Empress Dowager Cixi: The concubine who launched modern China

Much more than a Chinese Anne Boleyn, Cixi engineered a palace coup to place her young son on the throne at the age of just 25.

Chinese history abounds in powerful characters but few of those most prominent in popular consciousness have been women. In the past half-century, Jiang Qing (“Madame Mao”) has been perhaps the best known; in the years before that, there was Soong Meiling (“Madame Chiang Kai-shek”). However, neither had the direct influence on policy or statecraft enjoyed by their predecessor Cixi (Tz’u-hsi), the dowager empress of China, whose period of influence lasted from the 1860s to her death in 1908.

In this well-researched and provocative biography, Jung Chang, the author of the memoir Wild Swans and (with her husband, Jon Halliday) the biography Mao: the Unknown Story, makes a revisionist case for Cixi’s status as the force behind some of the most significant aspects of modernity in China, from constitutional government to military reform.

Above all, the book gives a detailed and involving view of life in the imperial court in the latter part of the Qing era (1644-1911). Mastery of intrigue was essential for survival in a closed world in which rival royalty, eunuchs and bureaucrats all jostled for power. Cixi proved herself to be an able player of these often deadly games.

From her first position as a concubine to the Xianfeng emperor in 1852, she rose through court life to become the power behind the screen. At the age of just 25, she engineered a palace coup to place her young son, Zaichun, on the throne. Zeng Guofan, one of the most important military leaders of the day, declared: “I am bowled over by the dowager empress’s wise, decisive action, which even great monarchs in the past were not able to achieve.”

Yet Cixi was much more than a Chinese Anne Boleyn (not least given that she died in her bed at a ripe old age). The conventional view of her has been that of a conservative figure who prevented reformers from modernising China when it desperately needed to change to address the impact of western imperialism.

Much Chinese historiography has categorised powerful women as either floozies or harridans and the assessment of Cixi has often placed her in the first category when young and in the second when old. Here, Chang presents a strong and plausible revisionist argument for a more thoughtful and flexible Cixi: keen to develop railways, mindful about relations with the west and aware of the need for political change.

Empress Dowager Cixi succeeds in making the case for its subject, but it leaves some questions unanswered. She died in 1908, just three years before the dynasty fell. Chang argues that Cixi was genuine about encouraging reform; why did the Qing dynasty still collapse even so, and with such speed? Part of the answer lies beyond the manoeuvrings at court, in a Chinese society siezed by profound change. The end in 1864 of the Taiping Rebellion, a civil war sparked by a crazed visionary which led to millions of deaths, was a turning point for the Qing. To save itself, the imperial court had to devolve huge amounts of its monopoly on armed force to provincial military leaders – power it never regained and that lay at the heart of the “warlordism” that marked China in the early 20th century. Consequently, decisions at court after the 1860s were ultimately far less relevant to China as a whole than during the time of the strong emperors in the 18th century.

Intellectual change was also important. In the book, two of Cixi’s bêtes noires, the reformist thinkers Kang Youwei and Liang Qichao, are condemned for their repeated (failed) attempts to bring about her downfall. However, they were not just power-hungry plotters but two of the most significant and sophisticated political thinkers of the lateimperial era in China. Kang’s eccentricities included flirtations with hot-air ballooning but he also made important proposals on how Confucianism could be adapted for the modern world.

Liang, whom Chang describes as Kang’s “right-hand man”, was rather more significant than that: among other things, he was one of the founders of the modern Chinese political press. They and other thinker-activists were central to the shaping of a public sphere in late-19th-century China, which drew power away from court and into civil society. One of the reasons why the Qing fell, suddenly and unexpectedly, is that by 1911 there was almost no constituency left in China that had a vested interest in its survival.

Yet Cixi deserves to be remembered and this book is to be welcomed for giving an important figure in Chinese history the prominence she deserves, as a feminist icon who played a crucial role in the shaping of modern China. In many ways, the debates at court seem a forerunner of discussions in Beijing today, where murderous intrigues (such as the Bo Xilai affair) run in tandem with heated discussions about the extent to which China should reform. Even debates over how to modernise Confucianism are still part of the political landscape.

For all this, in one important area, things have gone backwards: to the discredit of Chinese politics, there is no powerful female figure in political life today with the influence of Cixi. This spirited biography reminds us that a greater female presence might be a trigger for much-needed political change.

Rana Mitter is the author of “China’s War With Japan, 1937-1945: the Struggle for Survival” (Allen Lane, £25)

Raise the blue lantern: Cixi, new feminist icon. Image: Chinese School/Bridgeman Art Library/Getty

This article first appeared in the 30 September 2013 issue of the New Statesman, The Tory Game of Thrones

Show Hide image

Edinburgh in the time of Harry Potter - growing up in a city that became famous for a book

At first, JK Rowling was considered a local author done good, rather than fiction’s future megastar. 

