BOOK REVIEW / In defence of a warrior queen: 'Dragon Lady: The Life and Legend of the Last Empress of China' - Sterling Seagrave: Macmillan, 20 pounds

Penelope Fitzgerald
Saturday 04 July 1992 23:02
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THE Dragon Empress, Tzu Hsi, had read about Queen Victoria, but thought that she herself must be the cleverest woman who ever lived. She had been a low-ranking concubine of the lethargic Hsien Feng Emperor, and had borne his only living son. This (although there was no Chinese law of primogeniture) gave her status in the Imperial household. When Hsien Feng died she became Dowager Empress and regent and ruled China for nearly half a century, surviving the Anglo-

French invasion, the Opium Wars, defeat by Japan, the Boxer uprisings, the whole disastrous collision course between the Middle Kingdom and the expansionist Western demons.

'For forty years have I lain on brushwood and eaten bitterness because of them,' she said. She saw Peking fall twice. But in 1908 she died peacefully in the Forbidden City, wearing the Robes of Longevity, her face correctly turned towards the south.

Tzu Hsi was not a Chinese girl with lily feet but a tough Manchu from the South. That she came from a poor official's family but died worth millions in gold and silver shows that she was certainly acquisitive. But, beyond that, she has emerged from the doubtful territory where history, folk-tale and court memoirs illegitimately meet with the reputation of a monster.

How many did she cause to be poisoned? How many of the 3,000 eunuchs of her court were uncastrated lovers? Was she a rank sadist, ordering the Pearl Concubine, her nephew's favourite, to be drowned in a well before her eyes, and, in lighter mood, admiring Nature's soft veil of rain all the more because her attendants were getting wet? Was her obstinacy responsible for the fall of the Ching dynasty?

Sterling Seagrave thinks not. He sees Tzu Hsi not as an iron-willed, over-sexed tyrant, but as 'a sad and uncertain woman anxious to be liked . . . increasingly stricken by her inability to control events.' Her real function, as he sees it, was as an arbitrator and moderator. His book, he says, is 'a study of how a myth is contrived', and after 11 years' research he names the contrivers. They include:

1 Provincial Viceroy Li Hung Chang, who controlled the country's railways, steamships and telegraphs, and his own private army and spy system. Li needed the Empress to remain in power, so that she could take the blame. But he blackened her reputation by spreading stories of Chinese atrocities and encouraged the Allied invasion of 1900, which left him in considerable profit as the sole negotiator.

2 The reformer Kang Yu-weh, usually described as a rule-breaking scholar and idealist, who dreamed of a new China without private property or Confucian constraints and with complete equality of all races. To Seagrave, Kang is 'a fraud, a poseur, a plagiarist, a liar'. After the blood-stained failure of the Hundred Days' Reform in 1898, Kang escaped to Japan and began, Seagrave says, a malignant campaign of propaganda against the Empress.

3 Edmund Backhouse, a gentlemanly linguist who arrived in Peking in 1899 and became the most famous Sinologue in residence. Backhouse was a compulsive forger and inventor of diaries and documents. In 1910 he collaborated on the monumental, fascinating but unreliable China Under the Empress Dowager, which 'confirmed everyone's worst suspicions'.

4 George Morrison, the celebrated Times correspondent, of whom Seagrave gives a very dark version. Although Morrison was welcome everywhere, and was the kind of Victorian who walked alone across Australia, he never learned Chinese. As a result, his despatches relied more and more on Backhouse's beguiling inventions. His influence on recorded history 'altered the international equation for nearly a century afterwards'.

Backhouse deceived for the joy of deceiving, and has been thoroughly exposed already, in Hugh Trevor-

Roper's Hermit of Peking, but there is much more record-straightening to do. Seagrave is exhaustive and exhausting. He has examined (to give one example out of hundreds) the well where the Pearl Concubine was supposed to have drowned, and found it was too small to admit even a child. But if you want to judge Seagrave you have to slog it out with him, li by li. Never mind the repetitions, never mind the sometimes irrelevant material. After 500 pages or so I was worn down, though still at times faintly protesting.

Chinese schoolchildren touring the Forbidden City are still told, by a recorded voice, that the Dragon Empress was a villainess. Seagrave is determined to relegate her from the ranks of the manipulators to the manipulated. Such is the fate of warrior queens.

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