Other Notable Historical Characters of the Forbidden City

Empress Dowager Ci’an

(August 20, 1837 – April 8, 1881)

  • Empress Dowager Ci’an is known as the East Empress Dowager because she lived in the eastern part of the Forbidden City.
  • She and Empress Dowager Cixi were appointed as joint de facto regents for the young Emperor Tongzhi.

Empress Dowager Ci’an was second Empress Consort of Emperor Xianfeng. After the death of Lady Sakda, Xianfeng’s principal wife, Ci’an became the primary wife and was put in charge of the women’s quarters inside the Forbidden City. Even though she remained childless, as Empress Consort she was considered to be the legal mother of all of the emperor’s children. When Imperial Concubine Yi (the later Noble Consort Yi and Empress Dowager Cixi) gave birth to a son (the future Emperor Tongzhi), it was Ci’an who raised him.

Emperor Xianfeng died during the Second Opium War on 22 August 1861. His heir, Emperor Tongzhi, was only five years old when he inherited the throne, and the imperial family struggled over who would assume the regency. In November 1861, Noble Consort Yi, with the help of Prince Gong, staged a palace coup and succeeded in securing the regency for her and Lady Niuhuru. Thereafter, Noble Consort Yi became the Holy Mother Empress Dowager (with the honorific name of Cixi) and Lady Niuhuru became the Empress Mother Empress Dowager (with the honorific name of Ci’an).

As the joint regents for Emperor Tongzhi, the empress dowagers tended to affairs of state from behind a beaded curtain. Any decree needed the approval of both regents. Ci’an’s most notable intervention in politics occurred in 1869, when she sentenced An Dehai, a greatly feared eunuch, and Cixi’s close confidant, to death. An Deihai had violated palace rules which prohibited palace eunuchs from leaving the capital by themselves; he also traveled on the Grand Canal donning dragon robes, carrying on with a gross display of imperial authority and pageantry.

In 1872, the empress dowagers agreed it was time for Emperor Tongzhi to marry, and to become executive ruler. Ci’an and Cixi resigned as co-regents, although they assumed that role again when Tongzhi fell ill in December 1874. One month later, Tongzhi passed away from illness, and Empress Dowager Cixi’s nephew, Prince Zaitian, was appointed as successor – and became Emperor Guangxu. Since he was only four years old, Ci’an and Cixi were appointed as de facto rulers for a second time. Ci’an helped rule until 8 April 1881, when she fell ill during an audience at court, and died within a few hours.