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Empress Dowager Cixi: tradition and reform

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Canto: So we’ve written a piece on Cixi (to save time I won’t keep referring to her by full title), touting her as a reformer, within strict limits, but without actually mentioning and discussing any of her reforms.

Jacinta: Yes, there’s so much to write, to put her in context, that a few blog posts wouldn’t be enough. But before we begin I want to express my annoyance at the Wikipedia article on Cixi. It ends with this on Jung Chang’s book:

In 2013, Jung Chang’s biography, Empress Dowager Cixi: The Concubine Who Launched Modern China, portrays Cixi as the most capable ruler and administrator that China could have had at the time. Pamela Kyle Crossley said in the London Review of Books that Chang’s claims “seem to be minted from her own musings, and have little to do with what we know was actually going in China”. Although Crossley was sympathetic to restoring women’s place in Chinese history, she found “rewriting Cixi as Catherine the Great or Margaret Thatcher is a poor bargain: the gain of an illusory icon at the expense of historical sense”.

Canto: Yes, this is a travesty of the book, which at no point makes comparisons with the other leaders mentioned, or ever hints at such comparisons. Having said that, Chang’s book was a biography, not a history of China during this period, which of course would’ve been a far more monumental task. The book focuses particularly on the court and the Forbidden City, and the struggles and machinations there, and only occasionally, but effectively, expands outward to the nationwide repercussions. As to being ‘minted from her own musings’, the book is clearly massively researched, with primary sources linked to almost every page of the book. Of course some decisions and actions require speculation, all of which, it seems to me, fits with a coherent description of Cixi’s character – that of a proud and often ruthless, baggage-laden Manchu aristocrat with progressive tendencies in keeping with her love of knowledge and innovation, struggling to make sense of and keep abreast of a wave of progress, internationalism and foreign encroachment without precedent in Chinese history. And also of course that of a powerful 19th century woman in a part of the world even more repressive of powerful women than that of ‘the west’.

Jacinta: Yes, it’s particularly disappointing that Wikipedia ends with this hatchet-job, leaving the unwary reader with a very wrong impression of the book, IMHO. Anyway, to the reforms. Chang highlights most of them in the epilogue to her book, and the list is well worth presenting here:

Under her leadership the country began to acquire virtually all the attributes of a modern state: railways, electricity, telegraph, telephones, western medicine, a modern-style army and navy, and modern ways of conducting foreign trade and diplomacy. The restrictive millennium-old educational system was discarded and replaced by western-style schools and universities. The press blossomed, enjoying a freedom that was unprecedented and arguably unsurpassed since. She unlocked the door to political participation: for the first time in China’s long history, people were to become ‘citizens’. It was Cixi who championed women’s liberation in a culture that had for centuries imposed foot-binding on the female population – a practice to which she put an end. The fact that her last enterprise before her untimely death was to introduce the vote testifies to her courage and vision Above all, her transformation of China was carried out without her engaging in violence and with relatively little upheaval.

Canto: Yes, all this is true, and it largely came from her, or more accurately from her complex response to the massive changes going on in the outer world, and that world’s growing impact on China. I’m sure Chang wrote this partly as a corrective to the propaganda surrounding Cixi, that she was an obstacle to progress and, in contradiction, a figurehead manipulated by powerful aristocrats and factions.

Jacinta: And also a cruel and lascivious harridan. And I must say, in response to Crossley’s review, she does bear comparison to other major female power-wielders. To Thatcher perhaps, if only for her formidable ‘she who must be obeyed’ presence, to which many eye-witnesses throughout the book testify, and also perhaps to Elizabeth I (I don’t know enough about Catherine the Great), for her concern for stability and moderation, and for the Chinese people.

Canto: And yet she could be ruthless and cruel, though I put this partly down to the absolute power wielded by the throne, and the history of imperial and aristocratic cruelty she was born into – the eunuch system, lingchi (death by a thousand cuts), the bastinado and so forth. Reforms to the Qing Legal Code, late in Cixi’s lifetime, banned many of these cruelties, though certainly this was under pressure from other nations.

Jacinta: Yes, she has to be seen in the context of China’s long isolation from the ‘enlightenment’ ideas of the west, which was coming to an end just as she gained total power. And her experience, for example, of the wanton destruction of the Old Summer Palace – regarded as ‘the garden of gardens’, an apparently wondrous complex of outstanding architecture, floral designs and historical treasures – by the British in the 1860s would hardly have warmed her to any ideas of western superiority. In fact I think her early sympathy for the Boxer Rebellion well captures her sympathy for so many of the ordinary people who felt threatened by the many changes wrought by foreigners and the arrogance with which some of those went about their ‘mission’. And I’m thinking about Christians in particular.

Canto: The cruelties and the despotism of mid-nineteenth century China bear comparison to the different cruelties of pre-enlightenment Europe, with its burnings by fire, its trials by ordeal, its divine rights and so forth. Reforms came to China almost too quickly, and the path from that nineteenth-century ‘opening up’ to the extremely repressive and unrepresentative government of modern China is no doubt as complex as it is depressing. Cixi was bowing to the inevitable towards the end of her life, it seems, acknowledging, or hoping, that a constitutional monarchy, with popular representation in some kind of parliament, would be the eventual result of all the pressures being brought to bear on the system she’d been accustomed to manipulating. Certainly she was a traditionalist in many ways, full of superstitions that seem bizarre to us, overly loyal to her heritage, the Manchu minority (though she appointed more Han people to positions of authority and power than any previous Qing ruler), and keen to uphold court ceremonial (though flexible when it suited her). It seems to me that if she was twenty or thirty years younger at the turn of the century, with the same hold on power, she would’ve had a better chance than anyone else of effecting a peaceful transition in China, from an absolute monarchy – one of the last – to some kind of more democratic system. But that wasn’t to be, and the rest, sadly, is history.

References

Jung Chang, Empress Dowager Cixi: the concubine who launched Modern China, 2013

https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Old_Summer_Palace

https://www.britannica.com/event/Boxer-Rebellion

Written by stewart henderson

May 19, 2020 at 12:11 pm