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The empress dowager Cixi – China’s greatest modern politician?

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I’m currently reading Jung Chang’s stunning biography of Cixi, the extraordinary woman who both upheld and manipulated centuries of tradition to become the most powerful political figure in China for over forty years, from the 1860s to her death early in the 20th century. I find Cixi’s character, intelligence and energy so compelling that I can’t wait to finish the book (even though it’s a page turner) to extol her virtues, to defend her supposed failings and to express my dismay that she isn’t as widely recognised and admired as she should be. I presume the Chinese are still taught that Mao was the bee’s knees (strange expression), and I wonder if they know anything much about Cixi, or anything accurate.
Having said that, my natural skepticism makes me wonder if Jung Chang’s bio is overly one-sided. Yet it’s certainly compelling, and convincing, and coherent in terms of her character – and well-documented. Cixi was both a traditionalist and a reformer, who got where she was as a result of tradition, in a country where obsession with ceremony, rank and custom were taken to a level hardly seen anywhere else. The idea that she could have turned her country into a democracy is quite preposterous. However, had she been given more power she would certainly have transformed the country far more than she was able to, and most definitely for the better. And there is no doubt that she had to negotiate a nest of vipers for much of her career, and she mostly handled it all with great aplomb.

The late nineteenth century (not to mention every century before that) was generally a hard time anywhere for smart, politically savvy women to express themselves in public forums, never mind to actually wield power. Cixi’s journey to the top of China’s bizarre hierarchy was a mixture of good fortune and the forcefulness of her personality. As a teenager from an illustrious Manchu family she was entered into one of the regular competitions to become one of the Xianfeng Emperor’s consorts or concubines (the emperor, always male, could choose as many concubines as he liked). Within ten years of her being selected, Xianfeng was dead and Cixi, still in her mid-twenties, had become the most powerful figure on the Chinese political scene.

We don’t know her real name, since women were too unimportant to have them memorialised – Cixi, meaning ‘kindly and joyous’ was the name given as an honorific when she became a part of the emperor’s retinue. What we know of these early years is that she lacked formal education but was bright, energetic and skilful in the arts esteemed in the women of the Forbidden City (later she was responsible for transforming the local operas into a major art form). She also happened to be the only one of the emperor’s women to bear him a healthy male child. This proved to be her entrée to real political power.

I’ll try not to go into too much detail here, though I’d love to. Read Jung Chang’s book. In brief, the Xianfeng emperor died quite young, and Cixi, along with Xianfeng’s young widow, with whom she was on friendly terms, organised a coup of sorts against the ultra-conservative faction who were about to gain control of the government as a protectorate while the new emperor (Cixi’s son) was still a minor. The two women, with Cixi very much the senior partner, were able, rather astonishingly, to rule the nation literally from behind the throne. As women they weren’t allowed to be seen wielding power and making decisions, so they took up a space behind a screen, in front of which sat the child-emperor, and listened to submissions and reports from throughout the empire. Foreign visitors were impressed and many considered Cixi the saviour of the Chinese nation – it’s likely they knew more about what was going on than most of the Chinese people, for the fact is that the Forbidden City lived up to its name and hardly anyone had access to government or knew anything of its leadership.

Of course it wasn’t all plain sailing. Cixi clearly had excellent diplomatic skills in dealing with court councillors and the aristocrats that couldn’t be discounted due to their status. Many of them were extreme traditionalists, though she had her favourite reform-minded princes. She also made tragic ‘mistakes’ including falling in love with a young eunuch to whom she granted ‘forbidden’ favours. The situation of court eunuchs, and eunuchs in general, was truly appalling. They were usually from impoverished backgrounds, their parents giving them up to an agonising operation without anaesthetic, and often fatal, in the hope of allowing them a better life in servitude to the upper classes. Those who survived were more often than not treated as less than human by their masters, the class who came to depend on them, in much the same way as the ancient Greeks and Romans depended on their slaves. Cixi’s mistake was to treat this particular eunuch, known as Little An, recognised for his intelligence and sensitivity, with affection and care and to assign him duties ‘above his station’. This scandalised the conservatives, who managed to have him beheaded for his ‘audacity’. The practice of killing eunuchs for the alleged crimes of their masters, was of course commonplace. Cixi suffered a near-fatal depression at this outcome, for which she understandably blamed herself.

Nevertheless she recovered, and the nation thrived under the first period of her rule, essentially from 1861 to the early 1870s, when her son, the Tongzhi Emperor, reached his mid-teens and it was expected that he would take over. However, he never really did. Tongzhi proved an indolent student who showed very little interest in affairs of state. As his teenage years advanced he spent more time engaging in night-time adventures with his friends outside the walls of the Forbidden City. He was struck down by disease, probably syphilis, and died just short of his eighteenth birthday.

