Xinyou Coup: Ousting Sushun
By the time of the Xianfeng Emperor's death, Empress Dowager Cixi had become a shrewd strategist. In Jehol, while waiting for an astrologically favorable time to transport the coffin back to Beijing, Cixi liaised with powerful court officials and imperial relatives to seize power. Cixi's position as the lower-ranked Empress Dowager had no political power attached. In addition, her son the young emperor was not a political force himself. As a result, it became necessary for her to ally herself with other powerful figures. Taking advantage of the naïveté and good nature of the late emperor's principal wife, the Empress Dowager Ci'an, Cixi suggested that they become co-reigning Empress Dowagers, with powers exceeding the Eight Regent Ministers.
Tensions grew among the Eight Regent Ministers, headed by Sushun, and the two Empresses Dowager. The ministers did not appreciate Cixi's interference in political affairs, and the frequent confrontations left the Empress Dowager Ci'an frustrated. Ci'an often refused to come to court audiences, leaving Empress Dowager Cixi to deal with the ministers alone. Secretly, Empress Dowager Cixi began gathering the support of talented ministers, soldiers, and others who were ostracized by the Eight Regent Ministers for personal or political reasons. Among them was Prince Gong, who had great ambitions and was at that time excluded from the power circle, and the Prince Chun, the sixth and seventh sons of the Daoguang Emperor, respectively. While she aligned herself with these Princes, a memorial came from Shandong asking for Cixi to "listen to politics behind the curtains", i.e., asking Cixi to become the ruler. The same petition also asked Prince Gong to enter the political arena as a principal "aide to the Emperor."
When the Emperor's funeral procession left for Beijing, Cixi took advantage of her alliances with Princes Gong and Chun. She and the boy Emperor returned to the capital before the rest of the party, along with Zaiyuan and Duanhua, two of the principal regents, while Sushun was left to accompany the deceased Emperor's procession. Cixi's early return to Beijing meant that she had more time to plan with Prince Gong, and ensure that the power base of the Eight Regent Ministers was divided between Sushun and his allies, Zaiyuan and Duanhua. History was re-written and the Regents were dismissed for having carried out incompetent negotiations with the "barbarians" which had caused Xianfeng Emperor to flee to Jehol "greatly against his will," among other charges.
To display her high moral standards, Cixi executed only three of the eight regent ministers. Prince Gong had suggested that Sushun and others be executed by the most painful method, known as slow slicing, but Dowager Cixi declined the suggestion and ordered that Sushun be beheaded, while the other two also marked for execution, Zaiyuan and Duanhua, were given white silks to allow them to commit suicide. In addition, Cixi refused outright the idea of executing the family members of the ministers, as would be done in accordance with Imperial tradition of an alleged usurper. Ironically, Qing Imperial tradition also dictated that women and princes were never to engage in politics. In breaking with tradition, Cixi became the only Qing Dynasty Empress to rule from "behind the curtains" (垂簾聽政).
This palace coup is known as the "Xinyou Palace Coup" (Chinese: 辛酉政變) in China after the name of the year 1861 in the Sexagenary cycle.
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