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

Conjuring the ghost: the "shape-shifting, queer, violent, hippie genuis" of David Litvinoff

A new biography tracks down the elusive Kray confidant who became a friend of Mick Jagger and Keith Richards.

David Litvinoff is a mythic character to anyone with an interest in London during the Sixties. An intimate of the Krays, he was a tough and violent Jew from the East End. He was also a musical genius with an unrivalled knowledge of jazz, the blues and rock that made him a valued friend of Mick Jagger and Keith Richards. It was his ability to move from the East End to Chelsea, from the dives of Soho to Notting Hill, that was the critical factor in the extraordinary vision of London that Donald Cammell and Nicolas Roeg conjured into the film Performance, for which Litvinoff is credited as dialogue coach. And yet, even though all this is known and recorded, he remains a ghost, a figure who wrote nothing and who systematically destroyed all the records of his life he could lay his hands on. Even his exact role in Performance is shrouded in mystery. He is said to have dictated much of the script to Cammell. This biography claims that Jagger’s mesmerising song on the soundtrack, “Memo from Turner”, was in fact a memo from Litvinoff.

Multiple reports describe him as the most brilliant talker London had known since Coleridge, but although there are rumours of tapes they have always been just rumours. I’d have thought he was a figure who would defeat any biographer – a shape-shifting, queer, violent, hippie genius lost in a mist of hallucinogens – but Keiron Pim’s account of this extraordinary character is a magisterial work of scholarship. He tracks down all the living witnesses; he has also unearthed letters, and even some of those long-lost tapes.

The story that emerges is even harder to believe than the legend. Litvinoff came out of the Jewish East End but he was from one of its most talented families. His name was not even Litvinoff: his mother’s first husband went by that name but David was the son of her second, Solomon Levy. Long before he met the Krays or the Stones, he was a gossip columnist on the Daily Express, practically inventing the Chelsea set that shocked the prim Fifties. By that time he had met Lucian Freud, who painted him in an astonishing study, the working title of which was Portrait of a Jew. Litvinoff was furious when Freud exhibited it with the new description of The Procurer, and the bad blood between these two men, both of whom inhabited the drinking clubs of Soho and the Krays’ gambling joints, remained for the rest of their lives. In fact, it is Freud who comes over as the villain of the book, fingered by Pim as the man behind the most violent assault on Litvinoff: he was knocked unconscious at the door to his own flat, on the top floor, and awoke to find himself naked and tied to a chair suspended from the balcony, nose broken and head shaved bald.

I learned much from this book: a period working for Peter Rachman before he became involved with the Krays; sojourns in Wales and Australia when he was fleeing threats of violence. The big discovery for me, however, was Litvinoff’s encyclopaedic knowledge of the jazz and blues traditions that gave birth to rock’n’roll. He taught the Stones a lot but he taught Eric Clapton even more – they were both living at the Pheasantry building on the King’s Road, and Litvinoff seems to have had unlimited access to the most recherché back catalogues and the most recent unreleased recordings. The book traces, but does not comment on, a transformation from an amphetamine-fuelled hard man in the Fifties and early Sixties to the oddest of hallucinogen hippies by the Summer of Love in 1967.

But, for all Litvinoff’s knowledge, wit and gift for friendship, his tale is a tragedy. A man who could talk but couldn’t write; an out gay man long before it was acceptable, who seems never to have been at ease with his sexuality; a proud Jew without any tradition of Judaism to which he could affiliate. Above all, this was a man who lived to the full the extraordinary moment when London dreamed, in Harold Wilson’s Sixties, that class was a thing of the past. Back from Australia in the early Seventies, Litvinoff awoke again to find that it had indeed been a dream. His suicide in 1975 was cold and deliberate. He had outlived his time. 

Colin MacCabe edits Critical Quarterly

Jumpin’ Jack Flash: David Litvinoff and the Rock’n’Roll Underworld by Keiron Pim is publisyhed by Jonathan Cape (416pp, £16.99)

This article first appeared in the 25 August 2016 issue of the New Statesman, Cameron: the legacy of a loser