Thursday, June 12, 2014
Monarch Profile: Emperor Tongzhi of China
In spite of official declarations, Empress Dowager Cixi continued to be the real power behind the throne, though initially she was not the only one struggling to dominate the halls of power in the name of the Tongzhi Emperor. The young monarch became listless and disheartened under such domination and drifted back to the eunuchs he had known all his short life who were more than willing to help him flee his troubles through overindulgence in women and alcohol. His mother responded by getting her 16-year old son married, though she clashed with Empress Dowager Xiao Chen over who it should be, until Tongzhi chose Xiaozheyi of the Alute clan, Mongol Plain Blue Banner, daughter of a prominent nobleman and scholar. However, marriage brought little lasting peace to the life of the Emperor. He had other concubines but favored his Empress above all and spent most every night with her. Empress Dowager Cixi, never terribly fond of the girl, accused her of trying to monopolize the affections of her husband and depriving the other consorts of his affections. Eventually, she would go so far as to order the two to separate.
The Tongzhi Restoration, however, did not go anywhere close to the lengths that the Meiji Restoration did in Japan. It was intended to focus on “practical knowledge” while shunning western ideas about philosophy or politics. That would probably have been okay but there was such opposition that permission to limit modernization was often stretched to mean that many refused to implement any real modernization at all. There were also problems at court with the Emperor and his mother not on good terms and with cracks beginning to appear in the triumvirate that still held considerable power despite the fact that Emperor Tongzhi was supposed to be in charge. Empress Dowager Cixi suggested that the Emperor build himself a new residence and he seemed quite taken by the idea but Prince Kong refused to allocate the funds for it. Some have wondered since if the Empress Dowager expected this. Emperor Tongzhi was enraged and distraught by this, yet another example of how he was not being allowed to rule as he pleased and how everyone seemed dedicated to thwarting him and his happiness. He went back to trying to forget his sorrow, came down with smallpox but seemed to recover from it. Then, quite suddenly, Emperor Tongzhi died on January 12, 1875.