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Folk Tales

The Dragon Lady

The Dowager Empress Cixi (meaning "Kindly and Virtuous") ruled for 41 years (1861-1911). (In her later years, she was nicknamed The Old Buddha.) She was only the third woman in Chinese history to govern at the highest position.

Born in Beijing on November 29, 1835, her original name was Yehonala and, like most nobility of the day, her family was Manchu. According to some accounts, her father was a captain in the Banner Corps that guarded the emperor's home, the Forbidden City. At age 16, she was chosen to become a concubine of the Qing Emperor Xianfeng (or Hsien Feng) because of her beauty, including luxuriant raven hair. She came to power by giving birth to the emperor’s only surviving son. After he was born, she was raised in rank from a third-grade concubine to a first-grade concubine, second only to the Empress herself.

When Xianfeng died in 1861 at the age of 30, Cixi’s son, Tung Chih (or Tongzhi), became emperor at age 5. The regency was to be shared by Cixi and the emperor’s first wife until the son came of age. The famous "rule behind the curtain" used an actual bamboo screen set up behind the boy's throne. When government officials delivered their reports to the emperor, Cixi told the boy what to say.

When her only son died at age 18, Cixi appointed her 3-year-old nephew, Kuang Hsu, who was not in direct line of succession to the throne, as the next heir.

When the new emperor turned 17 in 1889, Cixi theoretically surrendered her power to him, retiring to the Summer Palace. In 1898, the emperor initiated his Hundred Days of Reform to westernize China. His decrees enraged the Manchu upper classes, and Cixi staged a coupe that held him as a prisoner and wiped out his modernizing decrees. Under her reign, the Boxer Rebellion led to attacks of foreigners, and with retaliation by the foreigners, the end of imperial rule.

A Kingdom Lost for a Concubine

King You was the last ruler of the Western Zhou Dynasty (11th Century to 771 BC). His favorite concubine, Baosi, was very beautiful, but had a strange quirk. She never smiled. One day, on an excursion to Mt. Lishan, she showed interest in the beacon tower. To please Baosi, the king had the beacon fire lit. The beacon was intended to alert nearby ally states that they should send troops to the king’s aid. The generals and their vassals, on seeing the signal, journeyed over the mountain, only to find a hoax. Their angry shouts made Baosi laugh. King You was so pleased at finally seeing a smile from Baosi that he took her often to Lishan to light the beacon. In 771 BC, when Zhou rule was under attack, King You ordered the beacon lit. However, this time, his generals ignored the signal, and the king was overthrown.

Qin Shi Huang — The First Emperor

At his father’s death, Ying Zheng became the ruler of the State of Qin at age 13. In 221 BC, after conquering six neighboring states, he declared himself Qin Shi Huang, the first emperor of the Qin Dynasty. The word Qin is pronounced "chin" and is the source of the name China. Shi Huang only ruled for 37 years. During that time, he built the Great Wall and unified the currency, the system of writing, and weights and measures.

The families of the thousands of men conscripted into labor gangs on the Great Wall and other projects, however, viewed Shi Huang as a brutal tyrant. A saying is that a Chinese worker died for every stone put into the wall. Shi Huang also ordered books burned and scholars buried alive to suppress history and writings that differed from his official version of events. An estimated 400 persons were buried alive. Confucian scholars portrayed Shi Huang as the prime example of what a ruler should not be.

The dynasty of Qin Shi Huang lasted only two generations. He was overthrown by a peasant rebellion begun in 209 BC by Chen Sheng and Wu Guang, two conscripts for the Great Wall. The rebels broke into the pits containing the clay soldiers, stole their weapons, and smashed and burned the figures.

The Gift of the Wild Goose

Originally, India had two sects of Buddhism. One was vegetarian and the other ate meat. On Buddha’s birthday, the meat eaters asked the vegetarians to provide them with meat to celebrate the occasion. Since they had none to give, they prayed instead. As if in answer to their prayers, a big wild goose fell out of a flock of geese flying by. The monks were jubilant. The meat eaters celebrated by roasting, then feasting on the goose. Afterwards, however, they were overcome by such guilt that they gave up meat. The vegetarian and the meat-eating sects became one. A pagoda was erected to mark the event.

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