This approving biography advances a vigorous defence of a woman whom history has often demonised.
Note: You can visit Royalty.nu to learn more about Chinese empress Cixi (Tzu Hsi) and see a list of books about her. The article below is from the Guardian.
In her concluding judgment on the character and achievements of Cixi, the Qing dynasty’s legendary empress dowager, Jung Chang observes: "In some four decades of absolute power, her political killings, whether just or unjust … were no more than a few dozen, many of them in response to plots to kill her."
Life at any court is a rough game: the combination of intimate emotions and absolute power generates a special form of cruelty in those who survive. A woman who began her adulthood as a 16-year-old grade-three imperial concubine in 1852, and rose to hold supreme power in the Manchu empire for the best part of 40 years, is likely to have a few unpleasant traits.
Nevertheless, a few dozen political murders – without counting the deaths further afield in suppressed rebellions and more distant wars – is not nothing. Her victims included the emperor Guangxu’s son’s favourite concubine, thrown down a well, and Guangxu himself, by then deposed by her, dispatched with arsenic on the eve of her own death to ensure that he made no comeback.
This approving biography advances a vigorous defence of a woman whom history has often demonised as a venal reactionary: one who murdered without a second thought to protect her own interests, who squandered the national treasury on her own pleasures and who set back reform in China to preserve herself. History often has trouble giving powerful women their due and correctives are in order, but Chang’s admiration for her subject can sometimes seem a little unqualified: the empress dowager in these pages was an enlightened, even caring ruler who drove through a modernisation programme. Had she lived just a little longer, China might have become a stable constitutional monarchy. As it is, Chinese citizens still cannot vote.
Where does the truth lie in Cixi’s much told story? Her talents were highly regarded by many statesmen and officials who encountered or served her. She managed to steer the increasingly leaky ship of the Qing state through serious internal rebellions, foreign incursions and wars, trying to make the best of a weak position. Though protocol confined her to palace life and limited ritual journeys, she was eager to learn about foreign countries, customs and fashions and cultivated a shrewd strategic understanding of the world. That Cixi was a remarkable woman is not in doubt.
Born in 1835 into a family of Manchu government officials, she entered the Forbidden City as a concubine to the emperor Xianfeng. Although graded third rank, her standing in court improved in 1856 when she bore a son, a helpful move for a woman in China, even today. The young emperor Xianfeng was facing enormous problems: the Taiping rebellion was to last 10 years and take millions of lives, the treasury was bleeding, foreign powers were rudely knocking down the empire’s closed doors. Cixi began to offer the emperor unwanted advice, inspiring in him the prophetic fear that she might interfere in state affairs after his death. To keep her under control, on his deathbed he set up an eight-man regency to run China.
Formally, Cixi had no power, but she succeeded in mounting a coup against the regents with Empress Zhen, the late emperor’s principal wife, before he was buried. Cixi falsely accused the regents of forging the emperor’s will, and in the first of what would be a substantial list of Cixi fatalities, ordered the suicide of the most important two. Her son was crowned Emperor Tongzhi, and Cixi’s extraordinary political career was launched.
Since she could never sit on the throne herself, her continued power depended on the emperor being a child. In this, one might say, she had a lot of luck. Her own son died as a teenager in 1875 and another child, her three-year-old nephew, succeeded as Emperor Guangxu. Cixi promptly adopted him, though, bizarrely, she instructed him to address her as "my royal father". It was not a warm relationship. The death of the former empress Zhen, which some would add to Cixi’s account, left Cixi in sole charge and her reluctance to hand over the reins on the boy’s maturity was palpable. She reluctantly "retired" in 1889 and devoted herself to building a pleasure ground on the outskirts of Beijing.
It was not the last of her. She came out of retirement to help with the trauma of a lost war against Japan in 1894, after which she retained an active role in state affairs, a position that left her well placed for her next coup.
In 1898, Guangxu, who had good reason to dislike his "royal father" launched a radical reform programme under the guidance of two former imperial scholars, Kang Youwei and Liang Qichao, and against the resistance of the more conservative elements at court. Kang – portrayed here one-dimensionally as a scheming upstart – persuaded the emperor that Cixi was an obstacle that had to be neutralised.
Cixi moved first: by September 1898, she had deposed and imprisoned Guangxu and taken the reins again herself. Those reformers who did not escape were executed. Also executed were two entirely innocent men, whose trials Cixi had stopped to prevent the emperor’s role in the plot to assassinate her becoming public.
The last few years of Cixi’s career were no less dramatic and mirror the contradictions in her record. Her biggest mistake was to encourage the disastrous Boxer rebellion, a violent anti-foreign and anti-Christian movement that culminated in a bloody siege of the foreign legations in Beijing. That ended in a punitive foreign rescue and huge indemnities to the countries concerned. China, and Cixi, paid a heavy price for what she later admitted was a mistake. She herself had to flee the capital, pausing only to order the killing of Guangxu’s favourite concubine. When she returned to the capital she was chastened, and set about making friends with the ladies of the Legation quarter, the wives of the resident diplomats, in a belated effort to restore her reputation in the world. She launched her own reform programme within two years, using the exiled Kang Youwei’s blueprint.
She died in 1908, having poisoned Guangxu with arsenic the day before, thus creating what was to be the final vacancy on the Dragon throne. It was filled by the child Pu Yi, the last emperor: in 1911 the empire fell and Pu Yi abdicated the following year. China began the long, bloody and unfinished process of trying to become a modern republican state. In 1927, under the KMT (nationalist) government, Cixi’s tomb was dynamited by robbers, her jewels and her teeth stolen and her body left exposed.
Although most of Cixi’s previous biographers have demonised her, others have been more measured. This is a spirited, if partisan contribution. Her role in crushing the reforms of 1898 and her support of the Boxer rebellion remain her most controversial actions. Did the reformers’ plot against her excuse the dismantling of reforms that she was to borrow wholesale just a few years later? Jung Chang praises these as proof of Cixi’s progressive character; others have judged them as too little too late, grudging concessions that failed to save the rule of the Manchu – outnumbered 100 to one by their Chinese subjects.
The times that Cixi dominated were critical to the shaping of modern China, a country that resembles the Qing autocracy in many ways, though without the empire’s relatively free press and anticipated suffrage. The top echelons of Chinese politics remain as male-dominated and vicious as ever, and Cixi remains as gripping a subject.
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