Nala comes in through the back gate...Part One

Not so long ago, I wrote what I thought was a pretty cool post asking a basic question:  why did Japan not only hold its own against Western influence but rise to dominate East Asia?   A part of the answer was simple Geography.   Indeed, Geography saved Japan.  No question about it. 

However, Japan did not simply cower behind its oceanic “wall”, but struck out beyond its natural barrier to not only defeat a Western nation in battle, albeit Russia, but to totally and utterly dominate everyone else it came into contact with for seventy years.

What precipitated this strength was weakness.

Between 1853 and 1867 Japan had three Shoguns.  In terms of power, the Japanese Shogun was equivalent to a Chinese Emperor.  

In 1867, the Shogunate of Japan ceased to exist, and the power of the Japanese Emperor became resolute. 

(The last Japanese Shogun, Tokugawa Yoshinobu  His resignation in 1867 inversely led to the eventual rise of Japan as a military power.)

And we know what happened afterward; in1868 Japan brought about the Meiji Restoration.  This being recognition of Japan’s need to catch up with the West.  (You’ll notice this Restoration had nothing to do with China.)

And what was China doing between 1853 and 1867?

Well, an illustration of just how blind China was to what lay before it can be summed up as such: Li Hongzhang, China’s preeminent diplomat of the day, actually thought Japan was China’s main adversary.   Apparently blind to Britain’s Navy.   Not having taken just one, but several whippings at the hands of the British Bulldog, it stretches disbelief to comprehend why China felt that the real threat lay not in Europe, but within Asia.   It goes without saying that the Chinese firmly believed Britain and the other European powers would someday go home, while Japan was in their backyard.
While in the longterm he was without question correct, China’s inability to handle the British Navy is in my view what really encouraged Japan to believe it could someday dominate China.

Meanwhile, while the Japanese were only at the dawn of revolutionary reform, bent on learning from the West, China during this time period was led by woman intent on NOT subscribing to foreign ways.  This was the time of the Tongzhi Restoration.    A restoration with “Chinese characteristics”.   Of traditional order, “Confucian Style”.  A retrenchment of traditional ways.   So while China chose to “dig in”, Japan chose to “reach out”. 

And in my view that made all the difference.   This decision, via one domino falling after another, is 
what led China into chaos, disarray and humiliation.    

And it is because one person, at the tender age of only 26, chose not to wait for her destiny, but to grab it by the throat, come what may.

But first I want to take a quick detour.  I want to go back in time.  

I want to talk about the Great Ottoman Empire.

This was a 700 year old Empire that ruled North Africa, Southern Europe and even parts of Western Asia.  It ruled Iraq and Syria.   And like Japan, it used Geography fully to its advantage.   Straddling the entrance to both Christian Europe and the Muslim Middle East.  As we all know, the Ottoman Empire conquered Constantinople, renaming it Istanbul. 

The Ottomans over many centuries grew very strong.  They had a professional army, and were known for their religious tolerance.    The Ottoman Empire was created in 1299, reportedly reaching its apogee during the reign of its 10th Sultan, who died in 1566.    That was a 267 year period.

Contrast that with the Qing, which started in 1644 and lasted until 1912.  A 268 year period.
But no one remembers the Ottomans today.  Still, the Ottoman Empire lasted another 350 years.  

Long  after reportedly reaching its “apex”.

The key to the rise of the Ottoman Empire was simple.  It ensured only the most cunning of the Sultan’s sons became ruler.   There was no automatic throne given to the oldest son of the ruling Sultan.  No birthright.   Only the most cunning, ruthless, could become Sultan.    Of course, the Sultan had a harem.  With many sons.   Indeed, even after a son had become Sultan, surviving sons (brothers of the Sultan) were put to death or killed almost immediately.  This was succession in its most Darwinian form.

And it is uniformly noted that this method of succession is what led to a stunning run of 10 continuously competent and successful rules of the Ottoman Empire.   (Find me another dynasty with such a run!)

