfeng Emperor; during the Qing Dynasty the last character of empresses' posthumous names was always the posthumous name of their emperor
nl:Cian ja:東太后


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