Empress Dowager Cixi: The Concubine Who Launched Modern China

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9780307271600: Empress Dowager Cixi: The Concubine Who Launched Modern China

A New York Times Notable Book

Empress Dowager Cixi (1835–1908) is the most important woman in Chinese history. She ruled China for decades and brought a medieval empire into the modern age.
At the age of sixteen, in a nationwide selection for royal consorts, Cixi was chosen as one of the emperor’s numerous concubines. When he died in 1861, their five-year-old son succeeded to the throne. Cixi at once launched a palace coup against the regents appointed by her husband and made herself the real ruler of China—behind the throne, literally, with a silk screen separating her from her officials who were all male.

In this groundbreaking biography, Jung Chang vividly describes how Cixi fought against monumental obstacles to change China. Under her the ancient country attained virtually all the attributes of a modern state: industries, railways, electricity, the telegraph and an army and navy with up-to-date weaponry. It was she who abolished gruesome punishments like “death by a thousand cuts” and put an end to foot-binding. She inaugurated women’s liberation and embarked on the path to introduce parliamentary elections to China. Chang comprehensively overturns the conventional view of Cixi as a diehard conservative and cruel despot.

Cixi reigned during extraordinary times and had to deal with a host of major national crises: the Taiping and Boxer rebellions, wars with France and Japan—and an invasion by eight allied powers including Britain, Germany, Russia and the United States. Jung Chang not only records the Empress Dowager’s conduct of domestic and foreign affairs, but also takes the reader into the depths of her splendid Summer Palace and the harem of Beijing’s Forbidden City, where she lived surrounded by eunuchs—one of whom she fell in love, with tragic consequences. The world Chang describes here, in fascinating detail, seems almost unbelievable in its extraordinary mixture of the very old and the very new.

Based on newly available, mostly Chinese, historical documents such as court records, official and private correspondence, diaries and eyewitness accounts, this biography will revolutionize historical thinking about a crucial period in China’s—and the world’s—history. Packed with drama, fast paced and gripping, it is both a panoramic depiction of the birth of modern China and an intimate portrait of a woman: as the concubine to a monarch, as the absolute ruler of a third of the world’s population, and as a unique stateswoman.

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About the Author:

Jung Chang is the best-selling author of Wild Swans, which The Asian Wall Street Journal called the most widely read book about China, and Mao: The Unknown Story (with Jon Halliday), which was described by Time as “an atom bomb of a book.” Her books have been translated into more than forty languages and sold more than fifteen million copies outside mainland China, where they are both banned. She was born in China in 1952 and moved to Britain in 1978. She lives in London.

Excerpt. © Reprinted by permission. All rights reserved.:

Chapter One, Concubine to an Emperor (1835–56)
 
In spring 1852, in one of the periodic nationwide selections for imperial consorts, a sixteen-year-old girl caught the eye of the emperor and was chosen as a concubine. A Chinese emperor was entitled to one empress and as many concubines as he pleased. In the court registry she was entered simply as ‘the woman of the Nala family’, with no name of her own. Female names were deemed too insignificant to be recorded. In fewer than ten years, however, this girl, whose name may have been lost for ever,* had fought her way to become the ruler of China, and for decades – until her death in 1908 – would hold in her hands the fate of nearly one- third of the world’s population. She was the Empress Dowager Cixi (also spelt Tzu Hsi). This was her honorific name and means ‘kindly and joyous’.
 
She came from one of the oldest and most illustrious Manchu families. The Manchus were a people who originally lived in Manchuria, beyond the Great Wall to the northeast. In 1644, the Ming dynasty in China was overthrown by a peasant rebellion, and the last Ming emperor hanged himself from a tree in the back garden of his palace. The Manchus seized the opportunity to smash across the Great Wall. They defeated the peasant rebels, occupied the whole of China and set up a new dynasty called the Great Qing – ‘Great Purity’. Taking over the Ming capital, Beijing, as their own, the victorious Manchus went on to build an empire three times the size of the Ming empire, at its peak occupying a territory of 13 million square kilometres – compared to 9.6 million today.
 
The Manchu conquerors, outnumbered by the indigenous Chinese, the Han, by approximately 100:1, imposed their domination initially by brutal means. They forced the Han males to wear the Manchu men’s hairstyle as the most visible badge of submission. The Han men traditionally grew their hair long and put it up in a bun, but the Manchu men shaved off an outer ring of hairs, leaving the centre part to grow and plaiting it into a trailing queue. Anyone who refused to wear the queue was summarily beheaded. In the capital, the conquerors pushed the Han out of the Inner City, to the Outer City, and separated the two ethnic groups by walls and gates.* The repression lessened over the years, and the Han generally came to live a life no worse than that of the Manchus. The ethnic animosity diminished – even though top jobs remained in the hands of the Manchus. Intermarriage was prohibited, which in a family-oriented society meant there was little social intercourse between the two groups. And yet the Manchus adopted much of the Han culture and political system, and their empire’s administration, extending to all corners of the country like a colossal octopus, was overwhelmingly manned by Han officials, who were selected from the literati by the traditional Imperial Examinations that focused on Confucian classics. Indeed, Manchu emperors themselves were educated in the Confucian way, and some became greater Confucian scholars than the best of the Han. Thus the Manchus regarded themselves as Chinese, and referred to their empire as the ‘Chinese’ empire, or ‘China’, as well as the ‘Qing’.
 
