Dowager Empress

Three Books on Tzu Hsi, Empress of China 1861-1908

Empress Orchid, Anchee Min, 2004

Empress Orchid Anchee Min
All Photos for covers and author by Lei Q. Min

A fictional account based on extensive research of the early life of Orchid, known as Lady Yehonala or Tzu Hsi, the last Empress of China who ruled China for a 46 years beginning in 1861 when she is 26 years old.
In the novel, Tzu Hsi is chosen as a forth rank concubine to the Emporor when she comes to Beijing at age 16. Her life in the Forbidden City is miserable and she is ignored by the Emporer. She allies herself with an intelligent young Machivellian eunich, An-te-hai, and together they bribe and plot her way to the attention of the emporor. She gives birth to the Emporer’s only son, escapes assassination and other eunich conspiracies and emerges with her eunich ally as the powerful Dowager we have come to remember. Along the way she allies herself with her brother-in-law Prince Kung and falls in love with general Yung Lu, a love she must hide at all costs.

The Last Empress, Anchee Min, 2006

The Last Empress

This novel picks up the story of Tzu Hsi after the Opium wars, at the start of her widow’s life. The novel presents all these events and turbulent times from the point of view of self educated, tough Tzu Hsi. An-te-hai is murdered with the permission of first wife Nuharoo. Her son grows up without wisdom and discipline. His cousin Prince Kung’s son leads him into drugs, pornography, and common brothels. He acquires venereal disease and then dies of smallpox at age 19.

Tung Chih was like those winter plum trees…Since birth, he had been bent and twisted into a showpiece…His schooling included everything but common sense. He was taught pride but not understanding, revenge but not compassion, and universal wisdon but not truth…How could he not have grown sideways.

Tzu Hsi and first wife Nuharoo adopt three year old Guang-hsu, son of Tzu Hsi’s mad sister and her younger brother-in-law. Tzu Hsi and Nuharoo remain regents and Tzu Hsi continues to rule China. During this period the most serious threats to China came from Britain who had annexed Burma, France who took control of Vietnam, and Meiji Japan, who invaded Korea and China and annexed the Ryuku Islands and Taiwan. Emporer Meiji’s life 1952-1912 largely overlaps that of Tzu Hsi but their rule had very different outcomes.

Guang-hsu was sickly and unable to father children. This is just as well since his mother was mad and he married his first cousin. He was also weak minded and fell under the influence of his tutor and a radical reformer, Kang Yu-wei, who naively wanted to reform China along the same lines as Meiji had done in Japan. When the hundred day reforms was put down and its leaders executed, Kang Yu-wei was rescued by the Japanese and he lived the rest of his life in Japan where he continued to spread false rumors throughout the Western and Japanese press about the evils within the Chinese court.

For the second time in her life at court Tzu Hsi was forced into exile away from the capital. Tzu Hsi was asked by conservatives at court to resume her regency in the face of mounting problems from foreign intrigue and the conservative backed Boxers rebellion.

Talented and loyal Li Hung-chang had to negotiate with Japan after the Japanese invasions and with all foreign powers after the Boxer rebellion and legation crisis. After each negotiation, China lost territory, natural resource rights, and increased her load of indemnities.

Tzu Hsi outlived weak Guang-hsu and presided over the selection of Puyi, grandson of general Yung Lu and son of Guang-hsu’s youngest brother as The Last Emperor ( subject of the 1987 movie by Bernardo Bertolucci) in 1908. Puyi was three years old. Tzu Hsi ordered that no woman should ever be named regent in China again. China became a Republic in 1911.

Two Years In The Forbidden City, Princess Der Ling, 1911

This Book is a non fiction account of life in the Forbidden City by the daughter of a Chinese diplomat, lord Yu Keng , Princess Der Ling, who was appointed first lady in waiting to Tzu Hsi from 1903 to 1905. It is available for reading online.

Der Ling and Empress Tzu Hsi Der Ling

After her father served as Chinese Minister to France, Princess Der Ling returned to China with her family in 1903 . Her mother, sister, and she were ordered to the Forbidden City to serve Tzu Hsi, then in her late sixties, who was still curious about life and customs in Paris and the West. Tzu Hsi had seldom been able to meet with foreigners during her reign. Tzu Hsi finally met Sir Robert Hart, the Englishman who served as head customs official for China for more than 40 years and who was responsible for collecting as much as one third of all court revenues, in 1902. During Der Ling’s time at court Tzu Hsi occasionally met with foreigners and the wives of foreign officials.

Der Ling in Western Dress Der Ling and Family

The Empress Dowager ordered Der Ling to wear western clothes for a time so she could see and study western fashion while she served in her court. Princess Der Ling was fluent in French and English and served the mistrustful Tzu Hsi as informal interpreter during meetings with Western dignitaries. A fascinating look at life in the inner court and its intrigues as its moves from winter to summer residences.

A previously published work China Under the Empress Dowager, Sir Edmund Backhouse, Oxford Press 1910 was exposed in 1974 as a fraud with counterfeited documents. It is this and other accounts that have led Tzu Hsi to be viewed in China and the West as “…a mastermind of pure evil and intrigue.” (from a Communist Chinese textbook)

One of the ancient sages of China foretold that “China will be destroyed by a woman.” The prophesy is approaching fulfillment. (Dr. George Ernest Morrison London Times 1892-1912)

Tzu Tsi birth chart