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Wondery plus subscribers can listen to even the royals early and ad free right now. Join wondery plus in the Wondery app or on Apple Podcasts. A quick note about our show. We do a lot of research for our stories, but we also aren't your boring high school history class, so some details and scenes are dramatized. And keep in mind, today we're talking about women's rights and women's wrongs, so this episode does feature some violence. Please be advised, it's a summer morning in 1900, and a warm breeze moves through a courtyard in the forbidden city. Empress Dawajer Sashi stands at one end, wearing a yellow robe inlaid with shiny pearls. She eyes the doors at the other end of the courtyard. She's so tired, but she knows that today of all days, she cannot show any signs of weakness. Suddenly, the doors to the courtyard are thrown open, and Sashi sees eunuchs come out, dragging a young woman behind them. The woman kicks and screams as they carry her towards a well at the center of the courtyard. She looks over and notices the empress dowager. She stops screaming and begs Sashi to spare her life.


The young woman swears that she thought she was doing the right thing for China. For a moment, Sashi can relate. Like this woman, Pearl. She also risked her life for power. But Sashi has come too far to let anyone get in her way. She turns to the eunuchs and tells them to throw Pearl down the well.


Wow. Okay, so not women supporting women. Got it.


Yeah. At first, no one moves, so she starts to sweat. She knows this looks bad, but she has no choice. There's only one way to stop this ambitious woman from undermining her authority. So she yells at a young, strong eunuch and tells him to follow her orders. There's a horrible pause, and then he picks the young woman up and throws her into the well.


Oh, my God.


Yeah. It's harsh and difficult for Sashi to watch, but Pearl was too determined and too clever. Tashi reminds herself that this isn't anything new. She's ordered executions before. But as Tashi looks around the courtyard, she can see everyone is staring at her with a new look in their eyes. People have always respected her, but now they fear her, because most witnesses here today don't really know why Tsaxi felt compelled to kill Pearl. In fact, no one will know the full truth for almost a century. So after today, even her allies believe Empress Dawajer Tzashi has cracked, that she's finally become the villain. If only they knew her secret from wondery. I'm Brooke Cifrin.


And I'm Arisha Skidmore Williams.


And this is even the royals.


Fancy champagne. Let go down. Royal drama in my crown.


This two part series is all about Empress Dowager Sashi of China. In part one, Sashi rose from concubine to empress with the help of her best friend and a savvy political coup. But while Sashi was busy turning China into an international power player, her enemies at court were plotting ways to destroy her. Now the man she loved has been executed, and Sashi wants revenge. But she'll find out the hard way that revenge and power come at a cost. This is part two villain era.


All that glitters is emboldened.


It's December of 1874, and Sashi is speedwalking over a snow covered bridge. Below her, a lake is frozen over. She's rushing to a palace that sits in the center of the lake, and she doesn't have much time. Her son is dying. Oh, yeah. There's a lot of death, and we are literally just getting started.


Okay. Come on. Yeah.


Sashi's son, Tongji, is 18 and has been in power for two years. After he got married, Sashi's time as co regent ended. She had hoped her son would be a great leader with her good genes. He had to be right. But Tongji has been more interested in having ragers than running the country.


I mean, can you blame him? He's 18.


Yeah, exactly right. So all of Tsushi's hard work trying to fortify China's economy and infrastructure has ground to a halt. But today, Sashi isn't worrying about policy. She doesn't love her son's behavior, but her heart breaks to think of him dying. It took her years to come to peace with losing little on but losing her son. That would be unbearable. So she enters her son's bedchamber. She walks to his bedside and sees that the energetic party boy is gone. Now, her son is thin and weak. He's covered with sores so big she can barely see his eyes. Now, in case you're not a learned doctor or a woman of science like Arisha, Tongji has smallpox, and things have taken a turn for the worse. Sashi watches her son drift in and out of consciousness. She's reminded of the peaceful way he used to sleep as a little kid. Her eyes fill with tears, but at the same time, she can't help thinking about the future. Tongji has no legitimate sons and has yet to pick a successor. If he doesn't name one before he dies, she might be able to return to the seat of power.


