My first exposure to Empress Dowager Cixi was in Bertolucci’s The Last Emperor (1988). In that film, Cixi was portrayed as rotting, unsympathetic, and grotesque in her decadence, even at the end of her life.
My next encounter with Cixi was in college, when I took a 300-level course in Modern Chinese History. It covered everything from the fall of the Qing Dynasty to the post-Mao Communism. The culminating essay of the course was to answer the following question at length: “Was Chairman Mao a ‘great’ man?” It occurred to me as strange then, as it does now, how the ‘greatness’ of Mao—a criminal despot who was responsible for the death of 70 million people—was under Western academic discussion, whereas the status of Cixi was settled, established, unquestioned history.
The portrayals of Cixi have been invariably villainous. She’s widely seen as the woman who singlehandedly ended the monarchy, a despot who selfishly held China back from modernity while bankrupting the kingdom. Jung Chang attempts to revise this common portrayal in her latest book, Empress Dowager Cixi. She paints a ‘rags to riches’ portrait of a woman who worked within the confines of sexism to rule China from ‘behind the throne’.
On this particular point, there is no disagreement. All historical accounts demonstrate that Cixi was the true ruler of China for from 1861 to 1908—a 47-year unofficial reign as a variety of ineffectual males (both children and adult) occupied the throne in name only. There is, however, significant alterations with regards to the framing of the narrative.
Here, Cixi’s story is reinterpreted through a feminist lens, and Cixi, who does not fit the normative view of what a woman, let alone a 19th century Chinese woman, ought to be, is depicted as a strong, demonstrative leader during a changing time. Her methods,called ‘crafty’ by other historians are seen as ‘resourceful’ by Chang. What is ‘manipulative’ to some is reframed as ‘political’.
Appropriately, Chang spends a good portion of the novel focused on Cixi’s character, She notes that Cixi, unlike other concubines of the Emperor was no “great beauty,” but she had ‘poise’. Chang discusses how her upbringing contributed to this ethos; how her father treated her not as a daughter, but as a son, particularly when it came to discussing the family’s finances.
Other anecdotes speak to how Cixi used her gendered status to her advantage, feigning feminine weakness to curry favor with her opponents. After the death of her husband, Cixi overthrew the Regents by accusing them of ‘bullying her’ when they resisted her demands.
After staging her coup, however, Cixi knew to be modest in her victory. She ordered the three main Regents to be executed, but she allowed the others to simply be dismissed or exiled. She also displayed appropriate reluctance when accepting ruling power—that she and Empress Zhen had been pressured by men, princes and ministers, and that their rule was only until her five-year-old son, Tongzhi, was able to take his rightful place.
The intrigues of Cixi’s court are consistently fascinating, and demonstrate a woman at war with many responsibilities to her country, her trusted advisors,family, and herself. Her story conveys that the key to good leadership is not in grandstanding gestures, but in the one-to-one, persona dealings with allies and opponents. The book even makes the case that Cixi, contrary to popular belief, was an energetic reformer in her final years, outlawing footbinding and lifting the ban on Han / Manchu marriage. She even sent Chinese scholars abroad to study Western systems of government and develop a ‘constitutional monarchy’, which maintained the monarchy’s standing while allowing citizen participation.
Chang extrapolates that Cixi might have pushed for suffrage had she lived longer, and if the book has a fault, it is this tendency where Chang theorizes on Cixi’s thoughts, or what her future actions might have been. The Empress’s tale, in her time and place, is already quite dramatic and impressive.
The footnotes for the book are extensive. They speak to an interesting historical point—that most of the sources are Chinese, and they are being seen for the first time since Mao’s death in 1976. They lend credence to Chang’s revisionist view; during the Cultural Revolution, the Communist Party had a vested self-interest in discarding the ‘old ways’. Any revolution needs a villain, and Mao built the authority of his rule upon Cixi’s supposed incompetence—the victory of the many peasants over the privileged few.
Chang concludes that Cixi was an admirable ruler. Yes, Chang concedes Cixi’s atrocities, but she also compares them to those of previous rulers, whose actions were far bloodier and more corrupt. Since Cixi never ‘technically’ held power—she was always pulling the strings of other, less effectual rulers—there is no ‘official record’ of her accomplishments, which were always attributed to men. This allowed the Communist Party to fill in the gaps of Cixi’s story, and thus reinvent her as it saw fit.
Laurel Thatcher Ulrich once said that “Well behaved women rarely make history.” Chang’s Cixi, who embraced both male and female roles in her 47-year reign, broke any conception of Chinese propriety. Empress Dowager Cixi makes an excellent case for historical re-evaluation, paying tribute to a complex ruler at the crossroads of change, rather than the rigid caricature that has been portrayed for so long.