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The Tongzhi Emperor 同治帝 (ruled 1861 – 1875)

The only surviving son of the Xianfeng Emperor and Empress Dowager Cixi, Tongzhi came to the throne at the age of five and died at the age of nineteen. Tongzhi ruled under the regency of a triumvirate led by his mother, the Empress Dowager Cixi. He authored a short revitalization of the government through the Tongzhi Restoration, an unsuccessful attempt to stabilize and modernize China by restoring traditional order. The traditional Chinese political phrase "attending audiences behind a curtain" (垂簾聽政) was coined to describe Cixi's rule through her son. His reign, which effectively lasted through his adolescence, was largely overshadowed by the rule of his mother Empress Dowager Cixi

Tongzhi’s Youth

While there had most likely been hopes that Tongzhi would become a leader like the second ruler of the Qing Dynasty, the Kangxi Emperor (who himself had succeeded to the throne as a child in 1661), those hopes soon came to naught, as Tongzhi grew into an obstinate and dissolute young man.

Tongzhi's marriage

In 1872, the Emperor turned 17. Under the guidance of the Empress Dowager Ci'an, Tongzhi was married to Empress Jiashun. Empress Jiashun's grandfather, Prince Zheng, was one of the eight ministers selected by Xianfeng to guide Tongzhi. He had been Cixi's enemy during the Xinyou Coup, and was ordered to commit suicide after Cixi's victory. Moreover, the Empress's zodiac symbol of the tiger was perceived as life-threatening by the superstitious Cixi, whose own zodiac symbol was a sheep. According to Cixi's belief, it was a warning from God that she would eventually fall prey to the Empress.

As the principal consort of the Emperor, Empress Jiashun was well received by both Tongzhi and Empress Dowager Ci'an. Her personal consultants once warned her to be more agreeable and docile to Cixi, as Cixi was the figure who truly held the power. She replied: "I am a principal consort, having been carried through the front gate with pomp and circumstance, as mandated by our ancestors. Empress Dowager Cixi was a concubine, and entered our household through a side door."

Since the very beginning of his marriage, the Emperor proceeded to spend most of his time with his empress at the expense of his four concubines, including the Lady Fuca and Noble Consort Hui, who was the empress intended by Cixi. As hostility grew between Cixi and Empress Jiashun, Cixi suggested the couple spend more time on studies, and spied on Tongzhi using eunuchs. After her warning was ignored, Cixi ordered the couple to separate, and Tongzhi purportedly spent several months following Cixi's order in isolation at Qianqing Palace.

The young emperor, who could no longer cope with his grief and loneliness, grew more and more ill-tempered. He began to treat his servants with cruelty, and punished them physically for minor offenses. With the help of court eunuchs and Zaicheng, eldest son of Prince Gong and Tongzhi's contemporary and best friend, Tongzhi disguised himself as a commoner and secretly spent many nights in the brothels of Beijing. The Emperor's sexual habits became common talk among court officials and commoners, and there are many anecdotes of Tongzhi's escapades.

Foreign influence

China's loss in the Second Opium War was undoubtedly a wake-up call for its imperial rulers. Cixi presided over a country whose military strategies, both on land and sea, and in terms of weaponry, were vastly outdated. Sensing an immediate threat from foreigners and realizing that China's agricultural economy could not hope to compete with the industrial prowess of the West, Cixi made a decision that for the first time in Imperial Chinese history, China would learn from Western powers and import their knowledge and technology. At the time, three prominent Han Chinese officials, Zeng Guofan, Li Hongzhang and Zuo Zongtang, had all begun industrial programs in the country's southern regions. In support of these programs, Cixi also decreed the opening of Tongwen Guan in 1862, a university-like institution in Beijing that hired foreigners as teachers and specialized in modern topics such as astronomy and mathematics, as well as the English, French, and Russian languages. Groups of young boys were also sent abroad to the United States.

China's "learn from foreigners" program quickly met with impediments. China's military institutions were in desperate need of reform, and Cixi's solution, under the advice of officials at court, was to purchase seven British warships. When the warships arrived in China, however, they carried with them boatloads of British sailors, all under British command. The Chinese were enraged at this "international joke," negotiations broke down between the two parties, and China returned the warships to Britain, where they were to be auctioned off. Scholars sometimes attribute the failure of China's foreign programs to Cixi's conservative attitude and old methods of thinking, and contend that Cixi would learn only so much from the foreigners, as would not infringe upon her own power. Under the pretext that a railway was too loud and would "disturb the Emperor's tombs," Cixi forbade its construction. When construction went ahead anyway in 1877 under Li Hongzhang's recommendation, Cixi asked that they be pulled by horse-drawn carts.  Cixi was especially alarmed at the liberal thinking of people who had studied abroad, and saw that it posed a new threat to her power. In 1881, Cixi put a halt to sending children abroad to study, and withdrew her formerly open attitude towards foreigners.

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