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The Surprising Empress

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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.

Emperor Xianfeng, called “the Limping Dragon” at the time, “loved sex,” was “sexually active—even frenetic,” and was not interested in his lowly young concubine. Nonetheless, in 1856, she gave birth to a son. Not only did this make Cixi “the undisputed No. 2 consort,” it brought her close to the Empress Zhen (more commonly known as Ci-an).

In 1861, the Emperor died, and suddenly Cixi became the second Empress Dowager. By no means rivals, the two women plotted “to change their own destiny as well as that of the empire.” They wanted to get rid of the regents who directed China’s administration. During the ceremonies surrounding the funeral of Xianfeng, “in a winsome [“winsome” is one of Chang’s occasionally misused words] show of grief the two Dowager Empresses denounced the Regents for bullying them and the child emperor.” Before long, three of the regents were sentenced to the “death by a thousand cuts.” In an act of studied magnanimity Cixi commuted one of the sentences to the far less agonizing decapitation, and the other two to the almost-honorable self-strangulation with silk scarves. Admiringly, Chang writes, “So, two months after her husband died, the twenty-five-year-old Cixi completed her coup with just three deaths, no bloodshed otherwise and no upheaval.” The British envoy in Beijing, Frederick Bruce, commented, “It is certainly singular that men, long in power,…should have fallen without a shot of resistance, and without a voice or hand raised in their defence.”

For some years Cixi’s written commands, in Chinese and Manchu, were semiliterate and required editing by trained scholars. Studying with educated eunuchs,

she would sit cross-legged on her bed, with a book of poetry or one of the classics in her hand…. [The eunuchs] would go through the texts with her, and she would read after them. The lesson would go on until she fell asleep.

Chang contends that exchanges between Cixi and Prince Gong, Xianfeng’s half-brother and her “kindred spirit,” and other senior courtiers, make clear that men like “Prince Gong…reported to Cixi, who was the decision-maker.” Accounts of the reforms correctly refer to the Han Chinese Zhang Zhidong as a leading reformist. But Chang emphasizes that Cixi, a skilled talent-spotter, saw Zhang’s worth after he was given a low score in the imperial examinations with a “bold and unconventional” essay that she read—and then promoted him to high office. Although Cixi sat behind a yellow screen, “the officials could feel her commanding presence—and she could assess their personality. Many who had audiences with her described how Cixi seemed to be able ‘to read our thoughts’ and that ‘at a glance’ seemed able to ‘see through the character of every one that appears before her.’”

Chang describes how the Empress Dowagers Cixi and Zhen (who died young) adopted court conventions, such as noting their judgments on policy documents by folding a page or marking it with one of their long fingernails. Zhen approved official appointments; “policy was Cixi’s domain.” While she was careful not to oppose majority opinion, says Chang, “the final decision was always hers.”

Cixi, writes Chang, “had come to the conclusion that amicable relations with the West were possible…. She asked the most fundamental and clear-eyed questions. Are foreign trade and open-door policy [in which Western investors were unhindered] such bad things for China?” This way of looking at things, Chang asserts, “was pulling China out of the dead end into which it had been rammed by Emperor Xianfeng’s all-consuming hatred and by the closed-door policy of 100 years.”

Why then was Cixi dismissed, or worse, during a century or more? Partly responsible are the almost contemporary biographies of Cixi by John Otway Percy Bland and Edmund Trelawny Backhouse, whose China Under the Empress Dowager (1910) and Annals and Memoirs of the Court of Peking (1914) were widely believed for years after they were written. Sexually explicit and salacious, Backhouse, a homosexual, claimed to have had sexual relations with Cixi. These books, especially the latter, were still taken seriously by some academics in my time as a student. This opinion changed fundamentally in 1976 when Hugh Trevor-Roper’s Hermit of Peking: The Hidden Life of Sir Edmund Backhouse exposed him as a fabulist and fraud.