Incidentally, this method of succession was abolished in the early 1600’s.  Coinciding with the slow slide into “decline” of the Ottoman Empire.  A slide that took centuries to complete. 

(Last of the supposed unbroken chain of great Sultans.  Suleiman the Magnificant. He ruled from 1520-1566.  His realm included approximately 20 million people.  Compare this to Cixi's reign of nearly 400 million.)

The blame for China’s demise first entered the Forbidden City through a back gate at dawn in 1852.   Her family Manchu name was Nala.  Typical for that time, many Chinese females, expected to leave the family, did not have names. 

How Cixi was chosen is unclear.  Jung Chang has written a book about her.  I may read it someday.   Nonetheless the only thing one must understand is that Cixi came along at the right time, in the midst of a series of weak rulers.  Or rather, one can say the Emperors of Great China had bad timing, cursed to live during the time of Cixi. 

(As Rasputin was to Russia, Cixi in a way perhaps was to China.  An opportunist impossible to get rid of. )

Against all odds (there are a lot of young women in China), Cixi did become a concubine.  Being the daughter of a Manchu official did help, but probably not by much.   No one is really clear how she stood out, except that the new Emperor Xianfeng liked her. 

While researching the rise of Cixi, one begins to get a sad understanding of just how fierce the competition was to become a sexual partner of the Emperor.   It turns out Cixi would have some intuitive advantages.  Unfortunately, none of these would really come to the fore until years afterward.  For the time being,   all we know is that to share the Emperor sexually with others was not a problem.  

Still being chosen by the Emperor was only half the battle.

To rise to true prominence one must actually have sex with the Chinese Emperor.
And to truly be recognized, one must get pregnant.

And to challenge the Empress for power, and be recognized in one’s own right, one must bear His 
Highness a son.

Having the right to even be considered for concubine status was in itself winning the lottery.  To being chosen a concubine was being set for life.

Still, again from Cixi’s arrival to the Palace in 1851 until 1856 Cixi quite frankly did not stand out.  It is commonly accepted (by Chinese standards) that Cixi was not particularly attractive.   And only when she had a son in 1856 did she begin to truly rise in social status. 

Bearing the son of a current emperor will do that.  

After living in anonymity for five years, Cixi won the lottery again; her son, Zaichun, was born Spring 1856.  People have said the Chinese Emperor and Cixi did not in the beginning get along.  I am not sure of that.  If that was the case, why were they still having sex 5 years later?  

Considering the number of concubines he had (a surprisingly low number.  People tend to think the Emperor has hundreds of women in his “harem”.  Not the case.), at the risk of sounding “crass”, and Cixi was only a part of a “rotation”, then she’d only have sex with the Emperor maybe once a month.  Maybe less.  Especially as time went by.  Afterall, wouldn’t the Emperor have grown tired of her after five years?

Having this son, unless he died, was the key to her future.  However, I honestly do not believe that even at this time, Cixi was the calculating, manipulative person she is made out to be.  No.   Cixi was a truly intelligent Manchu.   Literate.  But only the birth of her Son gave her security within the palace.   Only then was her literacy taken advantage of, becoming a close advisor to the Xianfeng Emperor himself.   These are the advantages I spoke of above.

One must ask the question:  why did the Xianfeng Emperor only have one surviving son?   Despite his wife and 18(or was it 19?) concubines, Xianfeng’s sons were not many.   Now is the time to ask yourself if you believe in Fate?  Or is it Destiny?  What were the odds that Cixi’s lone child to the Emperor would be a son?  The Son? 

(An image of the Xianfeng Emperor)

Alas, the decline of China had already begun.  By 1861 the Xianfeng Emperor was dead.  At the ripe old age of 30.   A nation as unwieldy as China needs more continuity than two Emperor’s within a space of barely a decade. 

Xianfeng, thoroughly unready to face the Steely British, or even lead his own Manchu people, was the wrong guy for the job.  

It was in this situation the Japanese Shogunate turned power over to the Japanese Emperor. 
The great weakness in the Chinese Imperial system is that he did not really have to “compete” for the honor of being Chinese Citizen Number One.   It was his from the beginning. 

