Cixi had come to detest her adopted son: he had been involved in a plot to kill her and yet she was unable to expose him. He was widely regarded as a tragic reformist hero and she as a reactionary and vicious villain –and yet she was unable to defend herself. Her bitterness and frustration were only relieved when she watched an opera about a heartless adopted son, who drove his foster parents to death and then received his just deserts when he was struck dead by a terrible lightning unleashed by the God of Thunderbolts. Cixi became very fond of this opera and watched it many times. She had the adopted son made up as a most despicable scoundrel and ordered the number of thunderbolts and shafts of lightning strikes to be increased fivefold. She also added the frightening Gods of Winds and Storms to the scene, so that the retribution looked and sounded even more horrendous. Unable to punish her adopted son sufficiently herself, Cixi wished the gods to punish him one day.
It may well have crossed her mind to kill Emperor Guangxu, but she did not seriously contemplate the idea (in 1898). Apart from her fear of Heaven, she could not risk the national and international consequences. Indeed, she had to fight rumors that he was being murdered, or had already been murdered. The emperor, in poor health generally, had fallen seriously ill after ceding power to the Dowager and being imprisoned at the Sea Palace. As was traditional, the royal doctors reports were circulated to top officials, and a public edict required the provinces to send their best doctors. These actions were seen as Cixi’s moves to prepare the world for the announcement of his death. She had to dispatch Prince Ching, the head of the foreign office, to Sir Claude MacDonald to ask for the British minister’s help to ‘clear the air’, and when Sir Claude suggested that a legation doctor be allowed to examine the emperor, Prince Ching agreed at once.
Dr. Detheve from the French Legation entered the Forbidden City on 189 October, 1898, to examine Emperor Guangxu. The doctor’s report confirmed that the Emperor was indeed very ill. His symptoms included nausea and vomiting, shortness of breath, buzzing noises in his ears and dizziness. His legs and knees appeared unstable, his fingers felt numb, his hearing was bad, his eyesight was failing and there was pain in the area of his kidneys. His urination pattern was abnormal. The doctor concluded that the twenty-seven year old was suffering from chronic nephritis –that his kidneys were damaged and could not properly filter waste and fluids from his blood. This helped quell the rumor of murder, but still nobody felt Emperor Guangxu was too ill to rule the empire.
In 1908 the Dowager herself was struggling to cope. The Dalai Lama visited Cixi on her seventy-third birthday. She very much wanted to entertain the Tibetan Holy Man, and so felt she really must sit through the endless performances and rituals, even though she had constant diarrhea and a high fever. Her doctors recorded that she was ‘exceptionally exhausted’.
Four days after her birthday she sensed that death was breathing down on her, and sent Prince Ching to the Eastern Mausoleums to check out her burial ground, near her late husband’s and son’s. This last resting place was of paramount importance to her, and she had it constructed in splendor. During her burial a large quantity of jewels would be placed in the tomb with her, as befitted an empress dowager.
Meanwhile, she started to put the empire’s affairs in order. The moment had come to deal with Emperor Guangxu. Bedridden and seemingly on the verge of death, he refused to die and could pull back, as he had done before. If he survived and she was gone, the empire would fall into the hands of the waiting Japanese. It was in these circumstances that Cixi ordered the murder of her adopted son, by poisoning. That Emperor Guangxu died from consuming large quantities of arsenic was definitely established in 2008, after forensic examination of his remains. His murder would have been easy to arrange: Cixi routinely sent him dishes as tokens of a mother’s affection for her son.
Cixi herself was fading but still managed to oversee the myriad things to be done after the passing away of a monarch including the writing of Emperor Guangxu’s official will, to be announced to the empire. The will referred to the establishment of a constitutional monarchy in nine year’s time. This, it declared, was the emperor’s unfulfilled aspiration, and this, once accomplished, would give him untold joy in then other world.
A night passed while Cixi dealt with one matter after another, conscious all the time that she had just murdered her adopted son. A Grand Council secretary drafted Cixi’s own official will according to her wishes, ‘with my hand and heart trembling, everything seemed unreal’, he recorded in his diary. This will recalled her involvement in China’s state affairs for nearly fifty years and her efforts to do what she regarded as her best. It reiterated her determination to transform China into a constitutional monarchy, which, the will stated with much regret, she was now unable to see to completion. The two wills made unmistakably clear that it was Cixi’s dying wish that the Chinese should have their parliament and their vote.
She was forced to stop working at about eleven o’clock in the morning, as death was imminent but during the last three hours of her life Cixi’s mind was still restless. She now dictated her last political decree, one that would seem bizarre to any uninformed observer. “I am critically ill, and I am afraid I am about to pass away’, she said, in direct and personal language. ‘In the future, the affairs of the empire will be decided by the Regent. However, if he comes across exceptionally critical matters, he must obey the dowager empress.’
The empress was by all accounts a pitiable figure. Foreigners would had met her described her as stooped, extremely thin, her face long and sallow, her teeth very much decayed. From the day of her wedding, her husband treated her at best with distain. She had the appearance of a gentle, quiet, kindly person who was always afraid of intruding and had no place or part in anything at Cixi’s court.’ The Grandees held Empress Longyu in such disregard that no one troubled at first to inform her of her new title as dowager empress.
Empress Dowager Cixi foresaw that her reforms, drastically changing China, could in the end bury her own dynasty. As long as she lived, the Manchu throne would be secure. But once she was gone her successor might not have the strength, and the constitutional monarchy she had tried to create would come to nothing. Chinese and Western observers were already predicting anti-Manchu uprisings after her death. It was the fate of the Manchu, her on people, that preoccupied the empress in her last hours. If Republican uprisings did inundate the empire, the only option for the vastly outnumbered Manchu would be surrender, if a bloodbath was to be avoided, but Cixi was quite certain that faced with such uprisings the men at court would choose to defend the dynasty and fight to the death. No man would counsel surrender, even if he wanted to.
Cixi thought only surrender could save her people and spare the country civil war. This is why she gave the decision-making power to Empress Longyu who had lived in surrender all her life. She did not care about humiliation and was the ultimate survivor. As a woman, she was also not required to show macho bravado.
In 1911 Manchu blood began to flow and as Cixi had foreseen, Manchu grandees vehemently resisted, vowing to defend the dynasty to the last man. The Regent himself spoke publically against abdication though her knew it was futile to fight. He simply did not want to be the person responsible for the downfall of the Manchu dynasty. On December 6, Zaifeng resigned. The empress Longyu gathered the grandees around her and declared through her tears that she was prepared to take the responsibility. Thus, on 12 February, 1912, Empress Longyu put her name to the Decree of Abdication which brought the Great Qing, which had ruled for 268 years, to its end, along with more than 2,000- years of absolute monarchy in China.