Book review – Empress Dowager Cixi

Hans van de Ven explores a biography of the unofficial, but powerful, ruler of China's Qing dynasty for almost 50 years

Empress Dowager Cixi
Author: Jung Chang
Publisher: Jonathan Cape
Reviewed by: Hans van de Ven
Price (RRP): £20

In this biography of Empress Dowager Cixi, Jung Chang challenges the depiction of the late Qing as dominated by venal, incompetent elites willing to make any sacrifice to sustain Manchu rule. That version of history, produced by 20th-century revolutionaries from Sun Yat-sen to Mao Zedong, continues to sustain a narrative in which the Communist party led China to independence and – after several wrong turns – prosperity and prestige.

Having served as one of Emperor Xianfeng’s many concubines and given him an heir, Cixi seized power in an coup d’état after his death in 1861. Unofficially speaking on her infant son’s behalf, she was at the heart of events in the Forbidden City until her death in 1908, three years before the collapse of the Qing Dynasty. In 1860, the Taiping Rebellion was still going strong in central China and the British and French had occupied Beijing. A new trade treaty and the opening of more ports induced them to leave, and three years later the Taiping Rebellion was brought under control with their help.

The Qing revived for a short period, but defeats against France in the 1880s, the Japanese in the 1890s, the partition of the country and an invasion by eight countries during the 1900 Boxer War saw the dynasty’s stock decline rapidly.

Chang paints a largely sympathetic portrait of the empress, suggesting that she did little wrong, and even possessed superhuman powers. I don’t know enough about dog-breeding to challenge the suggestion that Cixi was so good at it that she did more for the Pekingese breed than anyone else, but I doubt that she had such facility with animals that “even fish were induced to jump into her outstretched hands”.

There are errors: China did not run a large export surplus; it had a small one only for half a decade. And by no stretch can Cixi be called a democrat. She did approve the introduction of a constitution that would have led, in time, to a parliament, but the idea was to constrain local elite activism, and the emperor would have remained absolute ruler.

Chang is right that there was a great deal of change during the second half of the 19th century in China: diplomatic missions were sent abroad, arsenals were built and a modern navy was assembled. The media began to flourish and new ideas were widely discussed. Much was achieved in a short time, but it is also true that it was slow to build railroads and that textile factories were prohibited.

That Cixi played an important role in bringing about the many changes that did happen is not in doubt. What is less clear is that all of it was her doing. At court there were figures such as Prince Gong who, like most men in the book, is portrayed dismissively. In the provinces there were such statesmen and military leaders as Li Hongzhang and Zhang Zhidong. They could do little without an approving imperial edict, which Cixi could cause to be withheld, but they could and did take the initiative.

However, this is an important book, drawing attention to a period in China’s history that has received little, and usually only negative, attention. Chang writes with verve, energy and evident concern for the country in which her books are proscribed and her family was made to suffer during the Cultural Revolution. In insisting on a reassessment of the late Qing and recognition of what was achieved, much of which was thrown away in the name of revolution, Chang is calling for a more nuanced and open-minded reading of China’s recent past. It will be interesting to see where that will lead.

Hans van de Ven is lecturer in modern Chinese studies at Cambridge University

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