Tim Lieder (marlowe1) wrote,
Tim Lieder

Books Read in 2013 # 119 - The Dowager Empress was Fucking Awesome!

119.Empress Dowager Cixi: The Concubine Who Launched Modern China by Jung Chang - Yes. It's 2014 and I am still doing this. Major problem with deciding to review all the books that I read in 2013 (and for a short time the books that I gave up on) is the fact that I actually have to review them and even find interesting things to say about them. For some the difficulty lies in the superficiality of the book (see below with the Lighthouse book or the comic adaptation of Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon) and not being able to say much. This book is the opposite. Seriously, just as you think you are getting into a boring section where nothing much happens because there are always boring sections in history books where nothing much happens and you're just waiting to get to the part where the revolution started or the guy gets his head chopped off, something else happens that pushes the history into a place where you weren't expecting.

The primary bias is to counter about a century of anti-Dowager history where she was either evil dragon lady or an ineffectual leader but never a capable administrator who managed to hold Imperial China together even as every imperial power was attempting to exploit China and carve it into the same kind of resource/treaty-driven land masses of Africa and the Middle East. Cixi tends to get shafted even when historians aren't attacking her directly, such as in Forgotten Ally where the entire history of China from the Opium Wars to the early 20th century is depicted as a time when China just lost power and ended up in the hands of warlords. Of course, Sun Yat-Sen as the major nationalist is the spiritual heir in that book, whereas in this book he's more of a nuisance than an actual threat to the government (should be noted that his major victories came after Cixi's death in 1908). The most common knowledge about Empress Dowager is that she ran China into the ground and destroyed the imperial line with her scheming and as a coda to her reign, she unleashed the Boxer Rebellion on missionaries.

In truth, she was the most capable leader that any nation could have had. As soon as the emperor was dead, she was plotting with the empress to get rid of the advisers that were unfriendly to her, but the advisers that went along with her were rewarded with one of the most capable administrators they could imagine. Whereas the emperors were born into the role and were rather pathetic (her biological son was too busy planning operas and sneaking out of the Forbidden City to frequent brothels while the adopted son spent all of his time in classical studies and gutted the military even as Japan was building up its navy), her unofficial leadership was something that even her enemies needed as evidenced by the long and perilous relationship with Prince Chun who initially helped her take over, fought against every modernizing reform as Western crap (including railroads and trade) and even had her favorite eunuch executed for leaving the Forbidden City. When Cixi's son died, her revenge against Prince Chun was to make his son the emperor heir apparent, which effectively barred him from official functions and his own son. After some reflection, Prince Chun became her most vocal supporter - mostly because she was the only capable ruler.

The last half of the book is devoted to the last 20 years where Cixi went into retirement (she was never the official ruler and the adopted son came of age) and spent five years there as Japan built up its navy and her son spent all of his time studying with Grand Tutor Weng - this is why you don't put yeshiva bochurs in charge of anything - and by the time she came out of retirement, it was too late for her to manage a successful war like the ones that she had conducted against Germany and Portugal during the height of her power. The only thing she could do was damage control. Didn't help that the emperor was conspiring to murder her (also, the main conspirator was the source of most anti-Cixi propaganda which ended up in history books as fact) Similarly, the Boxer Rebellion did not originate in The Forbidden City but when every major power is trying to cut up a piece of China, might as well use it. Even when she ended up in exile, she was still capable of inspiring great loyalty. She also had the emperor's favorite concubine thrown down a well before she left.

And even with the failure of the Boxer Rebellion, Dowager Empress Cixi managed to spend the last 8 years of her life laying the groundwork for a modern China. However, this part gets a little strange as Jung Chang is trying to argue that Cixi killed the emperor and made her daughter-in-law the official Dowager Empress because she knew that the emperor was a terrible leader (true) and that her daughter-in-law would concede to the nationalists as soon as the anti-imperial forces threatened to plunge China into a civil war (not sure about that). While Jung Change makes a great case for Empress Dowager Cixi being the most capable administrator in Chinese history, she seems to be pushing for a near omnipotent view of the non-Cixi future. And even in a book as laudatory as this one, the mistakes of Cixi are just as prominent as her success stories. But it's only in the last 15-20 pages that the book edges into hagiography territory. For the most part, this is a well researched book about a woman who has spent decades as the villain of Imperial China and presents her as an amazing historical figure, worthy of admiration and further study.

I also hesitate to use the term proto-feminist like the New York Times did. I don't know. That always seems like the ham-fisted insertion of the woman in the Victorian movie who somehow knows kung fu and totally doesn't have any problems getting a job or a respect despite being unmarried. And of course, why say proto-feminists when this era had plenty of feminists? Or maybe I'm just using that term wrong. Anyhow, if you want to make this woman into a proto-feminist go ahead.
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