A rudimentary knowledge of China’s history often starts with the post-dynasty reign of Sun Yat-sen (1911-1912), first president of the Republic of China and reputed father of modern China. Or it may begin with his successor, Chiang Kai-shek (1928-1948), or with Mao Zedong, the communist revolutionary and founder of the People’s Republic of China (1949).
But befire those three notables, Empress Dowager Cixi ruled the sprawling country of China for 47 years. Her legacy, however, has been maligned by many historians, including those in China, who consider her to have been a ruthless despot. Progressive achievements during her era have often been attributed to the Emperor Guangxu, her adopted son, and to other officials. Yet a new and favorable picture of Cixi (also, Tzu Hsi) has emerged, thanks to Jung Chang’s masterful work that relies on a treasure-trove of historical documents, mostly Chinese, that have been available only since Mao Zedong’s death in 1976.
Chang, who co-wrote in 2006 the extraordinary biography “Mao: The Unknown Story,” reveals an empress who rose from obscurity as an emperor’s concubine to rule a nation that had traditionally relegated women strictly to subservient roles. In her wake, China experienced social and cultural advancements that were unimaginable – until she took control.
Her story begins in 1852 when the 21-year-old Emperor Xianfeng chose Cixi, a 16-year-old girl from the Manchu clan, as one of his concubines. The current empress had also been a concubine but of a higher rank than Cixi. In 1856, Cixi gave birth to the emperor’s first son. And because she bore a son, Cixi became the No. 2 consort to the emperor, second only to the empress. Both women, however, were devoted friends to each other.
When the emperor died in 1861, Cixi’s 5-year-old son became emperor, though Xianfeng had arranged for a Board of Regents to take charge. Because Cixi had no official title, she needed to be declared dowager empress (a widow with a title) in order to attain the status of mother of the emperor.
With careful maneuvering by the two women to obtain the approval of the Board of Regents for two dowager empresses, the stage was set for Cixi’s political star to rise. Cixi’s savvy and cunning quickly enabled the two of them to acquire and solidify their power.
The expression “power behind the throne” has no better examples than Cixi and the empress, who literally sat behind the emperor with a silk screen hiding their visages. But it was Cixi, intelligent and with keen foresight, who usually asked questions of those in court, speaking with an authority that gained respect. The two women worked together for 20 years until the empress’ death in 1881.
At that time, rebellion in the country had resulted in mass killings and the destruction of entire villages. With the support of some Western powers, Cixi was able to defeat the insurgents and establish a period of peace and prosperity for China. Under Cixi, “Make China Strong” became the motto of her government, which for all intents and purposes it had become. Trade was expanded with the West. A modern navy and army were created along with a state-of-the-art arms industry.
When the emperor died at age 18, Cixi adopted the son of her sister to be the emperor. Though an honor, it was her way of punishing her brother-in-law for demanding that a favorite eunuch of Cixi be executed for leaving the Royal City without authorization. At age 3, the new emperor, Guangxu, was taken from his parents to live apart from them.
With a new regime, Cixi restarted the engine of modernization. She sent representatives overseas to study Western institutions and cultures to see how they could be adapted to China. Discovering that some countries used her countrymen as slave laborers, she instructed one of her representatives: “You must find ways to make absolutely sure that such abuse of the Chinese is strictly prohibited and discontinued.”
In 1875, she authorized the first attempt at coal-mining in China. With it came electricity that eventually spread throughout the country. While she prized Western modernization and emulated much of what she thought would advance China – railways, telegraph, telephone and Western medicine – she was careful to respect long-held traditions. Even so, as Chang notes: “The embryo of a modern China had taken shape. Its creator was Cixi.”
Wars and skirmishes with Japan, Britain and France drained the country of needed revenue. But Cixi’s diplomatic skills, for the most part, kept Western imperialism from encroaching on China. Domestically, she ended censorship and worked to alleviate poverty with a major food import program that helped curtail open rebellion.
By the time Emperor Guangxu was old enough to rule, his relationship with Cixi had soured. He ignored most of Cixi’s reforms allowing them to lapse, though he himself had little interest in running the nation. For the rest of her time as empress dowager and finally in retirement, Cixi struggled to keep China on a path of progress and peace. Whenever domestic upheaval or foreign intervention threatened the country, Cixi was often the one called on to find a way through it.
As Chang makes clear, Cixi was not without her faults and occasional acts of brutality. She decided to poison her adopted son, who was gravely ill at age 27, because she feared that as emperor he was prepared to hand over the nation to Japan, making China part of its east Asian empire. But Cixi had a hand-picked successor ready to step in, and that allowed her to remain in control until her death.
The story of Cixi is a fascinating tale of intrigue, power struggles, and incomparable leadership of a country with one-third of the world’s population. Jung, whose earlier book “Wild Swans: Three Daughters of China” won the British Book of the Year in 1993, provides ample documentation that shows Cixi, rather than contemporaneous emperors or men who served her, to be the one who moved China along a progressive path into the 20th century.
Decades after Cixi’s death, Pearl Buck, the Nobel Prize winner for literature in 1938 and who grew up in China when Cixi ruled, wrote: “Her people loved her – not all her people, for the revolutionary, the impatient, hated her heartily. … But the peasants and the small-town people revered her.” When Cixi died in 1908, villagers were said to have cried: “Who will care for us now?” That expression, Buck said, “is the final judgment of a ruler.”