In their widely read textbook in the 1960s, East Asia, Harvard’s John King Fairbank and his coauthors grudgingly noted that Cixi became reform-minded; The Cambridge History of China, volume 10 (1978), however, coedited by Fairbank, assigns the reformist accomplishments of Cixi’s long reign to modern-minded men; by 1980, in volume 11, whatever reforms occurred are described as desperate or conflicting, but are at least attributed partly to the “Manchu rulers,” or “the court,” though Cixi is given no credit. At last Jonathan Spence states in his Search for Modern China (1990) that Cixi “was the only woman to attain a high level of political power in China during the Qing, and was consequently blamed for many of the dynasty’s woes by men who thought she should not have been in power at all.”

Among those men, contends Chang, were Kang Youwei—“Wild Fox” Kang, as she calls him, as some did at the time—and Liang Qichao, invariably praised in standard histories in China and the West as leading reformers. Chang claims that Kang and Liang schemed against Cixi, and that Kang attempted to have her murdered. The evidence for this, she states, was discovered by Chinese scholars in Japanese archives only in the 1980s, including the “testimony of the designated killer.” This evidence will surprise many of today’s historians of China.

Chang is clear, then, about the responsibility for Cixi’s terrible reputation:

The past hundred years have been most unfair to Cixi, who has been deemed either tyrannical and vicious or hopelessly incompetent—or both. Few of her achievements have been recognized and, when they are, the credit is inevitably given to the men serving her. This is largely due to a basic handicap: that she was a woman and could rule only in the name of her sons [although her biological sons did not have power through the entire length of her rule] so her precise role has been little known. In the absence of clear knowledge, rumors have abounded and lies have been invented and believed…. The political forces that have dominated China since soon after her death have also deliberately reviled her …in order to claim that they have saved the country from the mess she left behind.

Over thirty years ago, in a well- documented study, not cited in Chang’s bibliography, “The Much Maligned Empress Dowager: A Revisionist Study of the Empress Dowager Tz’u-hsi (1835–1908),” Sue Fawn Chung wrote:

Traditional Chinese historians always have been prejudiced against feminine influence in court…. Since these men were opposed to the power and conservatism of the Empress Dowager, their prejudice is reflected in their writings about the court at that time.

But Chung says nothing of Cixi’s reforms, and, indeed, refers to her only as a conservative.

I have been informed by the filmmaker Evans Chan that “[Jung] Chang’s revisionist reading has been laid out only too well in the mini-series Toward the Republic, aired on mainland TV in 2003, in which Cixi was presented as the true political visionary to modernize China rather than the great reformers Kang Youwei and Liang Qichao—Chang’s as well as official PRC history’s bêtes noires.” Jung Chang does not refer to this series.

As with Emperor Xianfeng, Chang is—understandably—interested in sex at the Qing court. She relates a curious love affair—unlikely to have been consummated—between Cixi and her favorite eunuch; this resulted in the execution of the man at the command of scandalized officials, an event found in other accounts but without any mention of a loving relationship. Elsewhere, Chang strongly suggests, in detail, that Cixi’s son, the emperor Tongzhi, was gay, without quite stating it was so. (In accordance with her penchant for sobriquets, Chang calls Tongzhi’s beautiful teenage Mongol wife Miss Alute.)

But the main story for Chang is Cixi’s reforming zeal during decades when China was wracked by the Taiping rebellion (1850–1864), and Cixi recognized the worth of foreign military commanders like Charles “Chinese” Gordon, later “Gordon of Khartoum,” in defeating them. Chang discusses Japan’s defeat of China in 1895, resulting in the loss of Taiwan; interminable imperialist seizures by the British, French, Germans, and Americans; and the Boxer uprising, in 1900, at the beginning of which Cixi unwisely encouraged the rebels to attack foreign embassies, then was forced to flee Beijing and to pay astronomical sums in reparations to the aggrieved Western powers, which held her largely responsible for their losses.

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