Wed, Nov 06, 2013 - Page 12 News List

The concubine who launched modern China

The ‘Wild Swans’ author paints a sympathetic portrait of Empress Dowager Cixi as a modernizing reformer

By David Watkins  /  AFP, HONG KONG

Author Jung Chang pictured in Hong Kong late last month.

Photo: AFP

Jung Chang says she does not enjoy arguments, but the latest book from the writer whose works are banned in China is proving to be typically contentious.

The Wild Swans author has offered a revisionist account of Empress Dowager Cixi (慈禧太后), the concubine who ruled behind the scenes from 1861 until her death in 1908.

A powerful figure who unofficially controlled the Manchu Qing Dynasty for nearly 50 years, Cixi governed during a tumultuous period in which she faced internal rebellions, war and foreign invasions.

Cixi has since been portrayed as a cruel, hapless despot with an extravagant lifestyle, a conservative who suppressed reform in China for decades, who ordered the killing of reformists and put the emperor under house arrest for years until his death.

Having scoured Chinese-language archives in Beijing, Chang instead argues that Cixi was instead a reformer who laid the foundations for China to become the economic superpower of today.

“I’m not one of those who relish a fight. I don’t enjoy it,” the 61-year-old author told AFP in an interview.

“But I don’t want to write what everyone else is writing. I will only embark on a project if there is something new I can say. So I can’t reconcile these two things. If you open new ground you’re going to be attacked.”

Empress Dowager Cixi — The Concubine Who Launched Modern China presents a figure whose leadership enabled the country to begin to “acquire virtually all the attributes of a modern state: railways, electricity, telegraph, telephones, Western medicine, a modern-style army and navy, and modern ways of conducting foreign trade and diplomacy.

“The past hundred years have been most unfair to Cixi,” Chang writes.

The Sichuan-born, London-based author says Cixi — and not reformist leader Deng Xiaoping (鄧小平) who took power after the death of Mao Zedong (毛澤東) — should be credited with launching the China of today.

“He didn’t create a new model,” Chang said of Deng. “He was returning to the model that had been created by the Empress Dowager.”

The book has received positive reviews, but critics have also cautioned against the level of Chang’s praise for a woman largely demonized by history.

“Historical facts seem to have been used only when they were useful and tossed away when they contradict the main theme of her work; that the heretofore-vilified Cixi had been a brave and forward-thinking reformer,” read a comment piece published in the South China Morning Post recently.

“It may be fashionable today to create a feminist heroine out of thin air, even if in fact there was none. Cixi was not a reformer.”

Chang says she sought to provide the context for Cixi’s ruthlessness, which went as far as ordering the poisoning of her nephew and adopted son Emperor Guangxu (光緒), while on her own death bed.

“Japan tried to make him the puppet and dominate the whole of China. The inevitable conclusion for me is that she killed him in order to prevent this scenario.”

While Guangxu’s successor Pu Yi (溥儀) became Japan’s puppet-leader in Manchukuo, the state it established after invading Manchuria, Chang argues that the entire country would have eventually fallen to Japan had Cixi not ordered the death of Guangxu.

‘Unjust’ criticism

The author admits that she did “develop sympathy” for Cixi, and some critics have accused the book of bordering on hagiography.

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