She's done it before, and she knows she can do it again. It's a sick twist of fate, though. Her son in exchange for leading China again. Like, talk about a high price to pay.


Yeah. Ultimate, basically.


Yeah. But Sashi has never been one to waste an opportunity. She knows Tongji will die soon, so now it's time to set her sights on the future. A few weeks later, Tongji dies without naming a successor, which has basically never happened. But Sashi isn't worried. She's been preparing for this. She brings the advisors together and offers them a solution. She'll pick the successor. She is the former emperor's regent and mother, after all. Plus, she was basically ruling in the emperor's place once he got too sick, and she already knows how to do the job. Sashi tells them she'll pick a young successor, like toddler young. She'll teach him everything she knows as his regent until he comes of age, gets married, and can take over. It's basically Tongji, 20. Only this time, Tashi will make sure she molds the kid into the perfect leader. You know, just normal parenting goals.


Yeah, that's why you have a second child.


Exactly, yeah.


Fix all the mistakes you made with the first one.


Yeah. So unlike the precoo era, the advisors are like, yes, please. They know she can do the job, and honestly, better than her son did. They're pretty desperate right now, so this may be unusual, but fuck it. Sashi is their best option. The advisors make it official. The death of her son is still weighing on Sashi, but now it's time to do what she does best. Get to work. There is so much to do, including identifying the next emperor. But Sashi is up for the task. Plus, this new power comes with something else, a chance for revenge. Sashi's never forgotten the role that Prince Chun played in getting her beloved little aunt executed. And now that she's back in charge, she's about to get even.


Honestly, I love a good revenge story.


Me too. Shortly afterward, Sashi finds herself behind that old yellow screen in the imperial court. She looks over at her best friend and partner in crime, Sion, sitting next to her, now 38 and just as beautiful and elegant as she was when they first came to the palace. The two friends watch as members of the court file in and take their place on the other side of the screen. Sashi folds her hands neatly on her lap to keep them from shaking, not with fear, but with anticipation, because today she and Sion are revealing who the next emperor will be. Now, Arisha, I can only imagine your list of guesses is very long, who it might be.


I just want to make sure I understand the setting real quick, though. So they're sitting behind the yellow curtain, but that's where they're going to announce who the new emperor is, so nobody even gets to see them. It's like the wizard of Oz.


Exactly. Honestly. Got it.


Got it. Yeah. This is really hard to tell. I have no idea who could possibly be.


Yeah, well, the options were slim, but there's only one who would come with a side of revenge. So Sashi looks through the screen at the shadowy figures until she hears the familiar voice of Prince Chun. She clears her throat, and as a hush falls over the room, Seshi pauses before she announces their choice. She wants to savor this moment. She takes a deep breath and makes her proclamation. They've chosen a three year old boy, the cousin of their late song Teng ji. Now, the boy also happens to be Prince Chun's son. With just a few words, Saxi has turned her enemy's beloved child into the most powerful person in China, which seems like a great thing for Chun, right?


Yeah. I was like, this is a twist, I think. Yeah.


Well, the catch is that from now on, Sashi and Sian will be the boy's only parents. As of this moment, Chun is no longer his dad.




He took her love, so Sashi is taking his son.




The son he loves more than anything in the world, especially since his other son died young.


Oh, God. Yeah, they do not play around.


Wow. I honestly feel bad for Chun. That's crazy.




I know, but just wait. It gets even worse for Chun. Since he's the biological father but not the regent, he'll have to resign from his political position. That way, he can't use his connection to his former son to gain favor. And when Chun puts two and two together, he starts to wail and beat his head on the floor. Well, that seems extreme, but I know. And for funsies says she's going to have Guangxu call her, and I quote, papa dearest.


Oh, my God. You know what they say, hell hath no fury. I know this woman. She's coming for everyone, and I kind of love it.


It's rough. Yeah. I mean, she's totally erasing Chun from his son's life, and it's extremely petty. So Chun continues to cry. But on the other side of the screen, Sashi is buzzing with that natural revenge high. The stress of it all is so bad that Chun actually passes out, and Sashi has eunuchs remove him from the room. With her very first act back in power, Sashi is sending a message. No more Mrs. Nice guy.


This story, though, really makes you oscillate very quickly between rooting and.