The ruling family, the Aisin-Gioros, produced a succession of able and hard-working emperors, who were absolute monarchs and made all important decisions personally. There was not even a Prime Minister, but only an office of assistants, the Grand Council. The emperors would rise at the crack of dawn to read reports, hold meetings, receive officials and issue decrees. The reports from all over China were dealt with as soon as they arrived, and rarely was any business left undone for more than a few days. The seat of the throne was the Forbidden City. Perhaps the largest imperial palace complex in the world, this rectangular compound covered an area of 720,000 square metres, with a moat of proportional size. It was surrounded by a majestic wall some 10 metres high and nearly 9 metres thick at the base, with a magnificent gate set into each side, and a splendid watchtower above each corner. Almost all the buildings in the compound displayed glazed tiles in a shade of yellow reserved for the court. In sunshine, the sweeping roofs were a blaze of gold.
 
A district west of the Forbidden City formed a hub for the transportation of coal, bound for the capital. Brought from the mines west of Beijing, it was carried by caravans of camels and mules, wearing tinkling bells. It was said that some 5,000 camels came into Beijing every day. The caravans paused here, and the porters did their shopping from stores whose names were embroidered on colourful banners or gilded on lacquered plaques. The streets were unpaved, and the soft, powdery dust that lay on top in dry weather would turn into a river of mud after a downpour. There was a pervasive reek from a sewage system that was as antiquated as the city itself. Refuse was simply dumped on the side of the roads, left to the scavenging dogs and birds. After their meals, large numbers of vultures and carrion crows would flock into the Forbidden City, perching on its golden roofs and blackening them.
 
Away from the hubbub lay a network of quiet, narrow alleys known as hu-tong. This is where, on the tenth day of the tenth lunar month in 1835, the future Empress Dowager of China, Cixi, was born. The houses here were spacious, with neatly arranged courtyards, scrupulously tidy and clean, in sharp contrast to the dirty and chaotic streets. The main rooms had doors and windows open to the south to take in the sun, while the north was walled up to fend off the sandy storms that frequently swept the city. The roofs were covered with grey tiles. The colours of roof tiles were strictly stipulated: yellow for the royal palaces, green for the princes, and grey for all others.
 
Cixi’s family had been government employees for generations. Her father, Huizheng, worked as a secretary and then a section chief for the Ministry of Officials. The family was well-off; her childhood was carefree. As a Manchu, she was spared foot-binding, a Han practice that tortured their women for a millennium by crushing a baby girl’s feet and wrapping them tightly to restrict their growth. Most other customs, such as male–female segregation, the Manchus shared with the Han. As a girl of an educated family, Cixi learned to read and write a little Chinese, to draw, to play chess, to embroider and to make dresses – all deemed desirable accomplishments for a young lady. She was a quick and energetic learner and developed a wide range of interests. In the future, when it was the ceremonial duty of the empress dowager, on a certain auspicious day, to cut the pattern for a dress of her own – as a symbol of womanhood – she would perform the task with tremendous competence.
 
Her education did not include learning the Manchu language, which she neither spoke nor wrote. (When she became the ruler of China, she had to issue an order for reports written in Manchu to be translated into Chinese before she was shown them.) Having been immersed in Chinese culture for 200 years, most Manchus did not speak their own original tongue, even though it was the official language of the dynasty and various emperors had made efforts to preserve it. Cixi’s knowledge of written Chinese was rudimentary, and she may be considered ‘semi- literate’. This does not mean that she lacked intelligence. The Chinese language is extremely hard to learn. It is the only major linguistic system in the world that does not have an alphabet; and it is composed of numerous complicated characters – ideograms – which have to be memorised one by one and, moreover, are totally unrelated to sounds. At Cixi’s time, written texts were completely divorced from the spoken form, so one could not simply write down what one spoke or thought. To qualify as ‘educated’, therefore, learners had to spend about a decade in their formative years imbibing Confucian classics, which were severely limited in range and stimulation. Fewer than 1 per cent of the population were able to read or write the bare minimum.
 
