Cixi’s Coup Preserves Qing Dynasty Power

The Chinese emperor Xianfeng’s death led to struggles over the succession of his five-year-old son, whose mother and uncle became regents and established a regime that kept China intact under Qing Dynasty rule. The new regime pursued a Confucian restoration of national power and followed a conciliatory policy toward the West. Empress Dowager Cixi would later rise to become China’s de facto ruler.

Summary of Event

The death of Emperor Xianfeng Xianfeng
[p]Xianfeng;death of on August 22, 1861, led to a bitter power struggle over who should rule until his successor, his five-year-old son Tongzhi, had reached maturity. The group that was led by imperial adviser Sushun moved first. Sushun, a Manchu aristocrat, rose quickly under the Xianfeng emperor. After the British and the French negotiated the Treaty of Tientsin Tianjin, Treaty of (1858) (now Tianjin) in 1858, which gave the two Western powers further concessions in China, Sushun and his allies, Prince Zaiyuan Zaiyuan
Duanhua and Prince Duanhua, counseled the emperor against signing the treaty. When Great Britain and France sent an expeditionary force that fought its way toward Beijing in September, 1860, Sushun preferred military resistance. Defeated in battle on September 21, Sushun and his allies escorted the Xianfeng emperor from Beijing to the Rehe Traveling Palace in Jehol (now Chengde) in Manchuria Manchuria . Cixi
[p]Cixi;coup of
Qing Dynasty;Cixi’s coup[Cixis coup]
Beijing;Cixi’s coup
China;Qing Dynasty
Gong, Prince
[kw]Cixi’s Coup Preserves Qing Dynasty Power (Nov. 1-2, 1861)
[kw]Coup Preserves Qing Dynasty Power, Cixi’s (Nov. 1-2, 1861)
[kw]Preserves Qing Dynasty Power, Cixi’s Coup (Nov. 1-2, 1861)
[kw]Qing Dynasty Power, Cixi’s Coup Preserves (Nov. 1-2, 1861)
[kw]Dynasty Power, Cixi’s Coup Preserves Qing (Nov. 1-2, 1861)
[kw]Power, Cixi’s Coup Preserves Qing Dynasty (Nov. 1-2, 1861)
[p]Cixi;coup of
Qing Dynasty;Cixi’s coup[Cixis coup]
Beijing;Cixi’s coup
China;Qing Dynasty
Gong, Prince
[g]China;Nov. 1-2, 1861: Cixi’s Coup Preserves Qing Dynasty Power[3510]
[c]Government and politics;Nov. 1-2, 1861: Cixi’s Coup Preserves Qing Dynasty Power[3510]
[p]I-hsin[Ihsin];Prince Gong
Chun, Prince
An Dehai

Sushun preferred that the emperor stay at Jehol because at Jehol he could better control him. Most formidable among Sushun’s enemies was the mother of the emperor’s only son, Empress Dowager Cixi. She entered the court in 1851 or 1852 as an imperial concubine named Yi. Xianfeng secretly had Yi do his routine government correspondence and official business because such things bored him. On April 27, 1856, Yi gave birth to the emperor’s son Tongzhi.


(Library of Congress)

Yi allied herself with the emperor’s wife Cian Cian and relied on the court’s eunuchs, especially An Dehai An Dehai . An Dehai had saved Yi’s life after he discovered a forged will written by Sushun and his allies. The forged document, hidden with the dying emperor, ordered Yi to commit suicide to serve her husband in the afterworld. Alone at the emperor’s deathbed, Yi and Cian took the false will from beneath the emperor’s pillow and burned it. Historians do not know how the dead emperor’s seals ended up with Yi and his widow, but many suspect An Dehai of this transfer.

Immediately after the emperor’s death, Sushun, Princes Zaiyuan Zaiyuan
Duanhua and Duanhua, and five others became official regents for the child emperor, whose reign name would be Tongzhi. Because Yi and Cian held the imperial seals necessary to validate any imperial decree, the regents consented to consult on government issues with them. No longer a concubine, Yi took the name of Cixi (meaning, roughly, “auspicious mother”). Cixi and Cian knew that Sushun tried to keep them from power, so they looked for allies.

China’s youthful emperor receiving Western emissaries.

(The Co-Operative Publishing Company)

In early September, 1861, Prince Gong left Beijing to visit the Rehe Palace. A half brother of Xianfeng, Gong was tasked to negotiate peace with the British and French one year before Xianfeng’s death. He changed his hatred and fear of the foreigners and enjoyed diplomatic relationship with them. After the peace the Western powers adopted a conciliatory policy. Gong often asked Xianfeng to return to Beijing, but he refused.

Now at Rehe, the power struggle escalated. An imperial censor suggested Cixi be named a coregent, together with a prince or two like Gong. Sushun and his allies wrote a stinging rebuttal to the censor on September 14 and demanded that the empress dowagers affix to it the imperial seals. They did so only after the regents brought government to a standstill.

When Cixi and Cian Cian invited Prince Chun Chun, Prince , another half brother of the late emperor who was married to Cixi’s younger sister, Sushun’s troops refused him entrance. It was An Dehai An Dehai who smuggled Chun into the palace for a secret meeting with Cixi, Gong, and Cian. They drafted a plan for overthrowing Sushun and his coregents, and on September 17 or 18, a powerful general indicated his support for them.

