The First Prince Gong Yixin
The 1st Prince Gong(恭亲王, January 11, 1833 - May 29, 1898), commonly known in his days as the Lord Sixth King(六王爷), of the Aisin-Gioro clan. He was in charge of the government of China, in the 1860s and 1870s, and is remembered for his strong ties with Westerners and his attempts at opening and modernizing China.
He was given the posthumous name Zhong (忠 - meaning "loyal"), so that his formal title before 1912 (end of the empire) was actually Prince Gong the Loyal (恭忠亲王).
He was the sixth son of the Daoguang Emperor (1782-1850). His mother was the Imperial Consort Jing (静妃, 1812-1855), who later became the Imperial Dowager Consort Kang-Ci (康慈皇太贵妃), and was made posthumously Empress Xiao Jing Cheng (孝静成皇后). She was the daughter of a Mongol official in the government, from the Borjigid clan.
In February 1850, Emperor Daoguang was dying, so he ordered to reveal the secret edict of succession: Yixin was made Prince of the First Rank Gong while his older half-brother Yizhu (奕詝) was proclaimed heir to the throne, which he ascended the following month as the Xianfeng Emperor. Prince Gong did not play a major role during the reign of Xianfeng, as his brother was suspicious of him and kept him at bay. His mother, the concubine Jing, the highest ranking surviving concubine of Emperor Daoguang (whose empresses were all dead already), was not made an Empress Dowager, but merely a Dowager Concubine, which Prince Gong bitterly resented.
Prince Gong's disgrace actually became his good fortune when, in 1860, in the middle of the Second Opium War, Emperor Xianfeng left him behind in Beijing to negotiate with the approaching British and French armies who had invaded northern China, while the court was fleeing to the Rehe Traveling Palace (热河行宫), 230 km./140 miles northeast of Beijing. Prince Gong negotiated the Convention of Peking and thus obtained a position of great influence due to his newly acquired credit with the Western Powers and his control of the militia in Beijing. On August 22, 1861, the Xianfeng Emperor died in Rehe. His only heir, a 5-year-old son of the Noble Consort Yi, ascended to the throne as the Tongzhi Emperor. Xianfeng, on his deathbed, had designated a group of eight senior Manchu officials, led by Sushun, to be regents in the new emperor's minority.
However, Noble Consort Yi was deeply suspicious of Sushun and the influence he had over the late emperor and conspired with Prince Gong to launch a coup. Prince Gong played the essential role in the ensuing struggle, as he had the troops capable of tilting the balance in favor of the Noble Consort Yi and her party or in favor of the eight regents. In November 1861, after secretly meeting the Noble Consort Yi and deciding to side with her, he carried out the Xinyou Coup (辛酉政变). The regents, who were accompanying the Xianfeng Emperor's body back to the Forbidden city, were intercepted upon arrival. Palace guards arrested the regents. The two opposing princes among the regents were forced to commit suicide, Sushun was beheaded, and the other five regents were stripped of their titles.
The Noble Consort Yi became co-regent under the name Empress Dowager Cixi, along with the less politically involved Empress Dowager Ci'an, ruling behind the curtain (a court official required that the two co-regents, both women, attend imperial audiences behind a curtain). Prince Gong was named prince-regent and appointed to a variety of important posts in the government, including the powerful Grand Council.
In 1861, Prince Gong established the Zongli Yamen, which functioned as the Qing Empire's de facto foreign ministry. As the long-time head of the Zongli Yamen, Prince Gong was responsible for much of the reforms of the early Self-strengthening Movement. He founded the Tongwen Guan in 1862 for Chinese scholars to learn foreign languages and technology.
Prince Gong, with the support of the two dowagers, was the central power figure in China until the 1880s, but was demoted after being accused of being rude in front of the dowagers. Prince Gong had himself aspired to be the sole regent, in the mold of Dorgon, but Empress Dowager Cixi was unwilling to give up power. He lost considerable prestige and his title of prince-regent after the two chastisements by Cixi, before finally being discredited during the Qing defeat in the Sino-French War. He was then overshadowed by his younger half-brother the 1st prince Chun, who had closer ties with Empress Dowager Cixi.
In the 1890s, after the death of the 1st prince Chun, Empress Dowager Cixi asked Prince Gong to return to the court, but he died shortly afterwards.
In 20th century China, Prince Gong was for a long time vilified as the man who sold the country to the Western powers. In recent years, however, he has been rehabilitated and is now recognized as a great statesman, on par with Li Hongzhang, especially when compared to his brother the hapless Xianfeng Emperor. Alive, he was admired by Westerners with whom he had close contacts, and still keep much of this credit in Western historical circles.
Some historians claim Prince Gong took a more active role in the coup of 1861. Sterling Seagrave, in "Dragon Lady", his biography of the Empress Dowager Cixi, claims that Chinese records clearly show that at the death of the Xianfeng Emperor, he named the 2 Dowagers, Empress Dowager Ci'an (the senior Dowager) and Cixi, as the boy emperor's regents, in accord with Imperial tradition. The "Gang of 8", led by Sushun, were furious and moved to set themselves up as co-regents for the young emperor, handing one imperial seal to Dowager Ci'an and keeping the other for themselves.
Prince Gong, with his experience of battling the Western powers, knew that the xenophobic attitudes of the "Gang of 8" would bring ruin to China, and set about enlisting the help of the two Dowagers to bring about the Gang's downfall and stop them taking complete power. Early pressure forced Sushun to relinquish the second imperial seal to its rightful owner, the Dowager Empress Cixi. When Prince Gong's plans reached fruition, Sushun and several other members of the "Gang of 8" were arrested and executed for treason.