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Another Look at the Empress Dowager Cixi, This Time as the Great Modernizer

2015-12-17 14:27:34Share:

  China sprint past India and practically every other developing country over the past three decades, but it has raised a difficult, politically charged question: Who laid the foundations for the prosperity that Deng Xiaoping nurtured from 1978 until his death in 1997?

 

  That has produced a search for who should be given the credit for China’s re-emergence as an economic juggernaut with growing military and political heft. Jung Chang, the author of one of the most scathing biographies of Mao, as well as the best-seller “Wild Swans,” has suggested an alternative in a new book: That it was Cixi, the empress dowager who for practical purposes was the ruler of China for most of the years from 1861 until her death in 1908.

 

  Using extensive access to Beijing archives on Cixi that have not been available to biographers outside China, Ms. Chang presents her subject as neither the cruel despot nor the easily manipulated ruler that the Communist Party and other critics have long portrayed. Her book, “Empress Dowager Cixi: The Concubine Who Launched Modern China,” presents Cixi as a powerful, strong-willed woman responsible for most of the modernizing programs undertaken during her rule, only to be thwarted on many occasions by men who were sometimes in the pay of foreign powers.

 

 

  Ms. Chang gives Cixi credit for building China’s first rail artery from Beijing to Wuhan, although she initially opposed it, as well as for strenuously resisting Japan and other foreign powers, protecting freedom of the press and even seeking in her last days to give millions of Chinese men the right to vote.

 

  Ms. Chang’s book is so favorable to Cixi that some historians are wary. In a speech and in answers to questions on Wednesday at the Foreign Correspondents’ Club in Hong Kong, Ms. Chang defended her work as fair while acknowledging that she “did develop sympathy for her.”

 

  “I documented every single one of Cixi’s killings, some of which have not even been put out by the official propaganda,” she said. “What I did was to provide the context and why Cixi did it.”

 

  Ms. Chang said that, “It is a biographer’s job to enter the head of your subject, I mean that is my job – I felt I entered Mao’s head and I felt I entered Cixi’s head.”

 

  John Delury, an assistant professor of Chinese studies at Yonsei University in Seoul who specializes in the Qing dynasty, said that he had looked forward to the book because Ms. Chang had so much access to source material in China.

 

  But Mr. Delury said that, with most of the chapters ending with strong praise of Cixi, he was concerned about whether the archival material had been objectively assessed. “As a reader, you don’t know what to trust, because everything is the best possible” interpretation of her actions, he said. “Really what we need is a post-revisionist biography that is very scholarly and very careful.”

 

  The New York Times published this week a generally positive review of Ms. Chang’s book by Orville Schell, the director of the Center on U.S.-China Relations at the Asia Society. Mr. Schell and Mr. Delury co-wrote a recent book, “Wealth and Power,” which included a chapter on the empress dowager with a guardedly favorable interpretation of her rule.

 

 

  Ms. Chang follows in the footsteps of other historians who have pointed out in recent years that Russia was one of the fastest-developing countries in Europe prior to the Bolshevik Revolution in 1917, and that Cuba was one of the most prosperous countries in Latin America with some of the best medical care in the region prior to Fidel Castro’s takeover in 1959.

 

  A few other authors have also begun offering somewhat favorable interpretations of Cixi, notably Sterling Seagrave in his 1992 book, “Dragon Lady: The Life and Legend of the Last Empress of China.” Chinese historians, too, have offered more sympathetic interpretations of Cixi and other Qing court figures who resisted more radical calls for change in the late 19th century. But Ms. Chang said on Wednesday that the Beijing archival material to which she unexpectedly gained access after the international success of her biography of Mao showed that Cixi had played an even more central role and been even more important to modernization than previously believed.

 

  Although Ms. Chang’s books are banned in mainland China, Ms. Chang said that the Chinese government has continued to let her travel to China each year to visit her elderly mother, but with restrictions.

 

  “I’ve made a commitment not tospeak at public gatherings, not to talk to the press and not even to see my friends – I just restrict my visits to my mother and very close, old friends who have nothing to do with politics,” as well as meeting a few Chinese scholars, she said. “I just hope that I can still go back to China and see my mother.”