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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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From 1931 onward, the Chinese people were confronted with continuous Japanese aggression, humiliation, occupation, and inhumanity.  In Helen Zia’s new book, LAST BOAT OUT OF SHANGHAI: THE EPIC STORY OF THE CHINESE WHO FLED MAO’S REVOLUTION the author seems to begin here story in 1937 when the Japanese launched their invasion of China, however as she develops her story it is important to realize that the Japanese had their eyes on China as far back as the Sino-Japanese War of 1894-5, the Twenty-One Demands of 1915 during World War I, and their incursions into Manchuria in 1931.  By 1937 the situation had grown worse as Japan launched a large-scale invasion.  Japanese brutality has been well documented by the “Rape of Nanking,” and numerous other atrocities, including a policy of torturing and killing civilians.  After eight years of fighting the Japanese were finally defeated in August 1945 and what followed was the no longer dormant civil war between the Communist Chinese led by Mao Zedong and the Nationalists, led by Chiang Kai-Shek that resulted in the Maoist victory in late 1949.

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Everyone was not enthralled with the arrival of communist troops closing in on Shanghai.  During the World War II Shanghai was divided into a Chinese section and an international one with a French concession where Chinese, Europeans, English and others were safe from the Japanese for a good part of the war.  Rich foreigners and native Chinese members of the middle class who had cooperated with the west, Christian missionaries, and those educated during at that time feared for their lives.  The city of Shanghai was the symbol of Chinese westernization and the focal point of escaping the mainland from oncoming Communist soldiers.  According to Zia , a child of two refugees, there is nothing written in English on the plight of those who attempted to flee in 1949.  Her new book is designed to fill that vacuum.

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Zia’s narrative traces the lives of four people, beginning with Benny Pan, the privileged nine-year-old son of an accountant and an officer in the police auxiliary who will become Police Commissioner in Shanghai; Ho Chow, the thirteen year old son of a land owning gentry family; Bing Woo, an eight year old girl who has been given away two times by her blood family and the first family that accepted her; and Annuo Liu, the two year old daughter of a rising Nationalist leader.  Zia will follow the lives of these characters and members of her family well into the present. In all instances in dealing with these characters deference was paid to Chinese traditions as a dominant theme.  Whether issues dealing with family relationships, key decision-making, or dealing with outside threats the opinion of women gave way to those of men despite the danger it might create for family members.  Another constant in the lives of these four characters was the fear of the Japanese to the point that several individuals discussed had to take on new identities to survive, especially those who had to travel back and forth into the interior of China to be with fathers, or escape arrest.

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(Mao ZeDong)

Zia does a masterful job explaining the origin of western control of the international section of Shanghai where people sought refuge and escape from the oncoming Japanese.  In doing so, Zia integrates the history of western imperialism in China dating back to the First Opium War, 1839-1842 that produced the first unequal treaties that gave first England, then other countries extraterritorial rights in China.  Outside of Shanghai, Chinese peasants lived a life of poverty, and the dichotomy emerged of “abject misery coexisting with unabashed opulence.”  The author employs the family histories of her main characters to describe the racist and ethnocentric attitudes and actions taken by foreigners in China.

As Zia presents her narrative many important historical events and occurrences are discussed.  Among the most interesting is the fact despite the danger and violence of Japanese occupation, roughly 20,000 Ashkenazi Jews were accepted in Shanghai and escaped the Holocaust.  By early 1943 over 7600 allied nationals, mostly American, British and Dutch were sent to internment camps which Zia points out were not as accommodating as those created in the United States for over 120,000 Japanese-Americans.  After the Japanese surrendered the issue of collaborationists raised its ugly head affecting family members who were arrested for their work with the Japanese.  Interestingly, as soon as the Pacific war ended, the Japanese continued to fight the Communist Chinese in the northeast under orders from the Americans and the Nationalists.  This angered the residences of Shanghai, but the burgeoning civil war between the followers of Mao Zedong and Chiang Kai-shek took precedence over everything.

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(Chiang Kai-Shek)

The difficulties of displacement and reorientation following the Japanese defeat is on full display through Zia’s protagonists.  Issues of legitimacy in all aspects of society emerged, i.e.; students who had left for the interior during the war v. students who remained in Shanghai and were educated at universities.  Demonstrations, some rioting were all part of the landscape of Shanghai between the end of the war and the arrival first of the Nationalists and then the Communists.

Zia spends a great deal of time discussing the Nationalist seizure of Taiwan after the Maoist victory and the harsh dictatorship that was imposed by Chiang Kai-Shek and his forces.  She follows American domestic politics and its impact on Bing and Ho as they tried to renew their lives in the United States and deal with immigration authorities as the Cold War evolved.  The McCarthyite period, the outbreak of the Korean War, and other events impacted all of Zia’s subjects greatly.

As the narrative unfolds, Zia introduces several interesting characters that have important roles to play in the lives of Benny, Bing, Ho, and Annou.  Chief among them are Betty Woo, Bing’s adopted sister who seems to be able to support her family through her charm and savvy as she arranges marriages, money, and whatever needs that must be met.  Annou’s father is a disaster as he “hates” his youngest daughter, and Benny’s father, a Nationalist insider who is eventually captured and imprisoned by the Communists.  His father’s background became a source of his own suffering as Zia describes his treatment by the Maoist government through numerous campaigns including the Cultural Revolution.

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(People fleeing Shanghai, circa, 1949)

At certain points in the narrative the book devolves into a description of a series of human waves to escape oncoming tragedy.  First, the Japanese in 1937, then the Communist Chinese in 1949.  In each case massive numbers of refugees are created in Shanghai and later Taiwan, Hong Kong, and parts of Southeast Asia.  The mass exodus of 1949 produced an estimate of 1.5 million of Shanghai’s 6 million residents scattering anywhere governments would accept them.  Zia’s protagonists and their families are part of that exodus and she follows their stories to the present day.  What is clear is that the suffering of refugees during that period in history was a catastrophe for those people as are the refugee issues faced by survivors of the current Syrian Civil War, events in the Sudan, Yemen, Darfur, as well as migrants currently seeking entrance into the United States.

Zia’s work is to be commended as she presents a history of western imperialism, Shanghai, the diaspora of many Chinese as they disperse to Taiwan, Hong Kong, the United States and elsewhere after 1949.  She narrates Chinese history through the eyes of her subjects and provides the reader excellent insights into events on the mainland, Taiwan, and Hong Kong.  Zia writes well and is sensitive to the experiences of her subjects and how they were impacted by historical events.  It is interesting that New York will become an area that all four of Zia’s subjects find common experience and lastly, she should be commended for her  presentation of the Shanghai diaspora.

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