Tzu-Hsi, Dowager Empress of China, was one of the most formidable women in modern history. Famed for her beauty and charm, a true friend and a terrible enemy, she was power-hungry, greedy, ruthless and profoundly skilled in the court politics and intrigues of the decaying Manchu Empire. In a life spent largely shut away in Peking's Forbidden City, where the emperors lived among a numberless retinue of officials, eunuchs, concubines and servants, she knew practically nothing of the wider world. This may have been less of a disadvantage to her than historians have generally supposed. Through sheer force of character she was the virtual ruler of China for almost fifty years, and in later life people nicknamed her Old Buddha or the Dragon Lady.
Tzu-Hsi came from the middle ranks of Manchu society. When she was seventeen, in 1852, she was one of a bevy of beauties conscripted for the harem of the young but already degenerately exhausted Emperor Hsien-Feng. Tzu-Hsi contrived to attract his flagging attentions and in 1856 she bore him his only son, T'ung-Chih. When Hsien-Feng died in 1861, Tzu-Hsi was still in her twenties and the mother of the new emperor, who was six years old. She survived a plot to murder her, forced the plotters to commit suicide and exploited the situation to the full. Her son, T'ung-Chih, died in 1875. He had begun to resent her and there was a strong suspicion that she put him out of the way. She contrived to continue in power by flagrantly breaking all precedent, adopting her three-year-old nephew as her son and making him the next emperor, as Kuang-Hsu.
In her fifties, Tzu-Hsi ostensibly retired to the gorgeous Summer Palace outside Peking, one of the most beautiful and luxurious places on earth. …