I know, hating each character. No, it's true. So Sashi and Sion spend the next six years ruling together, and they're a hit, basically, like what you and I would be if we decided to rule the world, you know?


Oh, a hundred percent, undoubtedly.


I mean, it's kind of what we're already doing. Yep, the podcast.


Big world ruling the world, one podcast at a time.


So she handles all the government stuff, and Xion takes care of the more nuanced court relationships between the two of them. Chyna seems to have the perfect ruler, benevolent but firm. See, with teamwork and some light political scheming, women can have it all.


There it is.




Write that down.


Sashi doesn't spend a ton of time with her new son, but Sion's got more of that maternal energy anyway. You know, bedtime stories would just slow Sashi down.




Because Sashi does not have a minute to spare. She won't be regent forever. She'll have to retire again once her adopted son Guangxu, gets married, whether she wants to or not. She has limited time to create the china of her dreams, but with Xian as a partner, she feels confident that she can. But then, in April 1881, Sushi is getting ready for bed when a eunuch knocks on her door. She's annoyed at being interrupted, but she's also worried. It's unusual for someone to bother her this late. And when she sees the eunuch's face, her stomach drops. She knows that whatever he has to tell her, it's bad. Arisha, brace yourself.


I almost am. Like, let's just end the story here. I can't handle more bad news. This whole story has been nothing but death and devastation.


I know. Well, the eunuch tells her that Sion is dead.


Okay, literally what I just said.


I know. It's so sad. And it was likely complications from a stroke. Wait, how old is she? She's only 43 when she dies. So great.


Like, this is blood clots to worry about back then and currently.


I mean, back then, people did not live long, so. Yeah. And says she holds it together until the eunuch leaves. When she's alone, she curls up in a ball of grief. How can Xion be gone? She's been by Sashi's side since she came to the forbidden city. She saved Sashi's life. And more than that, she made Sashi's life better with her friendship.


It's like you and me.


I know. It really is. Sashi has now lost everyone she's loved. She's not a daughter or mom or friend or lover anymore. And that leaves only one role for her. The sole regent of China. So she has a eunuch come back to the room. She orders that all music in court be silenced for 27 months.


Okay, that is a long time of silence.


I know. And celebrations around the country are to be canceled for the next 60 days. She throws herself into leading and doubles down on her efforts with a young emperor. She's determined to sculpt the perfect future leader. Sashi approaches this second round of motherhood like a military campaign. Guangxu is smart, and Saxi makes him spend all his time studying. When she eventually steps down, she wants to be sure the kingdom is in capable hands. But Sashi is about to learn that she's not just creating a brilliant emperor. She's also creating her most powerful enemy yet.


Hey. I'm Arisha.


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All the glitters in the world.


In the fall of 1888, Sashi is standing in the courtyard of the palace of earthly honor. She's eyeing a row of young women who are trying to look their best. It's been seven years since Xion died, but today, Sashi is painfully reminded of her best friend, because once, Xi and Xion were just like these young women, waiting and hoping to be picked to serve the emperor. Guangxu is now 16, and the time has come to choose his consorts. He'll pick his concubines, but Sashi gets to select his empress, and she's determined to make the right choice, not just so her son can have feminine company, but for her own purposes as well. Because Sashi always has a plan. I'm convinced she's a virgo.


Oh, God, you would be.


Although we would never kill. So once Guangxu gets married, Sashi's time as regent is done again. So choosing his empress might be the last official decision she ever makes. She needs to pick a woman who's interesting enough to distract her son from the pressures of ruling an empire, but of course, not ambitious enough to plot a coup. A woman she can trust to stay in line and keep her son in line. So today says she is acting as her son's own personal tinder. It's like that MTV show.


I was just gonna say parental control.


Yes. That's so crazy. Sashi walks down the line, examining each woman closely. She studies their eyes, their serene expressions, and their posture. And then finally, she spots the perfect girl. She's meek and good natured and just so happens to be the daughter of Seashi's brother.




I know my first thought was, ew, cousins, but then I remember not her actual like.


I was like, oh, no. She stole this child from two adults that aren't her.