In an Edinburgh playground, circa 1998, I found myself excluded from one of the world’s first Harry Potter cliques. My best friend Sophie had a copy of a book with a title which seemed indecipherable to me, but she insisted it was so good she couldn’t possibly let me read it. Instead, she and the other owner of a book huddled together in corners of our concrete, high-walled playground. I was not invited.

Exclusion worked. Somehow I procured a copy of this book, rather sceptically read the praise on the cover, and spent the next day avoiding all company in order to finish it. After my initiation into the small-but-growing clique, I read the second book, still in hardback.

Edinburgh at that time was something of a backwater. Although it still had the same atmospheric skyline, with the castle dominating the city, the Scottish Parliament was yet to open, and the Scottish banks were still hatching their global domination plans. The most famous author of the moment was Irvine Welsh, whose book Trainspotting chronicled a heroin epidemic.

In this city, JK Rowling was still considered to be a local author done good, rather than fiction’s future megastar. She gave talks in the Edinburgh Book Festival, a string of tents in the posh West End Charlotte Square. By the time I saw her (Harry Potter and the Prisoner of Azkaban, hardback edition, 1999), she had graduated from the tepee to the big tent reserved for authors like Jacqueline Wilson and Michael Rosen. At the end we queued up for the book signing, and she told me she liked my purple dungarees.

At that time, there were no films, and what the characters should look and sound like was a constant playground debate. Another member of the Harry Potter clique I spoke to, Sally*, remembers how excited she was that “she did the same voice for Hagrid that my mum did when she was reading it to me”.

About the same time, a rumour spread around school so incredible it took a while to establish it was true. JK Rowling was moving to the street where some of our Harry Potter clique lived. We started taking detours for the privilege of scurrying past the grand Victorian house on the corner, with its mail box and security keypad. The mail box in particular became a focus of our imagination. Sophie and I laboured away on a Harry Potter board game which – we fervently believed – would one day be ready to post.

Gradually, though, it was not just ten-year-olds peeping through the gate. The adults had read Harry Potter by now. Journalists were caught raking through the bins.

Sally recalls the change. “It was exciting [after she first moved in], but as it was just after the first book it wasn’t as much of a big deal as it soon became,” she recalls. “Then it just felt a little bizarre that people would go on tours to try and get a glimpse of her house.

“It just felt like an ordinary area of town with ordinary people and it made me realise the price that comes with fame.”

Edinburgh, too, began to change. As teenagers (Harry Potter and the Order of the Phoenix, 2003) we liked to gather at the Elephant House cafe, on the bohemian George IV Bridge. We knew it was one of the cafes JK Rowling had written in, but we also liked its round wooden tables, and its bagels, and the fact you got one of the hundreds of miniature elephants that decorated the café if your bagel was late. It became harder and harder to get a seat.

We scoffed at the tourists. Still, we were proud that Harry Potter had put our city on the map. “As I grew older, it was fun to think of her writing the books in local cafes and just being an ordinary person living in Edinburgh with a great imagination,” Sally says. As for me, it was my trump card during long summers spent with bored Canadian teenagers, who had not heard and did not care about anything else relating to my teenage life in Scotland.

The last in the series, Harry Potter and the Deathly Hallows, was published in July 2007, a month after I left high school. Not long after that, I left Edinburgh as well. The financial crash the following year stunned the city, and exiled graduates like me. I fell out the habit of reading fiction for fun. JK Rowling moved to a house on the outskirts of Edinburgh, ringed by 50 foot hedges. The Scottish independence referendum divided my friends and family. On Twitter, Rowling, firmly pro-union, was a target for cybernats.

Then, two years ago, I discovered there is another Harry Potter city – Porto. As in Edinburgh, medieval passageways wind past stacked old houses, and the sea is never far away. JK Rowling lived here between 1991 and 1993, during her short-lived marriage, and drafted the first three chapters of Harry Potter and the Philosopher’s Stone. In the university district, students wear black, ragged gowns, and the fantastical wooden carvings of the Livraria Lello bookshop is tipped to be the inspiration for some of the aesthetic Rowling applies to the books.

I don’t know whether it did or not. But it made me realise that no city can possess an author, and not only because she could afford to any part of the globe at whim. Standing in the bookshop and watching the students drift by, I could imagine myself in some corner of the Harry Potter world. And simultaneously, perhaps, some tourists queueing for a table at the Elephant House were doing the same.

*Name has been changed

Now read the other articles included in the New Statesman’s Harry Potter Week.

Julia Rampen is the digital news editor of the New Statesman (previously editor of The Staggers, The New Statesman's online rolling politics blog). She has also been deputy editor at Mirror Money Online and has worked as a financial journalist for several trade magazines. 

0800 7318496