Gong and Chun returned to Beijing. Xianfeng’s coffin had to be brought from Rehe to Beijing for proper burial, and Cixi pointed out that the regents had to attend the coffin on its two-hundred-mile passage. Since the emperor’s son and wives must greet his coffin from out of Beijing, Cixi insisted that she, Cian, and Zaichun were to travel separately to get there ahead of the coffin’s arrival. The imperial procession attending the coffin left Rehe on October 26.

Cixi’s group safely reached Beijing on November 1, 1861. Arriving one day ahead of Sushun, Cixi met Gong and their allies. They wrote edicts for the arrest of all eight coregents. On the night of November 1, Prince Chun Chun, Prince arrested Sushun at his camp by the coffin outside the city gates. The other coregents were arrested as well.

The edicts were published on November 2, 1861. Sushun and the other regents were charged with subverting the state and were found guilty of mishandling foreign affairs. They were stripped of their offices, and the two empress dowagers were appointed coregents. The two women had to listen behind a screen to the all-male government officials. Prince Gong was appointed de facto third regent.

On November 8, the two princes, Zaiyuan Zaiyuan and Duanhua Duanhua , were allowed to commit suicide, deemed more honorable than execution. As Sushun was led to the execution ground that day, he called Cixi a turtle, a sexually demeaning term for a woman in China during the time, and regretted that his coregents had stopped him from killing her before. He also denounced Prince Gong before being beheaded.

On November 9, six more officials allied with Sushun were dismissed, ending retaliatory action. The new regents met and decided to officially inaugurate the new emperor on November 11, 1861. They also changed his reign name to Tongzhi. The exact translation of the name is disputed, but the meaning implies a restoration of national order by a mother and son team. With the investment of Zaichun as Tongzhi emperor, Cixi, Cian Cian , and Gong consolidated their power. They became de facto rulers of China.


Prince Gong and Empress Dowager Cixi energetically set about to launch the Tongzhi Restoration China;Tongzhi Restoration . By turning back to Confucianism, they sought to lay the foundations for China’s recovery. Western science and technology was to be studied and applied. The new office of the Tsungli Yamen (Zongli Yamen), or foreign office, which Gong established and led since January, 1861, dealt with Western powers.

By relying on capable officials and military leaders the coregents were able to defeat the Taiping Rebellion Qing Dynasty;and Taiping Rebellion[Taiping Rebellion]
Taiping Rebellion (1851-1864)
China;Taiping Rebellion (1851-1864) and the Nien Rebellion (1853-1868). The Muslim Rebellions China;Muslim rebellions , which began in 1863, were finally extinguished in 1877. Cixi would soon emerge as the most powerful of the coregents. On April 2, 1865, Prince Gong was relieved as de facto regent, but he retained other offices. In 1869, he had An Dehai An Dehai executed for fiscal crimes, which antagonized Cixi. In 1870, the Tongzhi Restoration suffered a major setback. The British parliament refused to ratify the pro-China modifications to the Treaty of Tientsin Tianjin, Treaty of (1858) that had been negotiated by Gong.

The regency ended on February 23, 1873. Yet Tongzhi’s illness led to its reinstitution on December 18, 1874; Tongzhi died January 12, 1875. Cixi installed her four-year-old nephew as Guangxu emperor in 1875, restored the regency, and drove Tongzhi’s pregnant wife to suicide. After Cian Cian died in 1881, Cixi was sole regent until Guangxu assumed power in 1889. When the emperor displeased Cixi, she staged a second coup. On September 21, 1898, she placed Guangxu under house arrest and resumed her regency until her death on November 15, 1908.

Cixi ruled China for almost half a century. While forced to cede much to the Western powers and later Japan, she kept China unified and attempted a conservative restoration. Three years after her death, in 1911, a revolution ended the Qing Dynasty.

Further Reading

  • Hsu, Immanuel C. Y. The Rise of Modern China. 6th ed. New York: Oxford University Press, 2000. Places the coup in the context of Qing Dynasty survival. Explores the rise of Cixi and international relations. Notes, index, bibliography.
  • Laidler, Keith. The Last Empress. New York: John Wiley & Sons, 2003. A well-written biography of the “She Dragon of China,” filled with anecdotes.
  • Min, Anchee. Empress Orchid. New York: Houghton Mifflin, 2004. A historical novel culminating in the coup.
  • Paludan, Ann. Chronicles of the Chinese Emperors. New York: Thames and Hudson, 1998. An excellent account of China’s emperors, including an acute portrayal of Cixi.
  • Seagrave, Sterling. The Dragon Lady: The Life and Legend of the Last Empress of China. New York: Alfred A. Knopf, 1992. A sympathetic account of Cixi that argues she was manipulated by others. Illustrations, notes, bibliography.
  • Spence, Jonathan. The Search for Modern China. 2d ed. New York: W. W. Norton, 1999. Chapters 9 and 10 discuss Prince Gong’s foreign policy and the rise and politics of Cixi. Briefly references the coup. Maps, illustrations, notes, bibliography, index.
  • Wright, Mary Clabaugh. The Last Stand of Chinese Conservatism: The T’ung Chich Restoration, 1862-1874. Stanford, Calif.: Stanford University Press, 1957. Includes a discussion of the coup in detail and argues that it established the foundation for the subsequent Qing Dynasty’s restoration. Notes, bibliography, index.

First Opium War

China’s Taiping Rebellion

Qing Dynasty Confronts the Nian Rebellion

Muslim Rebellions in China

Second Opium War

China’s Self-Strengthening Movement Arises

Burlingame Treaty

Boxer Rebellion

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