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(The Dowager Empress Cixi)

Last week the Peabody Essex Museum located in Salem, MA concluded its wonderful exhibit, Empresses of China’s Forbidden City.  It was “the first major international exhibition to explore the role of empresses in China’s grand imperial era — the Qing dynasty, from 1644 to 1912. Nearly 200 works, including imperial portraits, jewelry, garments, Buddhist sculptures and decorative art objects from the Palace Museum, Beijing (known as the Forbidden City), tell the little-known stories of how these women influenced art, religion, court politics and international diplomacy.” (https://www.pem.org/blog/stories-of-opulence-and-influence)  The exhibit peaked my interest in Cixi (Tzu His), the last Empress of China who was a concubine to the Emperor Xianfeng, and produced a son in 1856.  In doing so Cixi guaranteed a place for herself at court and would pave the way for her to obtain power in the 1850s when the Emperor died . The Empress Dowager Cixi lived a remarkable life that is fully captured in Jung Chang’s 2013 biography EMPRESS DOWAGER CIXI: THE CONCUBINE WHO LAUNCHED MODERN CHINA.


Related imageFormally, Cixi had no power, but she succeeded in mounting a coup against the regents with Empress Zhen, the late emperor’s principal wife, before he was buried. Cixi falsely accused the regents of forging the emperor’s will, and in the first of what would be a substantial list of Cixi ordered murders, she ordered the suicide of the two most important regents. Her son was crowned Emperor Tongzhi, and Cixi’s extraordinary political career was launched. (The Guardian, 25 October 2013)

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(the author)

Chang  has done an exceptional job unearthing new Chinese sources and fills in the gap in the historiography that lacks major studies of Cixi in English. In her absorbing new book, Chang laments that Cixi has for so long been “deemed either tyrannical and vicious, or hopelessly incompetent — or both.” I agree with Chinese historian Orville Schell that “far from depicting her subject as a sinister conservative who obstructed reforms, Chang portrays Cixi as smart, patriotic and open-minded. In her view, the empress was a proto-feminist who, despite the narrow-minded, misogynistic male elite that made up the imperial bureaucracy, “brought medieval China into the modern age.” Chang concludes that Cixi was an “amazing stateswoman,” a “towering” figure to whom “the last hundred years have been most unfair.” (New York Times, October 25, 2013)

One of the strengths of Chang’s narrative is her blend of major historical events in China during Cixi’s lifetime (1835-1908), how it affected her elevation to a powerful position, and how she wielded that power.  Events such as the First and Second Opium Wars are discussed in this context resulting in the first treaty ports in 1842 with the Treaty of Nanking that effectively opened China to further English and European trade and Catholic missionaries that struck at the heart of the Middle Kingdom’s insularization.    The Taiping Rebellion that lasted from 1850 to 1864 was in effect a Chinese Civil War that in the end produced further western encroachment on China and the death of over 20 million people.  For Cixi, the events surrounding her taught her many lessons that would influence her own use of power.

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(The Taiping Rebellion, 1850-1864)

In discussing Cixi’s rise and attempts to modernize China through industrialization several watershed dates emerge.  In 1861 Emperor Xianfeng died resulting in her five-year-old son being elevated to replace him, with eight regents overseeing the decision-making process.  These eight men had proven to be a disaster with their anti-foreign, xenophobic policies that resulted in increasing western encroachment.  Cixi and the Empress Zhen became allies and were able launch a successful coup against the traditional Confucian regents and Cixi was able to become the defacto ruler of China through the cooperation of the Empress.  Chang provides intimate details how Cixi was able to maneuver against the regents, reflecting her deviousness and developing realpolitik that would serve her well in the future.  The second watershed focuses on 1875 with the death of her son, Emperor Tongzhi who had reached the throne two years earlier.  Since the Emperor left no written will, Cixi once again could manipulate the situation to her benefit as she and Empress Zhen chose the next emperor.  Under the new Emperor Tongzhi China stood still as reform and industrialization were neglected.  Once in full control, Cixi resumed her policy of modernization through copying certain aspects of western industry, calling her policies one of “self-strengthening.”  She appointed ambassadors and sent study groups abroad.  Further, she pushed for factories, road building, opening trade, a naval fleet, and introducing certain aspects of western education that would benefit China.  Railroad building was a priority, but as Chang describes in all subject matter, Chinese culture and tradition were always paramount and railroad building had to wait until the late 1880s to begin construction.

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(The Emperor Guangxu)

Chang introduces several historical characters that Cixi relied upon to institute her policies.  Prince Gong, a reformer was a key player, as was Li Hongzhang who was respected by western nations, and was a very able and successful trade negotiator.  Viceroy Zhidong Zhang, a proponent of modernization, in the end he would stand by Cixi after the disastrous Boxer Rebellion.  Of course, there was conservative opposition who looked down upon Cixi led by Prince Chun, her brother-in-law who sought revenge against her pro-western policies.  Grand Tutor Weng despised westernization and his views rubbed off on the new Emperor whom he tutored resulting in a downward spiral for China in the 1890s.  In the end, Cixi was able to defeat Prince Chun and turn him into an ally.  Chang also describes several westerners that Cixi appointed to important positions.  W.A.P. Martin became a force in developing Chinese education.  US Minister to Beijing, Anson Burlingame was appointed China’s ambassador extraordinaire to represent the Middle Kingdom throughout Europe.  Lastly, Robert Hart would create an efficient customs service that as trade increased dramatically, import and export revenues rose to help finance many of Cixi’s projects.

