Empress Dowager Cixi and Catherine the Great

The two powerful women featured in this comparison are significant because they knew how to assess their situation, develop influential followers, and then create a plan of action. In fact, few men in history have been so effective at gaining power and then keeping it for as long a period as these two women.  Readers may note that one difference between the two seems to be that Catherine the Great had a more positive influence on her country than the Empress.  However, the Empress Dowager Cixi had to use her power behind the curtains, influencing decisions within the Emperor or Regent’s power structure.

Similarities

Empress Dowager Cixi

Catherine the Great

Ruled Manchu Qing Dynasty and expanded her   power Ruled Russia and expanded its boundaries
Outmaneuvered Existing Power Elite Outmaneuvered Palace Power Elite
Instituted Social Reforms Instituted Social Reforms
Wielded Power within Family Wielded Power within Family
Held Power for Long Time Held Power for Long Time
Suppressed Rebellions Suppressed Rebellions
Live long life for her day Lived long life for her day
The oil painting of the Chinese Empress Dowage...
The oil painting of the Chinese Empress Dowager Cixi (1835-1908) by Catherine Karl in late 1890s. (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

Tz’u Hsi or Empress Dowager Cixi (November, 29 1835 – November, 15 1908)

Tz’u Hsi is a testament to not underestimating someone who is small in stature and comes from a modest background.  She held power as a regent or as a

defacto ruler of China for 47 years until 1908, when she died.  Born in 1835, she began her rise to power as the Emperor Hsein-Feng’s concubine. Since she produced the only heir to the Emperor, her power increased exponentially until she achieved Imperial Concubine status and then Noble Consort, second in influence only to that of the Empress. She gave birth to their son a couple of years before the emperor died.  Her son became Emperor Tung-Chih.  Since he was too young, at five years, to make decisions, Tz’u Hsi was given the power with two other partners.  She soon became a force in this triumvirate.  The Empress gained power when she talked military leaders and ministers into supporting her after the 8 regents selected to run the government alienated them.   She was persuasive and influential.  According to many scholars, despite pushing through reforms such as instituting foreign languages in schools and creating the Chinese Foreign Service Office, she also had a reputation for corruption and amassing a huge fortune and accumulating wealth. She used the country’s revenue funding for her own pleasure.  She retired from office in 1889.  Nevertheless, all decision-making ran through her for approval until her death.  The new emperor wanted to clean out corruption in China’s government but Hsi didn’t want this to happen so she took the power of the regency again and confined him to the palace.  In 1900, the Boxer Rebellion forced her to flee Peking and accept the peace agreement.   Toward the end of her life, she changed her mind and worked to eliminate corruption in government the best she could at her advanced age. The Empress Dowager Cixi died in Peking on November 15, 1908, a day after the real emperor, Guangxu.  The Empress Dowager is known for political maneuvering, accumulating wealth, and instituting reforms.  She is also remembered as the most successful concubine in history.  After she evaluated her circumstances and assessed her friends and enemies, she acted without hesitation. It seems her years as a concubine weren’t wasted. She understood the personalities working around the family dynasty and the Forbidden City so that when she moved, she knew who to rely on and who were her enemies. In that time, one false step would have meant death.

Catherine the Great or Catherine II (Born Sophia Augusta Fredericka) May 2, 1729-November 17, 1796

 Since history is written by the living or the victors, the fact that Catherine II became known as

Portrait of Catherine II the Legislatress in t...
Portrait of Catherine II the Legislatress in the Temple Devoted to the Godess of Justice, by Dmitry Levitsky. (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

Catherine the “Great” is a testament to her leadership and reforms during her reign as Russia’s Empress Consort of all Russians.  History’s timeline does not record many people with “Great” after their names.  So she must have been doing something right while serving as ruler of “all” Russians.  She gained power through her understanding of the personalities around her in the royal palace.She came to the Russian Palace from Prussia as a political union to strengthen the Russian-Prussian alliance.  Her wedding to Peter III and her conversion to Russian Orthodoxy  as well as her ability learn the Russian language endeared her to citizens and won her favor in the royal family.  After her  spouse Peter III’s succession to the throne, the new King made several poor decisions that alienated the his advisors and military leaders.  These decisions were siding with Prussia’s King Frederick the II and wearing the colors of Austria for his uniforms.  His eccentrities alienated the same groups that Catherine had cultivated, showing political savvy beyond her years.   Six months after assuming the throne, Peter III left Catherine in St. Petersburg and that’s when her supporters decided to remove Peter III from power, arrest him and put Catherine in the position as leader of Russia.  Eight days later, Peter III was murdered in prison by Alexei Orlov, the brother of Gregory Orlov, a supporter of Catherine.

Catherine the Great’s ability to cultivate supporters within the nobility, military and government leaders served her well early by consolidating her power until time developed her own reputation.  Catherine, like Peter the Great, believed in Western influence and culture as a way to further Russia’s stance in the world.  She believed in education and opened schools for russian girls to further their studies.  In addition, Catherine expanded the Russian Empire after victories against the Ottoman Empire so that the country had access to the Black Sea.  She was also a champion of arts and culture as well as finance reform.  Catherine the Great died from complications from a stroke on November 17, 1796.

One thing can be stated about the Empress Dowager Cixi and Catherine the Great, they knew how to move within houses of power.  Once they were in a position to gain power, they used their political savvy, intelligence, positions in the royal hierarchy, and their supporters’ willingness to help them, to achieve goals.  If any of those aspects had not been present, historians or the victors might have written a different story.

What do you think?  Write a comment or suggest any other people to compare.

5 thoughts on “Empress Dowager Cixi and Catherine the Great”

  1. Hmm is anyone else having problems with the
    pictures on this blog loading? I’m trying to figure out if its a problem on my end or if it’s the blog.

    Any feed-back would be greatly appreciated.

    1. I just opened it up today. My power has been off due to Hurricane Sandy. A couple of the pictures didn’t load. I will have to go back to my dashboard to see if I can add them in again. I only use photos that are in the public domain so I will have to check. Thanks for the feedback.

  2. I love your blog.. very nice colors & theme.
    Did you create this website yourself or did you hire someone to do it for you?

    Plz respond as I’m looking to construct my own blog and would like to know where u got this from. appreciate it

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