In the Hornets’ Nest

Pamela Crossley

  • Empress Dowager Cixi: The Concubine Who Launched Modern China by Jung Chang
    Cape, 436 pp, £20.00, September 2013, ISBN 978 0 224 08743 8

Empress Dowager Cixi of the Qing dynasty is one of those historical figures who are renovated from time to time as the moment demands. In the first decade of the 20th century, she was either the vivacious tea hostess who had protected foreigners from Boxer mobs, or the murderous xenophobe who had set the rioters on them in the first place. In the 1960s and 1970s, she was one of a small collection of ‘powerful’ women newly discovered in Chinese history. And now she appears in the vanguard of stubborn Chinese opposition to foreign arrogance and encroachment. Since Sterling Seagrave’s Dragon Lady of 1992, Cixi has been the subject of or a major figure in a dozen books, as well as films and television series. Still, we evidently need more Cixi.

Jung Chang does not merely repeat what are now truisms in the representation of Cixi – that she has been obscured by misogyny and orientalist stereotyping, as well as the anti-Manchu sentiment running through Chinese nationalist narratives – but also claims to have discovered something new. ‘Empress Dowager Cixi’s legacy was manifold and towering,’ she writes. Cixi ‘brought medieval China into the modern age’. Under her leadership, we are told, major technologies were introduced, medicine improved, military industrialisation undertaken and a free press encouraged. Cixi also ‘championed women’s liberation’, and did it all ‘without … violence and with relatively little upheaval’. If Chang is to be believed, Cixi should be considered a transformative figure in modern Chinese history, perhaps on the level of Mao Zedong, certainly the equal of Sun Yatsen or Chiang Kaishek.

Cixi, the daughter of an unremarkable Manchu official, was chosen for the harem of the Xianfeng emperor of the Qing dynasty in 1852. In 1856 she rose steeply in rank after giving birth to the first (and as it happened only) male heir to the throne. When the emperor died in 1861, Cixi’s five-year-old son became the Tongzhi emperor. A regency of six male officials along with the late emperor’s highest-ranking widow, Ci’an, and the new imperial mother, Cixi, was empanelled, but within months the officials were removed by imperial princes. Cixi and Ci’an were the only remaining regents and Cixi herself was solely entrusted with the imperial seal that authenticated edicts issued from the court. The dowagers continued to govern, in the words of the official histories, by ‘listening from behind the screens’ of the throne room. The emperor married when he was 16, and the regency was dissolved.

When the young emperor contracted smallpox in late 1874, Cixi and Ci’an became regents once again. The emperor soon died, leaving no heir, so the two regent dowagers arranged for his cousin, aged three, to become the Guangxu emperor. Cixi adopted the new emperor as the son of the late Xianfeng emperor and herself, precluding the child’s mother from gaining control of the regency. Both the young widow of the Tongzhi emperor and the young mother of the Guangxu emperor committed suicide, and in 1881 Ci’an too died, of an unidentified illness, after years of tension with Cixi. Thereafter, according to Chang, Cixi accomplished her remarkable modernisations in industry, education, administration and foreign relations, all the while fending off plots by court and reactionaries, many of whom argued that real power should be in the hands of her adopted son, the emperor. She nonetheless pushed through new programmes in education and social legislation that would have changed China rapidly, had the Qing dynasty itself not been overthrown in a chaotic nationalist revolution in 1911-12.

This is the sort of interpretation that might be produced by someone who had studied the original records of the Qing court but lacked sufficient knowledge of the existing scholarship to be able to decrypt them. After 1850 the Qing imperial government was faced with the challenge of the Taiping rebels, whose blend of Christian, Manichean and Chinese folk influences was the basis for an impassioned movement which threatened to sweep from Guangxi province in the south-west all the way to Beijing. In an attempt to suppress the rebels, the imperial court devolved financial management, military command and certain legal jurisdictions to the provincial level in the most heavily embattled regions. After the war ended in 1864, the pressures of reconstruction and recovery from the bloodiest confrontation of the 19th century, in which the death toll may have been as high as forty million, forced the process of decentralisation to continue. The governors who had been specially empowered by the imperial court to fight the rebels were political ancestors of the infamous ‘warlords’ of the early 20th century.

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