Empress Dowager Cixi

Cixi, the Empress Dowager, was the effective – and controversial – ruler of China from 1861 to 1908. Many historians have blamed her for the downfall of the Qing dynasty and the end of Imperial China, while others find that the dynasty would have collapsed entirely without her, and credit her with extending Imperial reign for 50 years. Praise or malign her, she was a formidable and capable woman who maintained political power in a highly patriarchal culture during trying times, walked a tightrope between the roles of reformer and despot, patronized and dabbled in the arts… and smoked opium.

Hubert Vos (1855-1935): Portrait of Empress Dowager Cixi (detail) (1905, or a later copy, oil painting)

Born in Beijing in 1835 to an ordinary official of the Yehenara clan of the Manchu, Cixi was chosen in the selection for consorts to the Xianfeng Emperor, rapidly rose in rank, and bore an heir to the throne. Her literacy and intelligence helped her negotiate the pitfalls of court life. Following the end of the Second Opium War and the death of the Xianfeng Emperor, Cixi, who had become a shrewd political operator, was promoted to the status of Empress Dowager.

Foreign powers’ violent treatment of China did not stop with the Opium Wars, and the country’s path forward was a rocky one. The nearly 50 years of the Empress Dowager’s reign saw such major events as the First Sino-Japanese War, the Hundred Days’ Reform, and the Boxer Rebellion. These events required a ruler who could stand up defiantly to foreign belligerence on one day, reform and rebuild from disasters the next, and protect their own power base throughout.

Cixi’s situation was complicated further by being a regent and a woman within China’s patriarchal traditions, and ruling from behind the curtain required all of her considerable presence, charm, and political ingenuity.

In addition to her political life – or perhaps in repose to it – Cixi was a patron and a connoisseur of the arts. The Imperial workshops turned out masterpieces according to her tastes, and the quality and level of detail on items from the late Qing Imperial household is, of course, staggering. But Cixi’s own painting and calligraphy also show how important the arts were to her personally – while demonstrating no small measure of skill.

Left: Vase produced by the Imperial workshops under Cixi; Right: Painting attributed to Cixi

Having taken power after the Second Opium War, Cixi ruled during opium-smoking’s ascent to its greatest popularity in China. Opium had reached every level of society, and had a rich material and consumer culture surrounding it.

Unknown Manchu woman smoking opium at home during the late Qing

Cixi learned the ways of opium-smoking early on – her father’s concubine, formerly an attendant in an opium den, taught her to prepare pipes, and she could shape the pliable, taffy-like drug into the forms of various animals over the heat of the lamp.

As the Empress Dowager, officially Cixi supported efforts to abolish opium – but in private, she smoked, and as a result, her support for abolition was tempered. Though she smoked daily and was therefore addicted, she felt capable of moderation, and did not want to deprive herself or anyone in a similar position of their daily pleasure. From an account of the Empress later on in her reign:

In old age and pale-faced, she was addicted to opium smoking, but she did not smoke too much. After work in the evening, she smoked recreationally. That was why she issued a prohibition edict saying that those who were over sixty who smoked should be excused.

This idea of excusing the older generation is an interesting and telling one about the relationship between age and opium consumption. Take a culture with a great emphasis on filial piety, where an older individual’s behavior was immune to critique, and combine it with a drug that smooths away the physical and psychological dings of aging, and it’s not surprising that the elderly of China were the heaviest smokers during opium’s golden age in the late 1800’s.

The Empress’ efforts at abolition were directed both internally, towards her subjects, and externally, to opium-exporting powers like Britain. She was successful to a large degree, with British imports of opium dropping off almost entirely a few years after her death. Internally, opium-smoking became less fashionable – the vice of a previous generation. (The warlord period to follow, and the wild Shanghai scene of the 1930’s would reverse this trend somewhat, with domestically produced opium, but the overall presence of opium-smoking in the 1900’s never reached the heights of the late Qing.)

As far as Cixi’s opium pipes and layouts – one certainly might be inclined to imagine that this Imperial patroness of the late Qing would have the most luxurious and richly decorated smoking tools ever made. It’s not hard to think that a pipe like this, with its cloisonne phoenix (a favored symbol of hers) could have graced the royal chambers:

Opium pipe, 42 cm, cloisonne with polychrome bowl and ivory endcaps, from the Collection Georges Couzon, auctioned by Beaussant Lefèvre

Or this harmonious riot of late Qing style:

Opium pipe, 61 cm, cloisonne with ivory endcaps, from the Collection Georges Couzon, auctioned by Beaussant Lefèvre

However, pipes this ornate were usually more for display than use. And according to Cixi’s household comptroller, Ching Shan, she favored something perhaps less extravagant:

It may be added, in conclusion, as a sign of the times, that the Empress Dowager’s sleeping compartment, prepared under the direction of Sheng Hsuan-huai, was furnished with a European bed. Per contra, it contained also materials for opium smoking, of luxurious yet workmanlike appearance.

…”workmanlike” aligns with what other daily smokers have said about their favored pipes – that a bamboo pipe and clay bowl provide a better smoking experience than anything else.

A “workmanlike but elegant” opium pipe of bamboo

Whether Cixi’s opium layouts survive to this day is difficult to say. Museum exhibitions of Cixi’s household (such as the recently opened Empress Dowager Cixi: Selections from the Summer Palace) don’t seem to feature any opium-related items – indeed, the entire subject seems to be omitted. Whether such items are hidden away in the collections of The Palace Museum, or were secreted away by court attendants as Imperial reign unraveled after Cixi, or are simply lost to history is anyone’s guess. As far as I can tell, we can only speculate what the Empress Dowager would have selected for her ritual evening pipe.

Perhaps it’s more satisfying, though, to look at any “luxurious yet workmanlike” opium pipe from the late Qing, and imagine the Empress Dowager quietly smiling behind her mask of power and control.

Xunling (ca. 1880–1943): The Empress Dowager Cixi (detail) (1903-1904, glass plate negative)