Correct. Yeah. She knows Guangxu won't be happy with her choice. He doesn't find her attractive, but what his heart wants is not her main concern. Besides, he'll still have his concubines, including a young woman named Pearl. Pearl is beautiful, with a quiet confidence and a glint in her eye. She's not all that different from a younger version of Sashi, which could be good or bad. But Saxi doesn't have a choice in the matter. All she can do is hope that the new empress will keep her son in line. A few months later, Guangxu gets married and assumes power. And now, at the age of 53, Sashi can finally chill. Guangxu isn't a charmer, but he's smart as hell. She's more confident in his leadership than she was in Tongji's. Maybe China won't completely fall apart without her. With her duties done, she heads to the newly rebuilt summer palace to get some r r. Now, Arisha, I'm curious. If you won the lottery and tomorrow you could just retire, what would you do?


What wouldn't I do? I mean, travel. I would 100% travel. And I would take my friends, my family. I'd be like, guys, I'm going to be doing a world tour forever.




Meet me wherever you want? I'll fly you out. Wow.


Okay. Money bags.


Well, I won the lottery.


Oh, that's true.


I forgot about billion dollars.


Somehow I forgot the thing I said 4 seconds ago. Well, so she sleeps in, learns to paint, and listens to music.




I know. She grows fruit trees and breeds perkinese dogs, like, dozens of them.


I wouldn't do that. I would adopt them.


God, that's true. She also builds a three story opera house where she stages these gorgeous productions. At one point, she even asks to take a ride in a hot air balloon, which I have done, and I will say it's a very serene experience. Like peak retirement vibes.


Yeah, I believe it. I've always wanted to go in a hot air balloon, but someone didn't invite me.


But sushi spends three blissful years living in the summer palace. But she's not totally disconnected. In fact, Guangxu comes by daily to give her reports, not because he wants to, but because she made him agree to it back when they transferred power.


She really just checked all of these boxes?


She did. She's prepared.


She's like, there will be no loopholes. You are not getting away with anything.


Well, clearly, Sashi didn't plug all the loopholes, because by the summer of 1894, his reports are starting to bother her. He's letting a lot of her reforms lapse, meaning China is heading back to the way things were before she made all of her changes. Guangxu has also been neglecting to keep up with the navy's costs. It was once the strongest in Asia, thanks to Sashi, but now its force pales in comparison to neighboring countries like Japan. Basically, picture your Honda Accord against a Ferrari in a race.


Wow, you're just going to come from my beautiful 2008 car.


Yes, I am.


That Honda is a tank.


It's a tank in the sense that it doesn't have air conditioning, just like tanks. So she warned him about keeping the navy strong, especially to defend against foes like Japan. But Guangxu didn't take her seriously. And just as Tashi had feared, it all comes to a head in the summer of 1894, when Japan and China go to war over control of Korea. But China is stuck with out of date warships. Your Honda. While Japan has a much more modern navy, the Ferrari.


Okay. My Honda would destroy a nation in a minute.


Sorry for your Honda. So she's not betting on it. She knows the war won't go great for China. When she gets the news, she knows she'll have to kiss her dreams of riding in a hot air balloon. Goodbye. Because Guangxu is utterly unqualified to lead China in a time of war. So she packs up her bags and heads back into the folds to help her son clean up his mess. By September 1894, Sashi is back in the forbidden city. She's only planning to stay for ten days, get in, fix things, get back to her dogs. When Sashi walks the familiar halls, she has to admit she's excited to get back in the room where it happens, and she's anxious to get to work. But when Sashi asks for updates on Japan, Guangxu holds back and denies her access to key documents.


Oh, no.


Yeah, it looks like loving family reunion was not on his 1894 bucket list.


Who knew? Yeah. Shocked.


But Sashi is like, dude, relax. I'm not staying long. He can keep his mojo dojo Casa house. She just has to do some damage control with this Japan issue. Then she's back to the summer palace. But Guangxu doesn't feel like sharing, so Xi is left to dig for the information herself. Right away, she can see that things are a lot worse than she thought. The war is just one of China's problems. A peasant rebellion is brewing in the countryside, and money is running out. This is way more than ten days of work, so she won't be going home anytime soon. Someone is going to need to watch her. Dozens of dogs and I would happily time travel to do it for free.


