Chapter 19

Since Concubine Dowager Li had a daughter, West Empress Dowager would like to have a daughter of her own, but she could never give birth to a daughter now as her emperor husband had died. Prince Yixin had a daughter, very clever and demure, one year older than the daughter of Concubine Dowager Li and two years older than the young emperor, her son. It seemed that she was endowed with an ability of repartee. If she said something, no one could contradict her. She always had a full reason, a logical reason, for whatever she said. West Empress Dowager had seen her more than once when she had come into the Forbidden City with her mother on some occasions like the empress dowagers gave a feast for birthdays or festivals.
West Empress Dowager wanted to adopt her as her daughter. It was really a friendly gesture. But Yixin didn’t like it, because he would lose the only daughter he had. He might not bear another daughter. Besides, when his daughter was made a princess, who would kowtow to whom when they met? A problem of the ritual. But he could not refuse the good wish of West Empress Dowager.
His daughter went to live in the Forbidden City. Everyone there called her Big Princess, because she was the oldest among the three children, the emperor, the daughter of Concubine Dowager Li and her. The young emperor loved to tease the daughter of Concubine Dowager Li, but he never teased Big Princess. He respected her and always listened to her.
Once after they watched operas, West Empress Dowager asked Big Princess if she liked these operas. She replied, “I don’t know how they acted, good or bad, but I don’t like these operas.”
West Empress Dowager was surprised to hear it. She said, “I saw you sitting there attentively. If you didn’t like them, you were supposed to look fidgety.”
But what she said next was more surprising for a young girl. “How could I sit there looking fidgety, when I accompanied Empress Dowagers watching operas?”
It made West Empress Dowager feel herself ridiculous with what she had said. As an adult, she should know the ritual better than the young girl. But she was not angry with her. She could never be angry with her for such a nice clever young girl.
When Big Princess reached the age of thirteen, West Empress Dowager wanted to find a husband for her. As her wish was known, many courtiers wanted to marry their sons to Big Princess. It was not only because Big Princess was wise and demure, but also because the marriage tie to West Empress Dowager would greatly help the father in his official career. Someone went to see Yihuan, the uncle of Big Princess, and expressed his desire to have his son as the royal son-in-law. He hoped that Yihuan could help him since he worked for Yihuan and always loyal to him. Yihuan asked his wife, the sister of West Empress Dowager, to visit her sister in the Forbidden City and be a matchmaker. West Empress Dowager was discreet in choosing a husband for her daughter. She said to her sister, “I must look at the boy first before I can make up my mind.”
They arranged that the sister and Yihuan would hold a banquet at their residence for the empress dowagers to come to watch some new operas and at the same time to meet the boy. On that day the meeting with the courtiers ended early. The empress dowagers and the emperor went to Yihuan’s residence. Other princes and their families, royal cousins and their families and others belonging to the royal household were invited, too. When the empress dowagers and the emperor arrived, everyone knelt in front of the gate of the residence to welcome them. It was arranged that before the performance began West Empress Dowager would receive the boy privately in another room. The boy looked handsome. At the first sight West Empress Dowager liked him, but when she asked what his name was, the boy stammered, unable to get the words out. It was not because he was nervous, but because he was born like that. West Empress Dowager couldn’t ask him more questions and dismissed him in disappointment. But the good performances cheered her up.
Later West Empress Dowager married Bit Princess to the son of Emperor Xianfeng’s brother-in-law, the one who had been a counselor and had been pardoned. The son liked to study, always sat there as quiet as a mouse, reading, but not so healthy. The son was sixteen years old then while Big Princess was only thirteen. A few years after they got married, the son began to be seriously sick. It was also tuberculosis.
One day a celebration was going on for the birthday of West Empress Dowager. All the imperial household and royal relatives were present for the occasion. The husband of Princess RongAn, the daughter of Concubine Dowager Li, was there, too. But the emperor didn’t see the husband of Princess Rongshou. (Princess Rongshou was the formal title and Big Princess was like a nickname.) So he asked his head eunuch about it. The head eunuch whispered to the emperor, “He’s dying.”
But I see Big Princess is watching operas with Holy Mother Empress Dowager. In that case, why doesn’t she stay at home, looking after her husband?” The emperor asked.
Because Big Princess doesn’t want Holy Mother Empress Dowager to know it. It is Holy Mother Empress Dowager who married her to that husband. Besides, today is the red-letter day, the birthday of Holy Mother Empress Dowager. Big Princess doesn’t want the sad information to dampen the happy celebration. If Big Princess is absent, Holy Mother Empress Dowager will surely ask, and the disturbing truth will come out.”
So after the performance, the emperor took Big Princess to another room and inquired after her husband about his sickness. Her tears trickled down her cheeks, but she could not cry out loudly, because it would offend West Empress Dowager. The emperor could only say some empty comforting words to her. Before long, her husband died and Big Princess became a widow, but she often went to the Forbidden City to see West Empress Dowager.
Now, every order issued in the young emperor’s name, every appointment of officials and officers or their removals from a post must be approved by the two empress dowagers. They had the absolute power. Yixin was only an executive of their decisions. But West Empress Dowager was not fully satisfied. First, she had only half the power, as she was one of the two empress dowagers. Second, Yixin was not such a desirable person as could be totally controlled. He often disagreed with her. For they looked at things from different standpoint of view. Part of her reason for detesting him was that Little An, as she called her head eunuch, often spoke ill of Yixin since Yixin disliked him. Since Little An had delivered that important secret letter that had caused the downfall of Sushun, he had had full trust from West Empress Dowager. He had reminded West Empress Dowager of Sushun’s spies among the eunuchs. These spies had been arrested and thrown into jail
Now as West Empress Dowager’s head eunuch and her favorite one, Little An did many things against law, such as accepting briberies and interfering where he should not poke his nose. Even the young emperor detested him because he had little esteem for the emperor, who often vowed secretly that he would kill Little An some day. Of course, Little An could never guess it. He only knew how to gain the trust of West Empress Dowager by doing everything she liked, but in the process he had made a lot of enemies. He often went to the palace supplies office, of which Yixin was also in charge, with a long list to demand things like plates and bowls, etc., in the name of West Empress Dowager. Actually, by demanding things not in urgent need, he only wanted people there to acknowledge his authority as the favorite head eunuch of West Empress Dowager. But one day when he went there again, Yixin was there and challenged his authority by refusing most of the things he demanded. So at dinner that evening, he ordered the cooks to put food in coarse china bowls like those used by ordinary people. When West Empress Dowager asked about it out of curiosity, he reported that Yixin had refused to give him fine china bowls. Therefore, West Empress Dowager thought that Yixin despised her and got furious.