Tongzhi’s unexpected early demise threatened another emergency, as there was no obvious emperor-candidate in the wings. Here again Cixi’s diplomatic skills were fully displayed. Having impressed the inner court with her proven leadership, she convened a meeting in which she suggested that the two women continue to run the country from behind their screen, and behind a new child-emperor, chosen by Cixi herself, her 3-year-old nephew Zaitian, thenceforth known as the Guangxu emperor. The most powerful counsellors, especially the reformers, were happy to comply with the plan, notwithstanding its unconventionality. The plan also effectively sidelined Prince Chun, Zaitian’s father, and one of Cixi’s foremost critics amongst the elite. As father of the emperor he was forced to resign his posts so as not to be seen to be using his influence over his son. Interestingly, Cixi remained solicitous for Prince Chun’s welfare, and eventually he became one of her most ardent supporters.

And so, over the next period, from the mid 1870s to the late 1880s, the period of Guangxu’s minority, reform proceeded apace. Of course there were many tensions and difficulties, especially with regard to foreign relations and the increasing presence of Christian missionaries in the country, tensions and antagonisms that eventually led to the so-called ‘boxer’ uprisings at the turn of the century. I may deal with all that in another post, as I haven’t finished reading that part of Chang’s book.

I’ll end this post, though, by trying to make sense of my amazement and fascination with Cixi’s character. First, I’d never heard of the woman before seeing this book amongst my partner Sarah’s collection a couple of years ago, and I’d fairly describe myself as having an above-average interest and knowledge of history in general. I also note that the general treatment of Cixi in potted ‘youtube’ histories and dramas is condescending if not hostile. The ‘anti-Cixi’ propaganda, which was active in her own lifetime, still shapes much of the world’s view of her today, it seems.

Second, I want to commend Chang’s treatment of Cixi’s life. One of my favourite chapters is titled ‘In retirement and in leisure (1889-94)’, which relates the period after Emperor Guangxu’s coming-of-age, when Cixi was forced, albeit temporarily, to retire, first to the Sea Palace, then to the Summer Palace, a site which she and many other Chinese associated with the destruction of the much-celebrated Old Summer Palace, ‘the Garden of Gardens’, by the British in 1860, an act of wanton vandalism which enraged the Chinese court and public alike, with Cixi being particularly affected. This chapter fascinated me not only for the insight into Cixi’s multifarious interests and her indefatigable energy, but for Chang’s own interest in researching it. This isn’t to say that a male historian would never be interested in these ‘domestic’ details, but it would be a rare male historian that would bring so much attention to it, and bring it so vibrantly to life.

The Summer Palace was redeveloped under Cixi’s guidance during this period of ‘retirement’ (she still had to confirm senior government appointments, and for a time still tried to involve herself in state affairs). In spite of being confined for much of her life to the Forbidden City, she loved the outdoors and developed a great knowledge of plants, flowers, animals and birds. The Summer Palace is a great outdoor area, mostly covered with water, and Cixi loved going on boating trips accompanied by musicians, and singing along with the tunes. Her love of opera and drama helped create a national interest and pride in these art forms. She also loved walking out in the rain, much to the distress of her eunuchs. During the propagation season she would lead the court ladies on expeditions for cuttings, and join them in potting and watering them regularly. Potted plants and flowers were kept everywhere, especially chrysanthemums, and her hair was regularly adorned with blooms. Cixi particularly loved dressing up, and was always immaculately coiffed and ‘done up’, as we can see from the all-too-few photos of her that we have – all, of course, from the last few years of her life.

The gardens provided fruits and vegetables for her retinue as well as the surrounding neighbourhood, and she often tended and gathered from them herself, even cooking herself on occasion. She reared many species of birds and animals and employed an expert to teach her the art of breeding. She learned how to imitate bird-calls so well that birds would land on her outstretched arm and eat from her hand…

There’s much more to relate, but this, I think, gives enough of a glimpse of a full and fascinated life. There was a dark side too, though, and some shocking moments of cruelty, but when we compare her life, and her accomplishments while in power, to that of China’s most famous politician outside of China, Mao Tse Tung, she shines very brightly indeed.

Speaking of Mao, Jung Chang has also written his biography, which I’m sure will be just as interesting, though not in such an uplifting way. I intend to read it. But before that I’ll hopefully write another post on Cixi (so much to write about!), a woman created by her time, but with the strength to change it.

The Summer Palace, Beijing, much restored under the guidance of Cixi

References

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

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

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

Written by stewart henderson

May 14, 2020 at 5:57 pm