The notorioius Cixi entered the imperial palace at 15 as Emperor Xianfeng’s concubine, quickly becoming his favourite and bearing him a son. When the emperor died in 1861, she became regent, ruling in place of her boy for the next 25 years through a mastery of intrigue and court politics. When her son died of syphilis, she installed her nephew as puppet regent, imprisoned him, and retained her authority. Her fondness of extravagant gestures (every year she had ten thousand caged birds released on her birthday) drained the state’s coffers, and her deeply conservative policies were inappropriate for a time when the nation was calling out for reform.
With foreign powers taking great chunks out of China’s borders on and off during the nineteenth century, Cixi was moved to respond in a typically misguided fashion – impressed by the claims of the xenophobic Boxer Movement, she let them loose on all the foreigners in China in 1899. On her return, Cixi clung to power, attempting to delay the inevitable fall of her dynasty. One of her last acts, before she died in 1908, was to arrange for the murder of her puppet regent.