Chang’s Cixi is a very pragmatic woman who employed a blend of thoughtful contemplation in evaluating the course China should take, but also used violence and threats to achieve her goals if the situation called for it.  Cixi reached the height of her power in by 1889 when her adopted son, assumed power as the Emperor Guangxu.  To that point her legacy was secure.  The American Minister to Beijing, Charles Denby praised her accomplishments from the creation of a “fine” navy, building an electric telegraph system, shipyards, railroads, steamers, factories, and a strong army.  He praised her religious tolerance and her diplomacy that resulted in treaties with France, England, Russia, and the United States.  Even her former enemy, Prince Chun, now an ally marveled at her prowess in standing up to the French and the resulting treaty in 1885 that protected Chinese borders from western encroachment.  One wonders, had Cixi’s reign ended in 1889 perhaps history would view her differently as her “Make China Strong” campaign appeared to be a success.

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(Kang Youwei)

China’s domestic political problems would emerge after Cixi’s retirement, as the new Emperor Guangxu resented Cixi, her reform ministers, and the fact she had forced him to marry someone he detested.  Educated in the Classics and Confucian texts, Guangxu turned the clock back under the influence of his arch-conservative Grand Tutor Weng whereby all forms of reform and modernization came to a halt.  This would have grave implications as at the same time Japan, following the restoration of the Meji Emperor in 1867 began a period of westernization and modernization.  It would build a large and powerful navy, while the Chinese did not continue their own program.  By 1894, Japan’s expansionist policy against China’s vassal states, Taiwan and Korea led to a war that China could not win.  The result was a disaster due in large part to Chinese incompetence and lack of preparation as the navy deteriorated once Cixi was out of power.  The Emperor was soon convinced to bring about Cixi return to the kingdom after four months of fighting, but by this time it was too late, and China’s defeat was inevitable.  The Treaty of Shimonoseki that ended the Sino-Japanese War of 1894-95 included the cession of Taiwan, the Pescadores, the eastern tip of the bay of the Liaodong peninsula (which would be returned) , autonomy for Korea, most favored nation trading status, opened a series of Chinese cities to Japanese trade, and an indemnity of 200 million taels (roughly $148,400,000).*

Chang has gone a long way in trying to resurrect Cixi’s historical reputation by exposing many of the myths associated with her.  An interesting example involves the supposed reformer Kang Youwei, whose nickname was the Wild Fox.  When I was in graduate school in the 1970s, I was taught that Kang was the leading force for reform in China.  According to Chang, who basis her interpretation on the discovery made by Chinese historians in the 1980s, Kang was a plotter who sought to assassinate Cixi, and eventually seize the throne.  He even co-opted the Emperor into his plot couching everything in terms of reform and spreading lies about the Empress Dowager.  Chang points out after the plot was discovered Kang escaped to Japan and continued to spread his version of events blaming Cixi for China’s defeat against Japan, and many other false claims.  Kang would continue to organize assassination attempts against Cixi from Japan after the Boxer Rebellion and sought to bring back the Emperor to replace the Dowager Empress.  Cixi would cancel trials against  Kang’s co-conspirators and have them executed because she did not want it known that her adopted son, the Emperor was involved in the assassination plot, information had it been made public would have split China in half due to Kang’s popularity, and would have created a situation for Japan and others to take advantage.

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(The Boxer Rebellion, 1900)

Cixi’s greatest mistake during her reign was how she treated events leading up to the Boxer Rebellion in 1900, and decisions she made while the fighting and slaughter unfolded.  Cixi grew tired of years of foreign encroachment and disrespect and Chang is correct as she describes how she faced down Italy’s demands for treaty ports.  The Dowager Empress developed a false confidence that she could stand up to foreigners as she had with Italy and when the western nations began to make demands after the xenophobic Boxers killed a German diplomat and numerous missionaries, Cixi decided, going against the advice of several counselors, to try and take advantage of the Boxers who were deemed to be, by like-minded princes and aristocrats as “loyal, fearless, and disciplined.”  The Boxers would be organized into military units, but their beliefs which included being impervious to bullets would not stand them in good stead against western technology resulting in extreme violence and slaughter throughout northern China, and the surrounding of the Foreign Legation in Beijing.  Cixi’s decisions were questionable as she went back and forth from withdrawing support for the Boxers to reaffirming it throughout the rebellion.  Cixi was forced to escape the Forbidden City and move westward as the western invasion proved successful.  As a result, Cixi’s leadership was demeaned, even though she maintained a degree of support.  The western powers realized that the removal of Cixi could only be brought about through military action that would evolve into a civil war.  Thus, they decided to allow her to return to Beijing to prevent fighting that would result in the loss of trade, default of loans, and the reemergence of the Boxers.  However, what is clear is that the (Qing) Manchu Dynasty under Cixi, would begin its last chapter as the western countries imposed an indemnity of over 450 million taels (roughly $333,900,000)* thus punishing the entire population of China.

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(The Boxers)

According to Chang, after imposing the peace the Western powers recognized Cixi as the undisputed leader of China allowing her to embark on a massive program to change her country that can be considered the “real revolution in modern China.”  Cixi would spend her last few years pushing to make China a constitutional monarchy, and at the same time surviving numerous assassinations attempts against her, most of which were planned by Japan.

Chang has written a superb biography that encompasses her life as well as the traditions and culture of China’s ruling and peasant classes while in and out of power.  As China’s current “President for Life,” Xi Jinping deals with the problems of reform and change today, he like Cixi must achieve a balance between fostering change too slowly, and bringing about change too quickly, as each approach has its own pitfalls.  Perhaps he should study Cixi’s role in Chinese history and learn to deal with similar issues that confronted her.

*One tael is calculated at 3 English Shillings or 0.742 American dollars. ( See footnote p. 297)

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(The Empress Dowager Cixi)

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