I'm just saying, get in a hot air balloon and just hang out with pups. Not a bad life.


Yep. With every day that passes, the situation just gets worse. Sashi needs to find a way to persuade her son to do what she wants, and fast. And as we know, Sashi is very good at the art of persuasion. She discovers a secret that might be her ticket back into the inner circle. It seems some pretty important jobs have been going to quote friends of Guangxu's favorite concubine, Pearl, like mayor of Shanghai. Which means pearl has literally been selling jobs to the highest bidder.


Oh, no.


Yeah. For Pearl to use her relationship with the emperor like this is a crime punishable by death. So Sashi goes to her son and tells him what she found out. And then before Guangxu can panic, she tells him that she'll keep quiet about his part in the corruption if he finally works with her, not against her, you know, just a healthy dose of family blackmail.


What family is complete without it? Come on.


It works every time, let's be honest. Yeah, and it does work this time, maybe running an empire and fighting with your mom is just too much work. And whatever the reason, he agrees to let Sashi back into the fold. Three years later, Sashi is at the summer palace again. But hold your hot air balloons, because she's not retired yet. China ended up taking a big loss in the war against Japan, including to their ego. It's one thing to lose to the west, but it's a whole new level of defeat to lose to their once weaker neighbor. Despite the embarrassment, things eventually stabilize enough in Beijing for Tsaxi to return to the summer palace. Once there, she dives back into her fruit and puppies and painting. But now all the fruit seems too ripe, and the puppies bark too much, and her paintings all look like shit. She can't relax now that she knows Guangxu isn't the genius emperor she raised him to be. At least Guangxu still shows up to ask for her help, and Sashi is happy to provide it. It may not be the retirement she had in mind, but Saxi is willing to do just about anything for China and to preserve her legacy.


But in late August of 1898, things start to change. Guangxu comes to visit her as normal, but Sashi can tell there's something different. There's a confidence to him that she hasn't seen before.


Uh oh. Pearl's pregnant, isn't she? No.


God, no. Not that I was certain.


I was like, she's gonna be knocked.


Ah. Nope. Guangxiu greets his mother and then cuts to the chase. He's looking to make some changes, so she's like, okay. He shows her a decree. It states that the emperor will fire all of his advisors and replace them with new men. Oh, except for one person, who he's going to keep on. A man named Kang Hue. So she knows him. He's a big advocate for reform and has been advising her son for a few months now. He's a newbie, but she's not against the dude. In fact, she agrees with some of his ideas. But still, this is very suspicious for Kang to be the only guy not fired. Okay, plus, these new guys will have no loyalty to Sashi, and the guys who got kicked out are gonna be pissed. Sashi warns the emperor that they might retaliate, and it could cost him his throne, but Guangxu doesn't seem to care. Sashi also worries that given Kang's newfound influence, he could make a power grab for himself, and she is not about to let that happen.


This woman, she's got so much gumption, I'd be like, I'm done. I'm done trying to fix this country. I'm done trying to do this stuff. I'm like, give it up, girl.


Yeah. Well, luckily, Tsa Shi is not you, because she doesn't give it up. Instead, she tells her son she does not approve of any of this, but Guangxu is adamant. Tishi can only push him so far. He is still the emperor. She settles for keeping a few old advisors and lets Guangxu fire the rest. But it's clear that her adopted son is done living by his mommy's rules, and Sashi is about to find this out the hard way. The next thing Sashi knows, Kang and Guangxu put out over 40 decrees in just about 100 days.


Okay, these decrees. I know. Absolutely. They're like our affidavits.


Like, I know. Yeah. They're all designed to completely transform chinese culture. That's like getting a new country in between seasons of survivor. Now, a lot of people in China support these reforms, but none of them were done with Sashi's approval, and the reforms are shaking the status quo power of more conservative leaders, including Sashi. She was once the radical young court member, but now, at almost 63, she's no longer the youngest or the most radical.


She's a boomer, but in the 19th century.


