The two women did more than resolve a major problem, they went on to form a political alliance and launch a coup. Cixi was twenty-five years old and Empress Zhen a year younger. Facing them were eight powerful men in control of the state machine. The women were well aware of the risk they were taking. A coup was treason, and if it failed the punishment would be the most painful ling-chi, death by a thousand cuts. But they were willing to take the risk. Not only were they determined to save their son and the dynasty, but they also rejected the prescribed life of imperial widows - essentially living out their future years as virtual prisoners in the harem. Choosing to change their own destiny as well as that of the empire, the two women plotted, often with their heads together leaning over a large glazed earthenware water tank, pretending to be appraising their reflections or just talking girls' talk.
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Cixi's lack of formal education was more than made up for by her intuitive intelligence, which she liked to use from her earliest years. In 1843, when she was seven, the empire had just finished its first war with the West, the Opium War, which had been started by Britain in reaction to Beijing clamping down on the illegal opium trade conducted by British merchants. China was defeated and had to pay a hefty indemnity. Desperate for funds, Emperor Daoguang (father of Cixi's future husband) held back the traditional presents for his sons' brides - gold necklaces with corals and pearls - and vetoed elaborate banquets for their weddings. New Year and birthday celebrations were scaled down, even cancelled, and minor royal concubines had to subsidise their reduced allowances by selling their embroidery on the market through eunuchs. The emperor himself even went on surprise raids of his concubines' wardrobes, to check whether they were hiding extravagant clothes against his orders. As part of a determined drive to stamp out theft by officials, an investigation was conducted of the state coffer, which revealed that more 'than nine million taels of silver had gone missing. Furious, the emperor ordered all the senior keepers and inspectors of the silver reserve for the previous forty-four years to pay fines to make up the loss - whether or not they were guilty. Cixi's great-grandfather had served as one of the keepers and his share of the fine amounted to 43, 200 taels - a colossal sum, next to which his official salary had been a pittance. As he had died a long time ago, his son, Cixi's grandfather, was obliged to pay half the sum, even though he worked in the Ministry of Punishments and had nothing to do with the state coffer. After three years of futile struggle to raise money, he only managed to hand over 1, 800 taels, and an edict signed by the emperor confined him to prison, only to be released if and when his son, Cixi's father, delivered the balance. The life of the family was turned upside down. Cixi, then eleven years old, had to take in sewing jobs to earn extra money - which she would remember all her life and would later talk about to her ladies-in-waiting in the court. 'As she was the eldest of two daughters and three sons, her father discussed the matter with her, and she rose to the occasion. Her ideas were carefully considered and practical: what possessions to sell, what valuables to pawn, whom to turn to for loans and how to approach them. Finally, the family raised 60 per cent of the sum, enough to get her grandfather out of prison. The young Cixi's contribution to solving the crisis became a family legend, and her father paid her the ultimate compliment: 'This daughter of mine is really more like a son!' Treated like a son, Cixi was able to talk to her father about things that were normally closed areas for women. Inevitably their conversations touched on official business and state affairs, which helped form Cixi's lifelong interest. Being consulted and having her views acted on, she acquired self-confidence and never accepted the com'common assumption that women's brains were inferior to men's. The crisis also helped shape her future method of rule. Having tasted the bitterness of arbitrary punishment, she would make an effort to be fair to her officials.
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For Cixi, the whole episode taught her that to survive at court she must hold her tongue about state affairs. This was difficult, as she could see that the dynasty was in trouble. The victorious Taiping rebels not only consolidated their bases in southern China, but were sending military expeditions with a view to attacking Beijing. Cixi felt that she had practicable ideas - in fact it was under her rule that the Taiping rebels were later defeated. But she could not say a word, and could only share non-political interests with her husband, such as music and art.
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As events would show, Cixi was indeed opposed to the foreign policy of her husband and his inner circle - but for very different reasons. Silently observing from close quarters, she in fact regarded their stubborn resistance to opening the door of China as stupid and wrong. Their hate-filled effort to shut out the West had, in her view, achieved the opposite to preserving the empire. It had brought the empire catastrophe, not least the destruction of her beloved Old Summer Palace. She herself would pursue a new route.
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Cixi was not at the coronation. The majestic main part of the Forbidden City was out of bounds to her - because she was a woman. She still could not set foot in it, even though she was now the de facto ruler. In fact, when her sedan-chair went within sight of it, she had to close the curtain and show humility by not looking at it. Virtually all decrees were issued in the name of her son, as Cixi had no mandate to rule. It was with this crippling handicap that she proceeded to change China.' Excerpt From: Chang, Jung. 'Empress Dowager Cixi.' Random House, 2013-09-25T18:30:00+00:00. iBooks. This material may be protected by copyright.
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Finally, in 1888, Cixi approved the Western-style Navy Regulations. It was in endorsing these Regulations that she effectively unveiled China's first national flag. The country had had no national ensign, until its engagement with the West at the beginning of her reign necessitated a triangular-shaped golden yellow flag for the nascent navy. Now she endorsed its change into the internationally standard quadrangular shape. On the flag, named the Yellow Dragon, was a vividly blue, animated dragon, raising its head towards a bright-red globe, the sun. With the birth of this national flag, remarked contemporary Western commentators, 'China proudly took her proper place among the nations.
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As a child, my idea of the West was that it was a miasma of poverty and misery, like that of the homeless 'Little Match Girl'in the Hans Christian Andersen story. When I was in the boarding nursery and did not want to finish my food, the teacher would say:'Think of all the starving children in the capitalist world!
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