Wednesday, January 14, 2015

Empress Dowager Cixi

I picked up a book, Empress Dowager Cixi: The Concubine Who Launched Modern China by Jung Chang, and I couldn't put it down.

I knew zip about Cixi, the last empress of China before the boy portrayed in the movie, The Last Emperor.

Controversy, apparently, swirls about her. She has long been described as having been ruthless and incompetent. Chang, using newly available historical documents, says Cixi's reputation was smeared because she was a woman.

It may be difficult to figure what Cixi did, since she had to rule through child emperors and even from behind a silk screen, to be invisible to men.

But if other historians vilified her more than was fair, Chang loves Cixi perhaps too much. She often appears to be making excuses for reprehensible behavior. She claims Cixi was humane, giving the example that, once, when she executed someone, she ordered, not “death by a thousand cuts,” which she did use on others, but by commanding the man to hang himself (by sending him a length of white silk, a message he obeyed). She also argues that while Cixi did have a eunuch throw a teenaged concubine down a well, she felt “contrite” about it afterwards. (OK, then?) At the end, Chang says Cixi's political killings "were no more than a few dozen."

BTW, eunuchs? Wow. And one father sends his daughter an empty food box, a message to starve herself, which she does.

Chang does convincingly quote many contemporaries, both European and Chinese, who were impressed by Cixi's leadership. They were also charmed by her sense of humor and thoughtfulness.

Maybe Cixi was both good and bad, both charming and ruthless. Which is fascinating, like when you meet someone with beautiful taste who’s nasty or learn the artist whose works touched you is actually a jerk.

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