Yeah, you're not wrong. I mean, it's definitely got some gen. Z lefty versus boomer lefty vibes going on here. So she spends the coming days and weeks at the summer palace, pacing her anxiety away. It's clear things are quickly moving out of her control, and she doesn't like it. Then she gets a message from a military general from outside Beijing, one of the many people still on Team Sashi. He tells her that Kang knows she's the one who stands between him and supreme power. So now he's working with the emperor's inner circle to have Saxi removed. And that's code for killed.


Oh, God.


Yeah. You would think her own son would defend her, but that's the worst part. Guangxu knows about Kang's plot, and it seems he's not doing a thing to stop him. Kang has convinced the emperor that hanging onto power requires drastic action, and honestly, tsushi agrees with him. This calls for some drastic action, for sure, but she's gonna be the one to take it. It's time for Tsushi's second coup.


Oh, my God. When does this woman sleep? I know all that glitters is a world.


It's September 20, 1898, and Sashi is at the sea palace waiting for the emperor. It only took her a few days to come up with a plan for retaliation, and today she's putting it in motion. She waits patiently for Guangxu to finish a meeting with some officials in the grand hall of the palace. Moments later, the doors to the hall open, and the emperor walks out. He's likely expecting to return to Beijing, but Sushi has other plans. She stops him in his tracks and calmly tells Guangxu that he won't be going anywhere because he's staying here as Sashi's prisoner for the rest of his life.


Sorry, just the idea. It sounds like he's, like, walking down a hallway, and she stands in front of him. She's like, you're not going anywhere. And he's like, okay.


And he, like, picks her up. He picks her up and puts her to the side.




But no. So she is like, dude, I know what you've been up to, and it ends here and now. She takes it a step further and forces the emperor to write a decree naming her as his official guardian, meaning that once again, Guangxu becomes Sashi's puppet.


Oh, my God. So we're at decree number 3 million. At this point, I feel approximately.


Got it. Forget a second act. Sashi's on her second coup, but this time, she decides that when she returns to court, no one will put her in a corner. About an hour into our story and 40 years into her time at court, Sashi gets rid of that old yellow screen. Now everyone can see who's really in charge.


Love that.


Now this is a real boss moment for Tsushi. It's giving Miranda priestly. That's all vibes right now.


That's all.


Now, not everyone is jazzed about Sashi's return to power. Clearly, Guangxu and Kang are against her, but so are a host of others who think Sashi is holding on too tightly to outdated ideas. But the empress Dowager is like, screw them. She's in charge now. So she ignores her haters and focuses on damage control. Her first order of business is to take care of the troublemakers. There's a big list to choose from, but Kang is public enemy number one. Pearl, Guangxu's favorite concubine, is on the shortlist as well. She's been helping Kang and the emperor communicate this entire time. Plus, she has a track record for breaking the rules. But dealing with them won't be simple, because Tsu Shi doesn't want people to find out that her son helped Kang plot her assassination. That would not look so great for Tsushi. People might say Guangxu had a reason for wanting his mom taken out. Maybe she was mean or power hungry or worse, inept. Tsushi can't afford to have anyone questioning her leadership, not when she's just gotten her power back. But before Tsushi can arrest Kang, he gets the hell out of dodge and eventually escapes to Japan.


So that leaves pearl. Sashi decides the best way to deal with her is to imprison her. With all that dirty business taken care of, Sashi returns to court life on full blast. But it's not as fun as it used to be. She's just stopped a murder plot against her like a pro. But coming back to court this way just leaves her feeling bitter and frustrated. And it's made worse when Kang starts telling everyone that the emperor is on house arrest and how Sashi is the evil stepmother behind it all. It's not a good look. Even Sashi's western allies start to turn on her. They used to praise Sashi for her steady and open minded leadership, but now the relationship is strained. Chinese rebels have gotten tired of the West's influence and have started carrying out attacks on foreigners. But Saxi has her people's backs, and if this leads to foreign powers leaving China, all the better. Now, this doesn't sit so well with the west, and they're quick to take Guangxu's side when they hear about the emperor's house arrest. They even want her to hand back power to Guangxu, which infuriates Sashi. Basically, the second coup is more like firefest than Coachella.


Oh, great reference.


