Caroline Young, artwork and text
Empress Ci’an (1837-1881), meaning “peaceful and motherly”, was the second wife of the crown prince Xianfeng of the Qing dynasty (1644-1912).
When Xianfeng ascended the throne, his first wife had already died, and thus Ci’an was made empress.
However, she failed to produce a male heir to the throne.
Instead, a concubine, Yehenara, gave birth to the next crown prince.
When Emperor Xianfeng died in 1861, the prince was only five years old and Yehenara received the honorary title of Empress, becoming the infamous and ruthless Cixi.
Unlike Cixi, Ci’an was demure and peaceful and treated everyone with great respect. Because she lived in the eastern part of the Forbidden City, Ci’an became known as the East Empress Dowager, and Cixi was the West Empress Dowager.
As Empress dowager and one of the most senior members of the royal family, Ci’an and Cixi were co-regents during the reign of two young Emperors: Zaichun (1861-1875), and Zaitan (1889-1908).
They successfully ruled as co-regents of the empire, balancing each other’s weaknesses and strengths, and ruling together for more than twenty years until Ci’an’s death in 1881.
It should be noted that Cixi staged a coup in 1898 which left Emperor Zaitan powerless. Cixi unofficially ruled the Dynasty until her death in 1908.