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West Empress Dowager often sent Little An to see her mother, bringing her some gifts like ginseng and some edibles. Little An liked the task, because he could get some tips. Her mother now lived with one of her brothers, who were just ordinary in many ways and no talent at all. Therefore, West Empress Dowager just conferred on each of them an honorary title, no official positions. The brother living with her mother wanted a good official position and often begged Little An to convey his wish to his sister, but Little An didn’t dare to mention it to West Empress Dowager. Little An knew that West Empress Dowager would not do that, because her brother was so dumb and would surely make mistakes, and then what could she do with him? If she wouldn’t punish him, all the courtiers would complain or even criticize her. If she punished him, he was her brother. She would get into a plight.
But as the brother kept importuning him, he plucked up his courage one day to tell West Empress Dowager that her brother desired to be appointed to a good official position. But West Empress Dowager warned him not to interfere with political affairs. The ancestors of Qing Dynasty had instructed that a eunuch who interfered with anything political should be put to death.
Little An was frustrated and decided to teach the brother of West Empress dowager a lesson. Next time when he went there, the brother importuned him once more. He told him that he had mentioned it to his sister and she promised to give him a very good official position and that he should wait patiently for the appointment to be announced. So the brother was very happy and excited. He thanked Little An abundantly. But the appointment never came. He sent his mother to visit his sister in the Forbidden City. When the mother saw West Empress Dowager, she mentioned it. Deliberately West Empress Dowager told her mother that her brother was not a talented man and unsuitable to any of the official positions. She told her mother to advise her brother to just enjoy his life as it was.

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