Thank you so much. Now Sashi has become a supervillain who can't be trusted, and the western powers want to work with her less and less. So diplomatic problems that might have been talked out a few years ago eventually lead to a full on war between China and Europe and America, because, you know, we have to get our grubby paws all over it. I know. The conflict gets so bad that by 1900, Sashi is forced to flee Beijing. She brings key members of the court with her, including her son. But then there's pearl. Sashi doesn't have room to bring everyone, and she certainly isn't going to make room for a troublemaker like her. She offers Pearl the honorable and customary way out. Dying by suicide. Pearl is like, yeah, thanks, but no thanks. So Sashi believes this leaves her with only one choice, a choice that may finally turn her into the villain that Kang says she is. It's a summer morning in 1900, and Sashi waits in a courtyard at the forbidden city. Her yellow robes are covered in white pearls she's giving total empress. She wants to remind everyone at court that she is running this country.


And in case you didn't guess already, this is where we started our episode. That moment when Sashi watches Pearl being dragged over by the eunuchs. The young girl then falls at Sashi's feet and begs for forgiveness. But it's too late. The empress's mind is made up. People stare and whisper. They don't really understand why Pearl is sentenced to death. Sashi's excuse is that Pearl is too young and beautiful and therefore would be a liability on the road and attract unwanted attention, which, like, yikes.


But also, can't she just leave her behind?


Arisha, don't be silly. That would just be too easy. Yeah, but rumors have been swirling about Sashi's ulterior motives. I'm sure she desperately wants to explain to them that she has no choice and tell them about all the ways Pearl has made trouble. But Sashi can't say any of this without spilling the beans about the attempted assassination on her life. Remember, that wouldn't be a good look for her. She can't win. Sashi watches Pearl disappear down the well, and the people around her watch their empress become a villain. The war with the west ends in disaster again. China has to pay massive amounts of money to the western forces and allow western armies to stay in the country. And when people hear the news of what Tsaxi did to Pearl, it just confirms the image of her that Kang has created. But as Sashi looks over a country that's currently in shambles, she's not feeling particularly vengeful. She can't deny her own doing in this failed war, and she vows to leave her country in better shape, even if it means acknowledging and learning from her own mistakes. She's almost 65 now, and considering it's 1900 and life expectancy is around 32, she probably doesn't have much time left.


Yeah. Who knew that vengeance and running a country with absolutely an iron fist would be so good for your health?


I know. So, over the next seven years, Sashi pursues some of her biggest reforms yet, many aimed at rebuilding China and its relationship with the west. In the process, many of these reforms help modernize China and make life better for girls like the Xi once was. She bans foot binding, which is an ancient cultural practice that seriously impedes women's ability to walk. She also encourages women. Well, aristocratic women, to get a modern education. It won't be until later that women will more broadly have those opportunities, but, you know, baby steps.


Yeah. We gotta start somewhere.


Yeah. Finally, she makes her boldest plan yet. Turning China into a constitutional monarchy, meaning ordinary people could run for elected positions. The emperor would still have power, but it would be more restricted. Sushi isn't the first person to have this idea. In fact, Kang suggested something like this years ago. But now that Sushi is back in control, she's ready to see it through. After all, her life has shown her that the burden of ruling an empire is too much for one person. And also that sons are completely useless.




The big takeaway.


The two lessons. Yep.


Yeah. She believes that doing this will also help secure the future of the dynasty she's run for the last 40 some years, but Sashi is also a realist. It's now 19 eight, and she's 73. She's feeling tired more days than not, and she knows her time is limited. But dying doesn't scare Sashi so much as it stresses her out, because the constitutional monarchy thing won't get off the ground before she dies, which means if Sashi dies before Guangxu, he could regain power again. And at the very least, Sashi wants to choose her own successor. But to do that, Guangxu needs to be dead, and Sashi may get what she wants, because by the fall of that year, Guangxu isn't doing so well himself.


Oh, no. Has she been giving him tea late with things? She's like, I've got his meals. Don't worry, everyone.


Oh, Orisha, just so Xi is like, great. Maybe nature will do my dirty work for me. But day after day, the kid just keeps hanging on, and every minute that passes is a minute closer to her own death. So what's a girl to do?


Take things into her own hands? Yep.


