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.
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.