Alas, Xianfeng, wanting his 5 year old to himself become Emperor someday(he would), created a council to manage China’s affairs until his son, the future Tongzhi Emperor was old enough to rule. 

Was this not a tall order?  Europe’s claws and greedy eyes were eyeing the Chinese Empire.  Opium usage was out of control, and the Summer Palace had even been burned down. (More on that in the future)

In my view, this was another turning point in Cixi’s career. 

Really, anything could have happened to her, right?  All those concubines.   Suddenly out of a job.  They only had one job, if you think about it.  Provide the Emperor a son!  Nothing more.   With the Emperor’s death, there was really no reason to keep the Emperor’s wife around.   Still she was named a Dowager Empress.  (Don’t ask me where the word “Dowager” comes from??) 

I would say it was more than a little surprising to have her still around, after the Emperor’s demise.  But Cixi, that was different.  As the actual mother of the future Tongzhi Emperor, she actually had more of a say than Xianfeng’s wife!

She was promoted to Dowager Empress as well.  An equal if you will of Ci’an.  Xianfeng’s wife.
And she was literate.  And as such, having spent time with the previous emperor perhaps better versed in China’s affairs than many of Xianfeng’s advisors.  More importantly, her SON WAS THE FUTURE EMPEROR OF CHINA.  (So back off!) 

Xianfeng had named a panel of advisors, all competent men, to rule China in the name of the Future Emperor Tongzhi.    For Cixi, however, any damn thing could happen from now, with her son only being 5, until he was old enough to assume power.   He could “accidentally” die in a hunting accident. 

Pretenders to the throne could plan a demise.  Despite her new found status near the beating heart of power, Cixi suddenly realized she had a mark on her back.   Indeed, the new council of 8 governing advisors had carte blanche power to do as they chose.  Or soon would, as soon as they all returned to Beijing. 

This is where Cixi did not wait for Destiny to play itself out.  She took the Bitch by the throat.   Until her son truly became Emperor anything could happen to either him or her, or both, and by any means.  This was more than just ruling China.  It was about staying alive.   The Empress Dowager Ci’an and the Empress Cixi formed an alliance.  Of self mutual need.  Ci’an new her time and influence were up, too.  She was more than a willing conspirator.

We already know the first goal was to stay alive.  But for Ci’an and Cixi, the second goal was to also stay relevant.

Before the Emperor’s body was even cold, Cixi struck.   While the Emperor’s body was being led back to Beijing, Cixi made it a point to arrive in Beijing first.   While there, she allied herself with the brothers of the former Emperor Xianfeng.    One of which was Prince Gong, a strong future ally of the Empress.   It is possible the Regents would have in time dealt with the Emperor’s brother, but it is also true they lacked a sense of urgency.   In hindsight, it is clear the Empress Dowager Cixi was not looked upon as much of a threat. 

Now we turn back to the practice of the Ottomans.  Was it not the custom of the Sultan to kill all his brothers?  The Chinese did not of course have this management philosophy.  Because if they did, Cixi would never have become the leader behind the curtain of China.   Because his brothers would have been killed.  However, the dead Emperor’s brothers were still alive.   And they became Cixi’s biggest allies and supporters.  

Upon the leader of the Regency’s return, Sushun, along with the body of the Emperor, a coup took place.  The usual false charges, applying to the so called incompetency of Sushun, along with the deadly charge of allowing the Western Powers to humiliate China were leveled.   Such were the stakes.  Lives and the so called future of China hung in the balance. 

Sushun was beheaded.   And to show her real power, one of the eight regents, Ci’an’s own grandfather, was also executed.  Ci’an failed to make her grandfather’s safety a condition of her cooperation.  Unlike Cixi, she obviously did not have a firm grasp of power politics.

Cixi’s competence and grasp of political affairs showed immediate dividends.  She attacked the fat in China’s bureaucracy.   She did this by showing neither disinclination nor hesitation executing people.  She then successfully even disposed of Prince Gong (she brought him back), the only real threat to her power, (until the future rise of Guangxu).

