When it comes to bad gals, few can rival Empress Dowager Cixi, the last real monarch of China (1861-1908). But unlike our other bad gals, this one didn’t implode.
The number of women leaders in history is few; the number who made it to the top, pushed for radical reform and managed not to get murdered is fewer still.
Till now historians have dismissed Cixi, attributing most of the progress made during her rule to her male advisors. Still, if the ruler in question had been male, it’s doubtful that historians would have been dismissive to the same extent, no matter how drug- or lust-addled his brains might have been. It has taken a woman, the distinguished if controversial Jung Chang, to give Cixi her due.
According to Chang, Cixi was remarkable for two reasons:
First, this uneducated woman with no legitimate claim to power was able to win the loyalty of China’s esteemed mandarins. This, more than anything, was surely testament to her abilities; and
Second, without ever having seen the outside world–Cixi even consulted with her closest advisors from behind a screen–she steered Imperial China through its transition to modernity.
A low-ranking concubine of the Xianfeng Emperor, Cixi came to power when the Emperor died prematurely. She used her stature as the mother of his only son to maneuver her way to the title of Empress Dowager.
From where did Cixi get her immense confidence?
In an age when a woman’s power lay in her looks, it’s noteworthy that Cixi wasn’t particularly attractive.
Instead, according to Chang, even though she was a girl, Cixi’s father invited and valued her opinion on important matters. Thus from a young age she was taught to believe in herself. Dads, take note.
How a whiffet of undistinguished antecedents plotted and schemed her way to the top is a lesson in bad galing for all the aspiring bad gals out there.
Cixi had an innate sense of how to get the best out of people. Her strategies would not be out of place in any management manual today.
Despite her manifest shortcomings, she put aside her insecurities and stacked her team with the best and brightest.
Cixi did not muffle opposition to her policies. In fact she even promoted some of her most vociferous critics, especially if they were men of great talent, such as the eminent politician Zhang Zhidong.
She transcended petty tribal loyalties, rewarding ability before ethnicity. Cixi promoted foreigners to key posts, such as Robert Hart, the Inspector General of Chinese Maritime Customs, or Townsend Ward, the commander of victorious Chinese forces in the Taiping rebellion.
As a pretender to power, Cixi understood the importance of making alliances. She married off her younger sister to the emperor’s younger brother. She befriended the wives of foreign diplomats. And as nice as she was to her allies, she was nicer still to her enemies, especially if she respected their abilities.
All the same, she could be ruthless when required, but no more so than any of her predecessors.
Cixi respected tradition, and held back from introducing changes that would be too much of an affront to Chinese sentiment. Nonetheless, “things have always been done this way” was never reason enough for her.
She looked ahead, never backward. She embraced new technologies. She dispatched Chinese officials to the West to learn about the latest developments that could benefit China.
And finally, to all the workaholics reading this: Cixi worked hard but still took a nap everyday.