One of only three Chinese empresses to exercise outright power, Cixi was a survivor of Emperor Xianfeng’s harem who acted as regent for her own and her adopted son for almost 50 years. Stories of cruelty and allegations of murder have attached to her but this picture has been challenged as scholars exposed early accounts as often wildly inaccurate propaganda.
With gentle clarity, Jung Chang’s biography takes us into the Empress Dowager’s head as she deliberates over negotiations with foreign powers and waxes passionately over hopes to rebuild the Old Summer Palace, which was burned down by western troops in 1860. Chang weaves a coherent narrative of a Cixi consistently wiser than the men around her.
One can’t but wonder, however, at Chang’s keenness both to whitewash Cixi’s character and attribute to her all the progressive measures of the period. Pro-western and pro-economic development Cixi may have been. But Chang deflects the innate conservatism of her desire to maintain absolute Manchu rule, and her grip on power, by labelling her proposals for China’s enrichment as “reform” and even in 1901-8, “Cixi’s revolution”.
With Cixi’s virtues hyped, and misjudgements excused on account of her emotional state, we are prompted to accept the rationale of her wildest decisions, such as her attempt to harness the Boxer Rebellion, and cheer her ruthlessness, such as her usurpation of her adopted son Guangxu.
There are moments of cloying sentimentality, such as the description of friendship between Cixi and the wife of a US diplomat, Sarah Conger. The passage describing Cixi’s reception at a humble inn in her flight from the battle of Peking cries out for a film treatment. Otherwise, evocations of court life and opera productions can’t match the delicious digression on emperors’ sex lives and snappy characterisations in Sterling Seagrave’s 1992 pro-Cixi biography.
None of this is to say that the book is not an absorbing read or backed up by meticulous scholarship. The shadow of contemporary China and its hotly contested recent history looms over it, just as it did with Chang and Jon Halliday’s joint Mao biography. The thought that the same period will be seen once again in a radically different light, as China evolves, makes the book all the more fascinating.
Just as Zhou Enlai said of the impact of the French Revolution, with Chinese history it is, no doubt, too early to say.