When the dust had settled, Cixi was left alone as the ruler of China.  She was only 30 years old.   Yet not only had she shown the acumen necessary to take advantage of her situation, her ruthlessness was uncommon for someone so young. 

Here I stop and ponder:  what was it about Chinese society that made it so willing to bow down to someone so young?  Where were the experienced leaders hiding?   I’ve come to the conclusion that China was so mesmerized by the belief in the “Emperor System”, and that this person was truly the Son of Heaven(?) that it gave Cixi even more power to do as she wished.

A thirty year old woman ran a country of nearly 400 million.   

How else could she have become ruler of China so abruptly and unexpectedly?
One can fairly argue if Cixi were merely a Man400, and thus not required to go through the motions of waiting for Tongzhi to grow up, and then Guangxu, etc; China would have had the steady hand it needed. And in the nick of time! 

Perhaps history would have treated her more kindly? Instead the tension of one succession after another simply kept China in a way quite rudderless.   Which suited the European Powers greatly.

What had driven Cixi? I think up to this point she was driven by natural talent.  And a base instinct to survive.  For her son to become emperor.   Simple as that.  I also believe the ruthlessness she unflinchingly displayed was perhaps weaned from her many consultations with a dying Xianfeng.  Surely he knew in order for his son to survive, Cixi herself must find a way.  But why did he not just make her sole regent? 

During this time the Taiping Rebellion was in its full throes of life.  An insurmountable force taking full advantage of the ignorance and mistrust by the Chinese People of the Laowai.  Yet while natural disasters and famine in China were a fact of life, it was the encroachment of the Barbarian that would continue to eat away at China.  Cixi, while grabbing Destiny herself, either out of fear or ambition for absolute power, did not yet understand her rule would be without either peace or harmony.

Yet how would China had faired if Cixi had simply left well enough alone?  What if she was simply “normal”?    Content to let the Regency rule China until her son was old enough himself to assume power?   One can argue that China’s attitudes towards the West would not have really been any different.  Indeed, a Civil War between the Xianfeng Emperor’s brothers and the Regency might very well have erupted.

(The Ottoman Sultan’s had no fear of Civil War erupting between brothers.  They were all dead.)
Would China, despite its well deserved enmity towards the West still have the ability to reform?  

Probably not.  We will find out why below.

Meanwhile, Cixi, a strong personality herself, obviously had a good read on weakness.  And she knew China was weak. Up to this time in History, many were tempted to call the Empress Dowager a reformer.    She sent Chinese boys abroad to study.  She established a language school in Beijing, yet failed miserably in surrounding herself with people with experiences different from her own, much less to advocate learning from the West.  All the while, Japan is becoming stronger.    Military reforms failed.    New ideas for governing failed to bubble to the surface.

After all, Cixi did not have papers or magazines challenging her every move.  No one within her circle to challenge her point of view.  

China stood still.

And then her son came of age.

He became the Tongzhi Emperor.

He of the Tongzhi Restoration. 

I’ll save his story for Part 2. 


  1. Mehmet II (The Conquerer) made fratricide an official policy. I don't believe it was widely practiced before. His reforms transformed the empire into a near-eastern style state (think Assyrians) where there was only one absolute ruler and no aristocracy or nobility was allowed to exist. Of course, following Mehmed II (who was of extremely forceful character) the sultans became as much if not more the slaves of the military, bureaucracy, and harem as they were to him. Not sure about your Darwinian theory ;)

    Pre-Mehmed II and the conquest of Constantinople some elements of Turkic governance still existed and the concept of first among equals was not completely foreign to the sultans.

  2. Well...thank you for your insight into the Ottoman Dynasty!
    But what if China had practiced such a policy?

    I don't know if China could've lasted longer. But it would've been even stronger perhaps than it was. Maybe would've held the British at bay for a time even. China's pure size and geography also helped. If China was a simply country in Europe it's dynastic tradition would have long since collapsed.


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