Beijing’s Summer Palace is entwined with the legend of one of China’s most colourful characters, the Empress Dowager Cixi. A woman so much larger than life it is only when you see the scale and the grandeur of the Summer Palace that her story can be fully understood. Aged fifteen she entered the Imperial palace as a concubine of the Emperor, Xianfeng; quickly established herself as his favourite, assisted by bearing him a son; and, following his death in 1861, became regent and ruled China in the name of her son.
History has largely been unfavourable to Empress Cixi, she is regarded as a despotic ruler who foolishly tried to rid her country of foreign interference, provoking a war with the superior military power of an eight nation alliance of European countries, the United States and Japan. Subsequently, she led her nation to a crushing defeat which, shortly after her death, saw the end of China’s Imperial dynasties and ushered in a republic. She also installed her nephew as a puppet Emperor, had him imprisoned and murdered.
Socially conservative, she was also considered extremely extravagant, emptying the Imperial coffers. While hardly unusual amongst Chinese rulers, her insistence on having 10,000 caged birds released on her birthday was just provocative. More harmful was her looting of the military budget for the Summer Palace, including building a marble boat which was paid for using money earmarked for the Chinese navy. Something she probably regretted when the European armies arrived by boat.
The Qing Dynasty ruled China from 1644, taking over from the Ming Dynasty which had been in charge for the previous 300 years. Cixi’s fate was to be the last true Imperial ruler of China; her misfortune was to be China’s ruler at a time of massive social and political upheaval. People increasingly called for reform, and the influence of foreign nations annexing chunks of the country and controlling trade had a hugely destabilising effect. China was a melting pot.
European meddling in China, and the lucrative trade concessions that Europe’s most powerful nations demanded of the Chinese Imperial Court, didn’t end with the Second Opium War (1856-60). The anti-foreigner, anti-Christian sentiment grew ever more powerful in the years that followed China’s defeat and humiliation. This atmosphere gave rise to the extremely xenophobic Boxer Movement, dedicated to the destruction of foreign influence, particularly Christianity.
Empress Cixi let the Boxer Rebellion loose on foreigners in 1899, eventually ordering the Imperial Chinese Army to join the attack on foreign forces holding out in the Legation Quarter of Beijing. Things were going well right up until 20,000 heavily armed European, American and Japanese troops arrived and inflicted a terrible defeat on the Imperial Army, followed by the slaughter, rape and pillage of the civilian population.
Sadly for China’s Imperial rulers, the Boxer motto of, “Support the Qing, destroy the foreigners”, resulted in the destruction of Imperial China and more foreign meddling. The Summer Palace was attacked and many buildings burned, thankfully unlike the previous attack on the ‘old’ Summer Palace’ during the Opium Wars, the Chinese rebuilt and preserved this one. Something I was thankful for when wondering around its magnificent lakes, over its exquisitely constructed bridges and through its ornate palaces.
Empress Cixi died in 1908 and her dynasty ran out of steam three years later. China officially became a republic on January 1st, 1912. Ironically, had the Imperial line lasted for another eighteen months, Europe would have been in turmoil as the First World War brought utter destruction to many of China’s enemies. The long slow death of European colonial ambitions came too late for the Qing Dynasty.