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2 October 2013updated 08 Jun 2016 9:04am

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.

By Rana Mitter

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.

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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)

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