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The Empress Dowager Cixi was born in 1835, in the tenth month of the fifteenth year of the Daoguang reign (1821-1850). She was from the Manchurian Yehenala clan of the Bordered Blue Banner (the core of the Qing dynasty conquest elite was comprised of households registered to Eight Banners, one of which was the Bordered Blue Banner). Cixi entered the palace in 1852, the second year of the Xianfeng reign (1851-1861) and lived in the Palace of Gathered Elegance (Chuxiu gong). Since her given name was Magnolia (lan'er), she was awarded the title Worthy Lady Magnolia (guiren, title of the imperial concubine of the fifth rank). Two years later, she was promoted to the rank of a Virtuous Court Lady (pin, title of the imperial concubine of the fourth rank). In 1856, she gave birth to Zaichun (later to become the Tongzhi Emperor, r.1862-1874), because of this she was honored with the rank of Virtuous Imperial Concubine (fei, title of the imperial concubine of the third rank). Then in 1857 she rose further in the ranks when she became a Virtuous Honorable Concubine (guifei, title of the imperial concubine of the second rank). In 1861 after her husband, the Xianfeng Emperor, died in the Imperial Summer Resort at Chengde (Bishu shanzhuang, 224 kilometers northeast of Beijing) the six-year-old Zaichun was crowned emperor and his mother Cixi was awarded the title Honored Mother Empress Dowager (Shengmu huangtaihou) and given the honorific title "Cixi". Prior to his death the Xianfeng Emperor had appointed eight special ministers charged with assisting the emperor in ruling the nation (fuzheng dachen). All eight were either killed or committed suicide during the "Xinyou Coup" in 1861, which was plotted by Cixi and Prince Yixin in an effort to gain political power. After the success of the coup Cixi began her rule, but as a woman she could only act as regent and never as an emperor. According to Confucian teachings, which heavily influenced imperial protocol, women were the inferior gender and must be governed by men, therefore Cixi could only taking charge of state affairs from behind a screen (known as "chuilian tingzheng"), and never in the open. However, she proved to be a highly effective regent and in this manner ruled China for forty-eight years.
As the country's actual ruler, Cixi had absolute political power. Despite the difficulty of losing her husband while still a young woman and her son in her late thirties, as well as her constant obsession with state affairs, Cixi nevertheless thoroughly enjoyed the pleasures and luxurious that life in the palace afforded. In this love of luxury and daily pomp associated with her exalted status, her pattern of daily life followed in the footsteps of the vast majority of previous emperors. Cixi was also enamored with the concept of beauty, and her unique political status gave her the ability to implement any scheme or regime that would fulfill this desire. Over time this pursuit of beauty became the most important aspect of her life. Her appearance, clothing and food all had to be meticulously attended to. When free of political affairs, she enjoyed numerous leisurely activities including visiting gardens, appreciating flowers, playing with dogs, watching opera shows, and playing cards. Cixi also was a believer of Buddhism and found the religion's teachings satisfied her need for spiritual guidance. In addition, Cixi was most concerned with her mortality. To that end she held a celebration of the Wanshou Festival, an event that celebrated her continuing longevity. Her decision to hold such a festival both indAicated her desire to live a long life and her desire to maintain power, as the Wanshou Festival was meant to be held only on an emperor's birthday.
In order to recreate the opulence Empress Dowager Cixi enjoyed during her life, the Palace Museum has selected a group of objects relating to her life for display.