BOOK REVIEW China's champion of modernity Empress Dowager Cixi: The Concubine Who Launched Modern China by Jung Chang
Reviewed by Kent Ewing
HONG KONG - Eight years ago, with the publication of their blistering biography, Mao: The Unknown Story, Jung Chang and her husband, Irish historian Jon Halliday, teamed up in a vigorous attempt to bury the founder of the People's Republic of China in the deepest possible grave of disrepute, denouncing him in the book's opening sentence as the greatest villain of the
20th century - which, let's not forget, included Adolf Hitler, Josef Stalin and other contemptible nasties among its cast of characters.
Now, with Empress Dowager Cixi: The Concubine Who Launched Modern China, Chang has reached again into that toxic historical necropolis, this time to resurrect a figure often reviled, especially in China.
If Chang is to be believed, Cixi - a semi-literate concubine who effectively managed to rule China for most of 47 years until her death, aged 72, in 1908 - has been almost entirely misrepresented and misunderstood for the past 100 years.
So, instead of the standard caricature of Cixi the ruthless, Cixi the merciless and Cixi the arch-conservative reactionary, Chang presents Cixi the tolerant, Cixi the benevolent and Cixi the reformer, who dragged China out of feudalism and into the modern age.
Unfortunately, Chang laments, when "this amazing stateswoman" died, so did her grand vision to turn China into a constitutional monarchy - as did, four years later, the 268-year Manchu dynasty she was so determined to preserve.
"Empress Dowager Cixi's legacy," the author asserts, "was manifold and towering. Most importantly, she brought medieval China into the modern age."
That long legacy, of course, included a shrewd, cold-blooded palace coup staged by Cixi in 1861, when she was known as Imperial Concubine Yi, that would make her, at age 25, the "behind-the-curtain" ruler of China.
There would follow her disastrous alliance with the fanatically violent anti-Western Boxers, her imprisonment of the Guangxu Emperor, her adopted son, and the execution of his favorite concubine, Pearl, whom she ordered eunuchs to throw down a well after the tearful Pearl refused to commit suicide as Cixi had demanded.
In her last act, she would have the emperor poisoned to death with arsenic before dying herself on the next day, leaving the throne occupied by the two-year-old Puyi - who, forced to abdicate in 1912, would be the last emperor of China.
An enlightened monarch? A compassionate leader? The avatar of modern China?
"Preposterous!" fume haters of the woman who, with age and the consolidation of power, acquired the endearing sobriquet "Old Buddha", and they are hopping mad about Chang's book, just as Mao sympathizers were incensed by her and Halliday's relentless 800-page attack on the Great Helmsman.
In that tome, the wife-husband dyad excoriates the man who unified China after a long civil war for everything from calamitous initiatives such as the Great Leap Forward and the Cultural Revolution to his sexual habits and personal hygiene. The callous, self-deluded, power-hungry Mao, as described by Chang and Halliday, could do nothing right.
Now Chang's critics blast her for portraying a murderous, manipulative, backward-thinking former concubine as a visionary ruler who could do little wrong.
Both books, however - despite the Blitzkrieg assault in the case of Mao and the overly charmed embrace of the Empress Dowager - make valuable contributions to the historical understanding of their subjects.
Chang and Halliday might have appeared petty and mean-spirited for faulting Mao for not bathing properly, but their hard work and scholarship have also provided the most convincing evidence yet that one of the most celebrated events of the Communist Revolution - the victorious, against-all-odds battle waged by Mao's forces to cross the Luding bridge, long seen as the heroic core of the epic tale of The Long March - never happened.
Similarly, Chang's portrait of Cixi helps to separate fact from legend - thanks in no small part to the yeoman's work she has done to bring new evidence (newly rendered in English, that is) to light.
And, of course, it also helps that she is a riveting storyteller. That was clear as far back as 1991, when Wild Swans - her autobiographical account of three generations of women in her family: her grandmother, her mother and herself - became an international best-seller (except, of course, in China, where it remains banned) and introduced a fresh new voice to the world.
Wild Swans, too, turned into a devastating attack on Maoism, as Chang in her teenage years was an enthusiastic Red Guard until her father, a privileged party official, became a victim of the Cultural Revolution.
Two years after Mao's death, in 1978, Chang took advantage of China's Open Door policy under the new leadership of Deng Xiaoping to pursue a university education in Britain, where in 1982 she received a PhD in linguistics from the University of York.
She was the first citizen of the People's Republic of China to receive a PhD from a British university and has lived in Britain ever since, although she travels frequently to mainland China to conduct research and visit her family.
Chang's love of the West - and loathing for the Maoist China in which she came of age - permeates just about everything she has written.
In her revisionist portrait of Cixi, her unabashedly Western perspective is again on full display. Just as Cixi - through painful lessons like the disastrous Boxer Rebellion, which led to the occupation of Beijing by Western powers and the Empress Dowager's unceremoniously hasty flight from the Forbidden City on a mule cart - begins to see Western institutions as a superior model to be emulated, Chang has clearly reached the same conclusion.
At times, Chang's overt empathy with and admiration for her subject crosses the line into a kind of intimacy between author and subject that borders on the inappropriate and the hagiographic. Here, for example, the author sums up the years 1902 to 1908 under the aging Cixi's rule:
The reforms in these years were radical, progressive and humane, designed to improve peoples' lives and to eradicate medieval savagery. Under her measured stewardship, Chinese society was fundamentally transformed, thoughtfully and bloodlessly, for the better, while its roots were carefully preserved and suffered minimum trauma.
And yet - although Western-style educational reforms were initiated and Western legal systems explored - some skeptics might respond that it was already long past time for reform, and these years were hardly smooth and bloodless.
Indeed, the 20th century had arrived and China was still a backward, feudal nation with a dynastic imperial system that simply could not be sustained, not even under Cixi's belated plan to transform the country into a constitutional monarchy, albeit one that would recognize Manchu rule in perpetuity.
Chang even speculates that, had Cixi lived, suffrage and a form of parliamentary democracy could have been introduced in China as early as 1916. That's a reach - a big, hopeful, purblind reach. And so is this book.
Cixi's reforms came far too late and with the primary goal of saving the moribund Qing dynasty from its inevitable destruction. In that, she failed - but she was hardly the autocratic monster that her detractors are so fond of pillorying.
Despite Chang's effort to lionize her as a leader of "groundbreaking achievements, political sincerity and personal courage" who "set a standard that has barely been matched", Cixi emerges as a sometimes artful captain trying her best to navigate an ancient regime through the stormy waters of a new age. In the end, the task was simply beyond her - and the ship sank.
Finally, it should be noted that Chang's biography comes at a time when China's leadership is promising a raft of social and economic reforms to bolster popular support for a corruption-ridden, autocratic regime. President Xi Jinping and Premier Le Keqiang would resent and reject any suggested parallels - but they should read Chang's book.
Empress Dowager Cixi: The Concubine Who Launched Modern China by Jung Chang. (Jonathan Cape, September 2013). ISBN-10: 0224087436. Price: US$13.20; 464 pages.
Kent Ewing is a Hong Kong-based teacher and writer. He can be reached at [email protected] Follow him on Twitter: @KentEwing1
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