The central figure of the Summer Palace is Empress Dowager Cixi. She lived at the palace, imprisoned the Emperor there, used China’s national defense money on making the Palace nicer, dressed up as Buddha, and generally rolled in power like a pig in mud. Here’s what I’ve gleaned about her from the signs at the palace, the audio tour and the filtered Google (the Firewall of China definitely gets in the way. I’m getting my email in fits and starts, too.)

Cixi started out as a royal concubine. The life of a concubine was not well-described, but it seems to have been a pretty desirable job for daughters of families that were close to the Emperor, or whom the Emperor wanted to keep close. From photos, I can tell you the concubines appear to have been very well fed. The Internet says that, “when the emperor would choose to sleep with her, she would be escorted to his room by eunuchs and left naked at the foot of the bed. This was done in order to insure no weapons were brought into his room.” At least in Cixi’s case, this seemed to be a wise precaution.

Cixi became Empress Dowager when the Emperor died and her six year old son, the only male heir, ascended to the throne. Since the son was a minor, Cixi ruled in his stead, along with the former Emperor’s wife, the Empress. Then the son died and Cixi appointed her three year old nephew, Guangxu, to be Emperor. Then the Empress died. Cixi was said to have poisoned her. Cixi ruled in the nephew’s stead, well past when he was of majority age. People complained, so she agreed to move to the Summer Palace and let him rule, but only if they gave her money to fix it up even nicer than it already was. The money came from China’s national defense fund, and Cixi’s Palace extravagancy is partially at fault for China’s loss in the Sino-Japanese War.

Cixi continued to be the power behind the throne. She had spies in the Palace, including Guangxu’s wife. He didn’t like the wife “so they didn’t have a very good relationship”, but Cixi chose her because Cixi and the wife had blood ties so the wife could be trusted to spy. Cixi also forced Guangxu to come to the S.P. every couple of days to consult with her.

Eventually, Guangxu met with some reformists and decided to implement some changes, called the 100 Days of Reform, but Cixi didn’t like reform. It probably threatened her way of life, which was floating around Kumming Lake on her various pleasure boats (gifts from the French), dressing up like the Buddha, and having disfavored concubines drowned in wells. So, Cixi and her loyal band of palace eunuchs organized a coup against Guangxu and imprisoned him at the Summer Palace.

Cixi bargained with her countrymen to save the dynasty in exchange for her support during the Boxer Rebellion, but later abandoned them to negotiate with Western forces.

As her dying act, she poisoned Guangxu, who died a few hours before Cixi, to ensure that she would be able to appoint 3 year old Pi Yu as emperor. Pi Yu was the Last Emperor, his father too weak to resist reformists, and was ousted in the 1911 Revolution. Later, Japan would try to reappoint PiYu as a figurehead, but to no avail. The dynasty was over.

To put this in a historical context, all of this intrigue and excess was taking place 100 years after the American Revolution. It seems like a story for a much more Bysantine age.