So Sashi decides to hurry things up a bit with poison. Okay, this woman I know, just like, you know what?


You're my way.


Time for death. Yeah, well, you know, desperate times, desperate measures. So I guess to Sashi, arsenic is a girl's best friend. She has a massive amount slipped into Guangxu's food. Now all she has to do is wait and live with herself.


She's got so many people's lives under her belt at this point.


I know. On November 1419 eight, Sashi is lying in bed weak and sick, Guangxu's wife comes to her bedside and tells her that the emperor's health just took a really bad turn, like, probably going to die soon. Bad. Sashi pretends to be shocked. Who could ever believe that timing? The younger woman leaves her room, and Sushi lies alone with her thoughts. She knows she's near the end, but she has to outlive Guangxu, or the whole plan will be for nothing. So when she gets the news that Guangxu has died, Saxi must feel relieved. Her final act for China and her legacy is a success. This country has taken her life, her love, and her health, and now she has nothing left to give. Sashi dies just one day after her son.




I know.


Wow. That is some impressive planning on her part.


I know. Her funeral is a massive affair, and people come from all over to pay their respects, and it culminates in the burning of a 236 foot paper boat on the river inside the forbidden city. It's a ceremony that's supposed to welcome Sashi to a new, better afterlife, but Sashi's actual body is laid to rest in a tomb close to Sion, her best friend, the woman who could have thrown Sashi to the wolves. Instead, Sian and Sashi chose friendship and partnership, and thanks to that, two women rewrote history. So there you have it. The honestly, truly next level story of Empress dowager Tashi Arisha.


Thoughts? How much time do we have? I feel like I said this last. I've just. It's hard. Okay. So I have to keep reminding myself of the time period she existed in a world where, because she has ovaries, she's less than other people and had very little agency. So putting it through that filter, I admire her tenacity, just how much she was like, I'm not going to take this lying down. I don't know that I would resort to murder.


I know. That's what I was going to say. She's very complicated. I mean, she did a lot of really great things, but she also killed a ton of people in really questionable ways.


But this woman, she was so calculated, and I think it says a lot to who she is.


True. And what's really wild to me is that it wasn't until the 1980s that historians uncovered the assassination attempt on Sashi's life, which gave her a lot more perspective.


As somebody who needs everyone to know when I'm right immediately. I can't imagine having to wait centuries.


For the world to see this. I know that really bums me. Out like that better not happen to me. I should also mention that after all these efforts to basically preserve her vision for China, the imperial dynasty came to a violent end literally just a few years after she died. Oh, no, her legacy kind of died with it, honestly. Well, and that's sad.


At least she didn't have to see that. Yeah, because I would be. I last did this. I worked for 70 years, murdered countless people, and I didn't even get what I wanted.


I know in the end, we can't say for sure whether she lost sleep over killing people, but no one can deny that Sushi changed the game for China in a huge way. Waste it. Still echo now. So Beyonce was right. Girls really do run the world, even in 19th century imperial China.


Hell yeah, they do.


Follow even the royals on the Wondery app, Amazon Music, or wherever you get your podcasts. You can listen to every episode of even the Royals, early and ad free right now by joining Wondery plus in the Wondery app or on Apple Podcasts. Before you go, tell us about yourself by completing a short Slash Survey this is Villainera, part two of our two part series on Empress Dowager TsA Xi.


We use many sources when researching our stories, but we especially recommend the book Empress Dowager Sashi by Zhang Chang. We also reference the Dragon Lady, Empress Dowager Sushi by Niraja Vishwanathan and articles from the Smithsonian magazine and National Geographics.


You can follow us your hosts on socials at Brooks differn and at Arisha Skidmore Williams. I'm Brooke Sifran.


And I'm Arisha Skidmore Williams. Colleen Scriven wrote this episode. Story editing is by Michaela Bly, and our cultural consultant is Nellie Ping Yang. Our associate producer is Hannah Ward. Sound design is by Sam Ada. Our coordinating producer is Sophia Martins, and our senior managing producer is Ryan Lore. Julie McGuire Rooter and Rachel Engelman are our series producers. Our executive producers are Ginny Bloom, Aaron O'Flaherty and Marsha Louis. For wondery.