‘I think we should see her as a real person. She has her own flaws, and we should understand her era’
‘I think we should see her as a real person. She has her own flaws, and we should understand her era’

Was Cixi a feminist trailblazer or wayward thief? How historians are divided on this enigmatic Chinese empress

Empress Dowager Cixi ruled China for nearly 50 years from 1861 until her death in 1908. Textbooks blame her unchecked thievery for the nation's failures, but historians increasingly say she was a strong leader with gangster-like cunning

Jane Perlez
Saturday 28 July 2018 11:10

She entered the world of an ancient empire as a teenage concubine, chosen by the emperor to share his bed for her good looks, immaculate comportment and, above all, her ability to sing.

The male-dominated court was a swirl of intrigue, forced suicides and poisonings. Eunuchs assigned to the emperor prepared her for sex with the ruler, undressing her and carrying her to his bed. After the Emperor Xianfeng’s death, she governed in the name of young male heirs – from behind a screen.

Perhaps as an escape from these oppressive restrictions, Empress Dowager Cixi (pronounced TSIH-shee), the de facto ruler of China in the final decades of the imperial dynasty, rebuilt a fantastic wonderland, Beijing’s Summer Palace. It is an extended estate of glittery lakes, luxurious gardens and elaborate wooden pavilions on the edge of the nation’s capital, attracting up to 100,000 visitors a day.

Most of them are curious Chinese from across the country who read in their Communist Party-authorised school books that Cixi was a harridan who stole the nation’s wealth and was responsible for China’s humiliating defeat by the Japanese in 1895.

But was she? Cixi, a peer of Queen Victoria and apparently iron-willed, has invited revisionist interpretations that view her as a feminist, at least in the context of the late 19th century, when women in China were treated little better than spittoons.

Strong women in China are often portrayed as power hungry, and sometimes irrational, and are notably absent from the highest ranks of government. There is no Hillary Clinton figure in contemporary China (the real Clinton is vilified by the government for talking about human rights in the country), or an Angela Merkel, who has stood up to China on trade.

When Bo Xilai, a rival to the current ruler Xi Jinping, was put on trial for corruption, he described his wife as “insane” in an effort to lessen his sentence.

So harking back to the pre-communist era for a feminist trailblazer makes sense. And to search for feminist ideals in a woman who ruled for nearly 50 years, from 1861 until her death in 1908, is understandable.

But the case of Cixi – who was isolated, undereducated and never made a break for personal freedom – is a hard argument to make.

Chinese historian and author Jung Chang began the re-evaluation of Cixi with her biography Empress Dowager Cixi. Chang, the writer of the best-selling Wild Swans who lives in exile in London, argues that the empress brought medieval China into the modern age, calling her an “amazing stateswoman”.

But Chang’s damn-the-man portrait of Cixi is a tad too generous even for some sympathisers. How could the empress dowager have ushered in groundbreaking innovation when much of her career was devoted to her drive to preserve the imperial family that crumbled three years after her death?

And Cixi did undermine a bold reform programme begun by her adopted son, the Emperor Guangxu, who favoured a constitutional monarchy and not an absolute one. She then supported the Boxer Rebellion, an anti-foreign, anti-Christian uprising that cost China dearly, a move she later blamed on her bossy male advisers.

A Chinese scholar, Zhang Hongjie, recently took up the cause of the empress in a sympathetic essay, “Woman Cixi”, featured in an anthology about Chinese women and men who have struggled against the odds.

He argues that she was held back by her lack of education, a given at the time because she was a woman, and that she should be given credit for trying to make amends for her mistakes at the end of her rule. But Zhang says his positive portrait made little impact.

“Cixi is still a negative character,” he says.

Her endeavours to preserve the imperial family above all else make for comparisons with Michael Corleone, the fictional Mafia boss in the Godfather films.

“She had one of the most ruthless, savvy political minds. She was like a gangster,” says Jeremiah Jenne, a historian who leads visitors on walking tours around the Summer Palace, where he points out 500-year-old juniper and cypress trees, and paint-faded pavilions like the Hall of Dispelling Clouds, which was renovated in 1895 for her 60th birthday extravaganza.

Cixi had the Summer Palace rebuilt after an invading European army looted and burnt the original, which, with its jewel-encrusted furniture and over-the-top silks, was said to be on par with Versailles.

Her reconstruction was not quite as opulent, but it was a sumptuous personal pleasure ground, intended to signify the strength of the family and its immense retinue of courtiers.

Despite the scholarly ruminations about Cixi, many Chinese tourists seem more interested in her extravagant lifestyle and come to see what is left of the loot, much faded because of neglect by the Communist Party’s cultural administrators.

A favourite is the “marble boat,” officially known as the Boat of Purity and Ease, a two-storey wooden pavilion with wide verandas built into the side of the lakeshore and painted to resemble pale marble.

The official school curriculum says Cixi stole funds from the imperial navy to renovate the boat just two years before the outbreak of war with the Japanese. Because of her thievery, the textbooks say, China lost the naval battles against Japan in 1894.

Crowds, shoulder to shoulder on a recent spring day, pressed against the lakeside rail, taking selfies framed by the newly green willow trees that dipped into the water.

“She had an expensive lifestyle, and China had one disaster after another,” says a middle-aged primary school teacher, who identified herself as Ms Ye and says she has no sympathy for Cixi.

“When you are backward as China was then, people will take advantage of you,” she says.

In the gift shops, there are no images of Cixi, just a few pieces of pink silk emblazoned with her calligraphy, sold as wall hangings. Commemorative coins with the portrait of Mao Zedong, cheap bangles, tea sets and hand fans do a brisker trade.

“No one likes her,” one of the young saleswomen tells me. “In history she is bad. Who would buy souvenirs of Cixi?”

Young Chinese tourists showed more sympathy.

“As a woman, she couldn’t make decisions in politics like the men,” says Xiao Yangchuan, 18, a first-year university student. “I think we should see her as a real person. She has her own flaws, and we should understand her era.”

In the last decade of her life, the empress dowager tried to polish her image by making herself more accessible, especially to western diplomats. But in the end, she could barely overcome the impression that, like many royals in the west, she was most interested in her dogs, gardening and fancy clothing, writes Sterling Seagrave in his empathetic biography Dragon Lady.

Pictures of her are banished to a pavilion near the exit of the palace grounds, where a large sepia photo shows her, surrounded by ladies in waiting, dressed in an embroidered gown with pearls said to be the size of canary eggs, and long talon-like finger nails.

The day before she died, the young emperor, Guangxu, was found dead – of natural causes, imperial records show. In 2008, Chinese medical investigators found extraordinarily high levels of arsenic in his remains, leading to a popular conclusion that the Empress had killed him to try to stop him from introducing political reforms after her own death.

Did she do it? “I am going with Cixi,” the historian Jenne says.

© New York Times

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