Getting to the bottom of Cixi's story

Updated: 2011-05-06 11:14

By Chitralekha Basu (China Daily European Weekly)

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Two books about the Empress Dowager cast new light on the iconic ruler

Getting to the bottom of Cixi's story
Empress Dowager Cixi ruled China for nearly half a century. [Provided to China Daily] 

Few women have had as long and uninterrupted sway over Chinese politics and society as Empress Dowager Cixi (1835-1908). Her story is more fraught and high-octane than the finest Peking Opera, of which she was a connoisseur, and continues to inspire serious research.

Two new books have added to the ever-growing discourse on the "true story" of the Empress Dowager, whose first biography, by the American artist Katharine Carl, who was also her first portraitist, appeared in 1905.

Both books, in a sense, are an attempt to humanize this imperial ruler who is often seen as a conniving, power-hungry despot. Both try to make sense of the elaborate theater that was Cixi's life. For instance, why did Cixi encourage the Boxers to attack the foreign legations in 1900 and then go on to invite the diplomats' wives - whose lives she had endangered - over to lavish tea ceremonies?

The daughter of a disgraced civil servant, she entered the Forbidden City as a concubine of the lowest rank at 16 and went on to become the undisputed, if de facto, ruler of Asia's largest nation.

In both books, Cixi is treated with informed, if detached, empathy. Except the two books take radically different routes toward brushing the cobwebs off this much-maligned figure. The Empress and Mrs. Conger by Grant Hayter-Menzies (Hong Kong University Press) explores the unusual and sustained friendship between Cixi and Sarah Conger, the wife of American diplomat Edwin Conger, who shared with the empress a love of China's people, art and society and wanted to build bridges across the two cultures.

Decadence Mandchoue by Edmund Backhouse was commissioned and written in 1943 but was not published in the author's lifetime as a large part of it contains tediously-detailed pornographic descriptions of the author's sexual encounters with the empress, besides his intimate free-wheeling conversations with other members of the imperial set-up, like Emperor Guangxu, grand secretary Junglu, the empress's principal eunuch Li Lianying.

Published for the first time by Earnshaw Books in April, with exhaustive annotations and an introduction by Derek Sandhaus, Decadence Mandchoue is a never-before seen, ringside view of Cixi's private and political life, unless, of course, it's a piece of fiction, involving historical figures, written by a man with raging hormones. Backhouse has a history of being the unreliable narrator. China Under the Empress Dowager (1914), which he co-authored with The Times' Shanghai correspondent J.O.P. Bland, was later found to have been largely based on a forged document, the Diary of His Excellency Ching-Shan.

Getting to the bottom of Cixi's story

"You can approach this book as complete truth, you can also abstract the idea of a man who loved China and why he did so," Derek Sandhaus, who dug up the manuscript of Decadence Mandchoue from the Bodleian Library at Oxford, says. "Whether he loved Cixi as a person or an embodiment of China is difficult to say."

Similarly, the communion between Cixi and Sarah Conger is difficult to slot. Their bond survived the damages suffered on either side during the Boxer Rebellion, also called the Boxer Uprising. More than 2,000 Boxers died, at least 200 missionaries were killed in Northwest China, the siege of the legation quarters in Beijing alone cost 250 lives. The Forbidden City became a free-for-all territory for rampant looting and arson. Conger was holed up with fellow foreigners inside the British legation for 55 days, surviving on horsemeat and old-fashioned, if self-deluding, faith that this too would pass.

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