Niccolò Machiavelli wrote, five centuries ago, that: ‘the tragedy of mankind is that we cannot find a man totally good or a man totally bad’ all depending on the point of view. This is what Jung Chang is trying to do in her latest book Empress Dowager Cixi. The concubine who launched modern China wanting to highlight her mettle, her fierce nationalism, while minimizing her capital mistakes. She wants to change our point of view.
Indeed Cixi had been vilified by Chinese Communists but she was much more hated by Nationalists, like Sun Yatsen, Kang Youwei, a monarchist – who saw his brother and several other martyrs beheaded on her orders – Yeung Kui-wan, murdered in Hong Kong 1901 by Cixi’s assassins, assaulted at the corner of Gage and Aberdeen Street.
Writer Jung Chan will be soon in Hong Kong where she will present her book at the FCC and at the Asia Society. She is a great writer and she has penned a very readable book, well structured and convincingly built, although when we put it under a critical magnifying lens all arguments seem to vanish in a cloud of colorful question marks. She was on BBC prime time and her book is already getting gloating reviews and praises on western media, presented as a great historical biography. After reading it, we beg to dissent: to us it seems more an apologia in the classical sense of the term than a work of history. We may even call it a long love letter that the author want to send up to her. Historical facts seem to have been used only when they came handy and were tossed away when they contradicted the main theme of her work, that is: the vilified Empress Dowager Cixi had been a brave and forward-thinking reformer, contrary to common perception.
After the publication of her previous book in 2005 – written with her husband Jon Halliday, Mao: the unknown story – Jung Chan took some heavy poundings, standing accused of lack of scholarship and of taking too many liberties with historical facts by some sinologists like Gregor Benton, Steve Tsang and Jonathan Spence. They criticized the way Mao was presented in her book – even if her cause may have been a worthy one – pointing out her bungling of too many details. As Jonathan Fenby wrote: ‘The central trust of the book is that Mao was a sadistic monster, worst than Stalin and Hitler and responsible for 70 million deaths. His Marxism was only a shallow mark for selfishness.’ Their point being rather than Mao had been also a monster. For instance that book did not explain, nor give reasonable hypothesis, on why Mao had been able to cling to absolute power for 26 years and create a strong image internationally. According to them she made the mistake of personalizing the blame, with her latest book on Cixi we see a personalization of the praise. Furthermore some of her claims were not well supported like that Generalissimo Chang Kai-Shek intentionally letting the Red Army escape on the Long March of 1934-35; or the episode of the heroic Luding Battle – central in Communist lore – that in the book had never happened. Their only source being a 93-old lady they met at the scene and the curator of a museum. Jung Chang repeated the story of this never happened battle just a few months ago in Hong Kong, sitting close to David Tang during one of Tang’s lecture series. Recent research into that episode, made by British historians, contradicts the book’s claims; indeed there was a bloody battle.
The first sentence under Author’s Note that meets the readers’ eye is not the best way to start: ‘The ‘tael’ was the currency of China at the time.’Actually the tael was only a measurement of weight, a word derived from Malay and Portuguese. The following pages did not improve the first negative impact. In her book some grave facts seem too easily dismissed, such as the staging of a coup d’état. Illegal, treasonable and contrary to dynastic rules, then Cixi was able to cling to power because she corrupted and threaten with death all her adversaries, inside and outside the palace. When the Guangxu Emperor – her nephew – acted independently, aided by some forward-thinking reformists, she had them arrested and executed. The justification given in the book for her behavior was that they were planning to kill her. But, by the standard of the time, since she was a traitor and a grave threat to the State, death would have been a great act of justice. On the chapter dedicated to the Boxer uprising we read justifications of the paramount idiocy of Cixi when she sided with the Boxers, declaring war on the 8 Nations who had invaded China. Some of her advisers, seeing the uselessness of such an act, tried to oppose her but lost their heads in the process. Even elder statesman Li Hongzhang from Canton petitioned her to desist, writing that it was like ‘throwing a stone to a mouse moving among precious vases of porcelain’ but an headstrong Cixi tough otherwise.
Let me quote just one passage – but there are many in her book – just to show the extent, bordering the grotesque, of Jung Chang’s justification of the heinous crimes committed by her heroine:
But before all else , the day after she returned from exile Cixi honoured Imperial Concubine Pearl, whom she had drowned in a well just before she fled. This was an act of contrition. It was also an attempt to make amends to her adopted son, who had given her his cooperation over several years, especially during the exile. Above all, perhaps, Cixi was making a gesture to the western powers, who had been appalled by the murder.
When she had fled the Imperial City in July 1900, during the boxer rebellion, the Pearl Concubine of Emperor Guangxu wanted to defy her order of staying back, while she was leaving. Cixi gave orders to the eunuchs to grab her and throw her head down in a well. Her body was then left there to rot. This is a story that some thought not true, being told by Sir Edmund Backhouse in one of his book but not only Jung Chang admits it is true but she also wants the readers to let her get away with murder, quite literally!
In the novel il Gattopardo written by Giuseppe Tomasi di Lampedusa and set more or less in the same period but in far away Sicily, we read of a Prince of Salina who was faced with Cixi’s same dilemma: oppose or adapt to the changing times. Giuseppe Garibaldi had just landed, leading a wave of new people wanting to assert their power. The advice the old Prince received from his brilliant and young nephew was this: ‘If we want everything to remain the same, everything must change.’ Cixi did not heed her young nephew’s advice and ruin ensued. China is still paying an heavy price for the mistakes made by her and her conservative followers even if it may sound fashionable today to create a feminist heroine were there was in fact none. She was not a reformer and she could not have been one, either by instinct or by education. Her hold on power was illegal and therefore shaky, she was left with no choice but to keep as her ministers only rabid defenders of the status quo unable to offer dissenting voices to her suicidal policies.
A shorter take on the same subject is here: