The Empress Dowager -- Her Early Life

All the period since 1861 should be rightly recorded as the reign of Tze Hsi An, a more eventful period than all the two hundred and forty-four reigns that had preceded her three usurpations. It began after a conquering army had made terms of peace in her capital, and with the Tai-ping rebellion in full swing of success. . . .
Those few who have looked upon the countenance of the Dowager describe her as a tall, erect, fine-looking woman of distinguished and imperious bearing, with pronounced Tartar features, the eye of an eagle, and the voice of determined authority and absolute command.
-- Eliza Ruhamah Scidmore in "China, The Long-Lived Empire."

One day when one of the princesses was calling at our home in Peking, I inquired of her where the Empress Dowager was born. She gazed at me for a moment with a queer expression wreathing her features, as she finally said with just the faintest shadow of a smile: "We never talk about the early history of Her Majesty." I smiled in return and continued: "I have been told that she was born in a small house, in a narrow street inside of the east gate of the Tartar city -- the gate blown up by the Japanese when they entered Peking in 1900." The princess nodded. "I have also heard that her father's name was Chao, and that he was a small military official (she nodded again) who was afterwards beheaded for some neglect of duty." To this the visitor also nodded assent.

A few days later several well-educated young Chinese ladies, daughters of one of the most distinguished scholars in Peking, were calling on my wife, and again I pursued my inquiries. "Do you know anything about the early life of the Empress Dowager?" I asked of the eldest. She hesitated a moment, with that same blank expression I had seen on the face of the princess, and then answered very deliberately, -- "Yes, everybody knows, but nobody talks about it." And this is, no doubt, the reason why the early life of the greatest woman of the Mongol race, and, as some who knew her best think, the most remarkable woman of the nineteenth century, has ever been shrouded in mystery. Whether the Empress desired thus to efface all knowledge of her childhood by refusing to allow it to be talked about, I do not know, but I said to myself: "What everybody knows, I can know," and I proceeded to find out.

I discovered that she was one of a family of several brothers and sisters and born about 1834; that the financial condition of her parents was such that when a child she had to help in caring for the younger children, carrying them on her back, as girls do in China, and amusing them with such simple toys as are hawked about the streets or sold in the shops for a cash or two apiece; that she and her brothers and little sisters amused themselves with such games as blind man's buff, prisoner's base, kicking marbles and flying kites in company with the other children of their neighbourhood. During these early years she was as fond of the puppet plays, trained mice shows, bear shows, and "Punch and Judy" as she was in later years of the theatrical performances with which she entertained her visitors at the palace. She was compelled to run errands for her mother, going to the shops, as occasion required, for the daily supply of oils, onions, garlic, and other vegetables that constituted the larger portion of their food. I found out also that there is not the slightest foundation for the story that in her childhood she was sold as a slave and taken to the south of China.

The outdoor life she led, the games she played, and the work she was forced to do in the absence of household servants, gave to the little girl a well-developed body, a strong constitution and a fund of experience and information which can be obtained in no other way. She was one of the great middle class. She knew the troubles and trials of the poor. She had felt the pangs of hunger. She could sympathize with the millions of ambitious girls struggling to be freed from the trammels of ignorance and the age-old customs of the past -- a combat which was the more real because it must be carried on in silence. And who can say that it was not the struggles and privations of her own childhood which led to the wish in her last years that "the girls of my empire may be educated"?

When little Miss Chao had reached the age of fourteen or fifteen she was taken by her parents to an office in the northern part of the imperial city of Peking where her name, age, personal appearance, and estimated degree of intelligence and potential ability were registered, as is done in the case of all the daughters of the Manchu people. The reason for this singular proceeding is that when the time comes for the selection of a wife or a concubine for the Emperor, or the choosing of serving girls for the palace, those in charge of these matters will know where they can be obtained.

This custom is not considered an unalloyed blessing by the Manchu people, and many of them would gladly avoid registering their daughters if only they dared. But the rule is compulsory, and every one belonging to the eight Banners or companies into which the Manchus are divided must have their daughters registered. Their aversion to this custom is well illustrated in the following incident:

In one of the girls' schools in Peking there was a beautiful child, the daughter of a Manchu woman whose husband was dead. One day this widow came to the principal of the school and said: "A summons has come from the court for the girls of our clan to appear before the officials that a certain number may be chosen and sent into the palace as serving girls." "When is she to appear?" inquired the teacher. "On the sixteenth," answered the mother. "I suppose you are anxious that she should be one of the fortunate ones," said the teacher, "though I should be sorry to lose her from the school." "On the contrary," said the mother, "I should be distressed if she were chosen, and have come to consult with you as to whether we might not hire a substitute." The teacher expressed surprise and asked her why. "When our daughters are taken into the palace," answered the mother, "they are dead to us until they are twenty-five, when they are allowed to return home. If they are incompetent or dull they are often severely punished. They may contract disease and die, and their death is not even announced to us; while if they prove themselves efficient and win the approval of the authorities they are retained in the palace and we may never see them or hear from them again."

At first the teacher was inclined to favour the hiring of a substitute, but on further consideration concluded that it would be contrary to the law, and advised that the girl be allowed to go. The mother, however, was so anxious to prevent her being chosen that she sent her with uncombed hair, soiled clothes and a dirty face, that she might appear as unattractive as possible.

The prospects for a concubine are even less promising than for a serving maid, as when she once enters the palace she has little if any hope of ever leaving it. She is neither mistress nor servant, wife nor slave, she is but one of a hundred buds in a garden of roses which have little if any prospect of ever blooming or being plucked for the court bouquet. When, therefore, the gates of the Forbidden City close behind the young girls who are taken in as concubines of an emperor they shut out an attractive, busy, beautiful world, filled with men and women, boys and girls, homes and children, green fields and rich harvests, and confine them within the narrow limits of one square mile of brick-paved earth, surrounded by a wall twenty-five feet high and thirty feet thick, in which there is but one solitary man who is neither father, brother, husband nor friend to them, and whom they may never even see.

When therefore the time came for the selection of concubines for the Emperor Hsien Feng, and our little Miss Chao was taken into the palace, her parents, like many others, had every reason to consider it a piece of ill-fortune which had visited their home. The future was veiled from them. The Forbidden City, surrounded by its great crenelated wall, may have seemed more like a prison than like a palace. True, they had other children, and she was "only a girl, but even girls are a small blessing," as they tell us in their proverbs. She had grown old enough to be useful in the home, and they no doubt had cherished plans of betrothing her to the son of some merchant or official who would add wealth or honour to their family. Neither father nor mother, brother nor sister, could have conceived of the potential power, honour and even glory, that were wrapped up in that girl, and that were finally to come to them as a family, as well as to many of them as individuals. Their wildest dreams at that time could not have pictured themselves dukes and princesses, with their daughters as empresses, duchesses, or ladies-in-waiting in the palace. But such it proved to be.

back to the table of contents