The Surprising Empress

Freer Gallery of Art/Arthur M. Sackler Gallery Archives
The Dowager Empress Cixi with four eunuchs and Der Ling, a lady-in-waiting, circa 1903–1905

In the mid-1950s, when I was a graduate student of Chinese history, the Manchu Empress Dowager Cixi (1835–1908) was invariably condemned as a reactionary hate figure; Mao Zedong was admired. In the textbooks of that time, leading American scholars characterized Cixi as cruel, imperious, and opposed to the Westernizing reforms championed by progressive officials, all of whom were Han Chinese. Those reformers, we learned, were unlike the ruling Manchus, who had conquered China in 1644 and were struggling brutally to preserve their crumbling empire. A Chinese friend, in high school in Beijing in the 1970s, tells me she was taught that Cixi was a maiguozei, a traitor. Since then the judgment on Cixi has somewhat altered, so that in general histories, by Jonathan Spence for instance, she is a more rounded figure. But many social scientists still insist that Cixi was a force for the bad.

Now comes Jung Chang, author of the universally acclaimed Wild Swans (1992), a biography of three generations of her family, and, with her husband Jon Halliday, the more critically received Mao: The Unknown Story (2005). She has tackled Cixi, one of the significant figures of premodern China, and offers a largely new—and to me, mostly convincing—interpretation. Chang makes a unique claim for Cixi, summed up in her subtitle: “The Concubine Who Launched Modern China.” Halfway through this book, looking at the year 1889, she says, “The embryo of modern China had taken shape. Its creator was Cixi.” A contemporary diplomat said of her, “It will not be denied by any one that the improvement and progress above sketched are mainly due to the will and power of the empress regent.” In her conclusion, Chang writes:

Empress Dowager Cixi’s legacy was manifold and towering. Most importantly, she brought medieval China into the modern age…. Her changes were dramatic and yet gradual, seismic and yet astonishingly bloodless.

The constitutional system she initiated, Chang contends, included modern laws—commercial, civil, criminal, and judicial—a degree of male voting franchise, and the establishment of law schools.

Cixi “came from one of the oldest and most illustrious Manchu families.” Although semiliterate, “she was treated like a son” by her father and discussed official business with him. In 1850, when she was sixteen, she was one of the girls selected as concubines for the new emperor, Xianfeng. Chang asserts that while Cixi was not beautiful, “she had poise…. She was blessed with very fine skin and a pair of delicate hands, which, even in old age, remained as soft as a young girl’s.” Her “most arresting feature,” Chang writes,

was her brilliant and expressive eyes…. In the coming years during audiences she would give officials the most coaxing look, when suddenly her eyes would flash with fearsome audacity.

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