A re­vi­sion­ist his­tory

His­to­ri­ans might not agree with the con­clu­sions of this book but its au­thor has done a fine job of en­sur­ing that they will now cer­tainly dis­cuss this lesser known his­tor­i­cal fig­ure.

The Star Malaysia - Star2 - - READS - Em­press Dowa­ger Cixi: The Con­cu­bine Who Launched Mod­ern China Jung Chang Al­fred Knopf, 436 pages, non-fic­tion Re­view by MARTIN SPICE star2@thes­tar.com.my

HIS­TORY, it is well known, is writ­ten by the vic­tors: the van­quished are rarely in a po­si­tion to write any­thing at all. So it is al­ways in­ter­est­ing when a his­to­rian goes back to hith­erto un­known or un­tapped source ma­te­rial and puts to­gether a pic­ture which is com­pletely at odds with the re­ceived view.

It ap­pears that, up un­til now, the Em­press Dowa­ger Cixi has had pretty poor press. Words like tyrant, dic­ta­tor, poisoner, traitor, self-in­ter­ested, im­moral and in­com­pe­tent seem to crop up reg­u­larly in tra­di­tional ac­counts of her rise and ex­er­cise of power. Jung Chang’s book changes all that. In her hands, Cixi be­comes a skilled and far-sighted ruler who has been much maligned but who, in fact, guided a re­luc­tant na­tion to­wards the mod­ern world. It makes for an in­ter­est­ing ar­gu­ment.

Chang is, of course, best known for her in­ter­na­tional block­buster, Wild Swans, pub­lished orig­i­nally in 1991. It be­came one of the best non­fic­tion sell­ers of all time, some 10 mil­lion copies and count­ing, and was trans­lated into 37 lan­guages.

It told in un­flinch­ing terms the story of three gen­er­a­tions of Chi­nese women: her grand­mother, her mother and her­self. For most of those who read it, the book was a grip­ping eye-opener: so this was what China was re­ally like in those years when lit­tle re­li­able in­for­ma­tion leaked out. It read like the night­mare those years re­ally were for or­di­nary peo­ple and it made Chang the voice of China in the West. Need­less to say, it was banned in her mother coun­try.

It is un­likely, I think, that Em­press Dowa­ger Cixi will en­joy the pop­u­lar ac­claim ac­corded to Chang’s pre­vi­ous two books. While Wild Swans reads like a grip­ping novel, this is much more of a his­tory book – a brief look at the sources and in­dex at the back of the book con­firm the amount of schol­arly re­search that has gone into its writ­ing. This be­comes in­creas­ingly ev­i­dent as the book pro­gresses.

As Cixi be­gins to wield power, the de­mand on the reader to re­call names, fac­tions and po­lit­i­cal deals sig­nif­i­cantly in­creases. Th­ese were clearly com­plex and dif­fi­cult times for China as a na­tion and as if that wasn’t enough, there were the ad­di­tional com­pli­ca­tions caused by court fac­tions, not a few of whom ini­tially had very con­sid­er­able dif­fi­cul­ties in ac­cept­ing that a woman should ex­er­cise any power at all.

That she did so was due to her de­liv­ery of a first male child to the Xian­feng Em­peror in 1856. That ma­ter­nal act gave her sta­tus and in­flu­ence, and af­ter the Em­peror’s death her route to real power opened up, helped along the way by Cixi’s skilled and ef­fec­tive, some might ar­gue de­vi­ous, ma­noeu­vring. She was to re­main a key player from that time on, al­beit fre­quently from be­hind the scenes.

Chang presents Cixi as a far-sighted re­former. The China she “in­her­ited” was mil­i­tar­ily weak and fall­ing rapidly be­hind the times. Its tra­di­tions and prac­tices were locked in cen­turies old be­liefs and tra­di­tions. For­eign­ers were al­most xeno­pho­bi­cally dis­trusted.

But China had no means of de­fend­ing it­self against in­cur­sions into its ter­ri­to­ries. The bul­ly­ing tac­tics adopted by Euro­pean pow­ers in search of trad­ing ports make for shock­ing read­ing. There was noth- ing noble about their ter­ri­to­rial and trad­ing de­mands – they were mo­ti­vated by pure and sim­ple greed.

Cixi recog­nised that China needed to be much stronger and to have much bet­ter re­la­tions with the out­side world if it was to re­tain its po­lit­i­cal and ge­o­graph­i­cal in­tegrity and al­though she was not al­ways suc­cess­ful, she did ef­fect a dis­tinct change in at­ti­tude and diplo­matic prac­tice.

Chang con­cludes that, “In terms of ground­break­ing achieve­ments, po­lit­i­cal sin­cer­ity and per­sonal courage, Em­press Dowa­ger Cixi set a stan­dard that has barely been matched. She brought in moder­nity to re­place de­crepi­tude, poverty, sav­agery and ab­so­lute power, and she in­tro­duced hith­erto un­tasted hu­mane­ness, open-mind­ed­ness and free­dom. And she had a con­science. Look­ing back over the many hor­rific decades af­ter Cixi’s demise one can­not help but ad­mire this amaz­ing stateswoman, flawed though she was.”

His­to­ri­ans, of whom I am not one, will doubt­less ar­gue over this verdict and point to sig­nif­i­cant flaws in both judge­ment, such as her mis­guided sup­port for the Boxer re­bel­lion, and to her ruth­less­ness in, for in­stance, poi­son­ing Em­peror Guangxu to en­sure that he should not suc­ceed her. But, of course, the on­go­ing de­bate it stim­u­lates is both the in­ter­est and the fun of re­vi­sion­ist his­tory. And Jung Chang is a very fine pro­po­nent.

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