Cixi’s lack of formal education was more than made up for by her intuitive intelligence, which she liked to use from her earliest years. In 1843, when she was seven, the empire had just finished its first war with the West, the Opium War, which had been started by Britain in reaction to Beijing clamping down on the illegal opium trade conducted by British merchants. China was defeated and had to pay a hefty indemnity. Desperate for funds, Emperor Daoguang (father of Cixi’s future husband) held back the traditional presents for his sons’ brides – gold necklaces with corals and pearls – and vetoed elaborate banquets for their weddings. New Year and birthday celebrations were scaled down, even cancelled, and minor royal concubines had to subsidise their reduced allowances by selling their embroidery on the market through eunuchs. The emperor himself even went on surprise raids of his concubines’ wardrobes, to check whether they were hiding extravagant clothes against his orders. As part of a determined drive to stamp out theft by officials, an investigation was conducted of the state coffer, which revealed that more than nine million taels of silver had gone missing. Furious, the emperor ordered all the senior keepers and inspectors of the silver reserve for the previous forty-four years to pay fines to make up the loss – whether or not they were guilty. Cixi’s great-grandfather had served as one of the keepers and his share of the fine amounted to 43,200 taels – a colossal sum, next to which his official salary had been a pittance. As he had died a long time ago, his son, Cixi’s grandfather, was obliged to pay half the sum, even though he worked in the Ministry of Punishments and had nothing to do with the state coffer. After three years of futile struggle to raise money, he only managed to hand over 1,800 taels, and an edict signed by the emperor confined him to prison, only to be released if and when his son, Cixi’s father, delivered the balance.
 
The life of the family was turned upside down. Cixi, then eleven years old, had to take in sewing jobs to earn extra money – which she would remember all her life and would later talk about to her ladies-in-waiting in the court. As she was the eldest of two daughters and three sons, her father discussed the matter with her, and she rose to the occasion. Her ideas were carefully considered and practical: what possessions to sell, what valuables to pawn, whom to turn to for loans and how to approach them. Finally, the family raised 60 per cent of the sum, enough to get her grandfather out of prison. The young Cixi’s contribution to solving the crisis became a family legend, and her father paid her the ultimate compliment: ‘This daughter of mine is really more like a son!’
 
Treated like a son, Cixi was able to talk to her father about things that were normally closed areas for women. Inevitably their conversations touched on official business and state affairs, which helped form Cixi’s lifelong interest. Being consulted and having her views acted on, she acquired self-confidence and never accepted the common assumption that women’s brains were inferior to men’s. The crisis also helped shape her future method of rule. Having tasted the bitter- ness of arbitrary punishment, she would make an effort to be fair to her officials.
 
As he had raised a sizeable sum of money to pay the fine, Cixi’s father, Huizheng, was rewarded in 1849 with an appointment from the emperor to be the governor of a large Mongolian region. That summer he travelled there with his family, setting up home in Hohhot, today’s provincial capital of Inner Mongolia. For the first time Cixi journeyed out of crowded Beijing, beyond the decaying Great Wall and along a stony route that led to the Mongolian steppes, where uninterrupted open grassland extended to a very distant horizon. Throughout her life Cixi would feel passionate about fresh air and unrestricted space.
 
In his new job as governor, Cixi’s father was responsible for collecting taxes and, in line with prevailing and age-old practice, he fleeced the local population to make up for the family losses. That he should do so was taken for granted. Officials, who were paid low salaries, were expected to subsidise their income with whatever extras they could make – ‘within reason’ – from the population at large. Cixi grew up with corruption of this kind as a way of life.
 
In February 1850, months after the family settled in Mongolia, Emperor Daoguang died and was succeeded by his son, Emperor Xianfeng. The new emperor, then nineteen years old, had been born prematurely and had been in poor health since birth. He had a thin face and melancholy eyes, as well as a limp, the result of a fall from a horse in one of the hunting expeditions that were obligatory for the princes. As an emperor is referred to as a ‘dragon’, gossips in Beijing nicknamed him ‘the Limping Dragon’.
 
After his coronation, an empire-wide operation began to select consorts for him. (At this point, he had one consort, a concubine.) The candidates, teenage girls, had to be Manchu or Mongol; the Han were excluded. Their families had to be above a certain rank, and had been obliged by law to register them when they reached puberty.
 
Cixi was on the list and now, like other girls from all over China, she travelled to Beijing. She settled back into the family’s old house and waited for the occasion when all the candidates would parade in front of the emperor. After he had made his pick, some of the girls would be given to the princes and other royal males as consorts. Those who failed to be chosen were free to go home and marry someone else. The inspection in the Forbidden City was scheduled for March 1852.
 
The procedure for the inspection had been passed down over the generations. On the day before the fixed date, the candidates were taken to the palace in mule-drawn carts – ‘taxis’ of the day – which were hired by their families and paid for by the court. These carts were like a trunk on two wheels, and were hooded with woven bamboo or rattan that had been soaked in tung-oil to become rain- and snow-proof. Curtains of bright blue were draped over it, and felt and cotton mattresses and cushions were piled inside. This was a common conveyance even for the families of princes, in which case the inside would be lined with fur or satin, depending on the season, while the outside bore markers of its owner’s rank. On seeing such a vehicle passing by silently and disappearing into the gathering darkness, Somerset Maugham (later) mused:
 
you wonder who it is that sits cross-legged within. Perhaps it is a scholar . . . bound on a visit to a friend with whom he will exchange elaborate compliments and discuss the golden age of Tang and Sung which can return no more; perhaps it is a singing girl in splendid silks and richly embroidered coat, with jade in her black hair, summoned to a party so that she may sing a little song and exchange elegant repartee with young blades cultured enough to appreciate wit.
 
The cart that seemed to Maugham to be carrying ‘all the ...

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