Travel Reference
In-Depth Information
The notorious Cixi entered the imperial palace at 15 as the Emperor Xianfeng's concu-
bine , quickly becoming his favourite and bearing him a son. When the emperor died in
1861 she became regent, ruling in place of her infant boy, Tonghzi. For the next 35 years
she, in effect, ruled China, displaying a mastery of intrigue and court politics. When her
son died of syphilis in 1875, she installed another puppet infant, her nephew, and retained
her authority. Her fondness for extravagant gestures (every year she had ten thousand caged
birds released on her birthday, for example) drained the state's coffers, and her deeply con-
servative policies were inappropriate for a time when the nation was calling for reform.
With foreign powers taking great chunks out of China's borders on and off during the
nineteenth century, Cixi was moved to respond in a typically misguided fashion. Impressed
by the claims of the xenophobic Boxer Movement (whose Chinese title translated as
“Righteous and Harmonious Fists”) that their members were invulnerable to bullets, in
1899 Cixi let them loose on all the foreigners in China. The Boxers laid siege to the foreign
legation's compound in Beijing for nearly two months before a European expeditionary
force arrived and, predictably, slaughtered the agitators. Cixi and her nephew, the emperor,
only escaped the subsequent rout of the capital by disguising themselves as peasants and
fleeing the city. On her return, Cixi clung on to power, attempting to delay the inevitable
fall of the dynasty. One of her last acts, the day before she died in 1908, was to oversee the
murder of her puppet emperor, Guangxu.
The palace compound
City buses, most tours and those coming via Xiyuan subway station will enter via the East
Gate , which is overlooked by the main palace compound; a path leads from the gate, past
several halls (all signposted in English), to the lakeside. Those arriving at Beigongmen sub-
way station will enter through the North Gate , on the other side of Wanshou Shan; from
here, it's a lovely walk of just over 1km to the palace compound.
The strange bronze animal in the first courtyard is a xuanni or kylin , with the head of a
dragon, deer antlers, a lion's tail and ox hooves. It was said to be able to detect disloyal
subjects. The building behind is the Renshoudian (Hall of Benevolence and Longevity), a
majestic, multi-eaved hall where the empress and her predecessors gave audience; it retains
much of its original nineteenth-century furniture, including an imposing red sandalwood
throne carved with nine dragons and flanked by peacock feather fans. The inscription on the
tablet above reads “Benevolence in rule leads to long life”. Look out, too, for the superbly
well-made basket of flowers studded with precious stones.
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