Empress Was Not Evil. She Led Progress; BOOKS Author Jung Chang Is Familiar with the Struggles of Women in China. in Her New Book, She Tries to Restore the Reputation of One Who She Says Brought a Medieval Empire into the Modern Age. She Talks to Alison Jones

The Birmingham Post (England), October 10, 2013 | Go to article overview

Empress Was Not Evil. She Led Progress; BOOKS Author Jung Chang Is Familiar with the Struggles of Women in China. in Her New Book, She Tries to Restore the Reputation of One Who She Says Brought a Medieval Empire into the Modern Age. She Talks to Alison Jones


Byline: Alison Jones

IT was an extraordinary story. A woman in a profoundly man's world who found herself ruler over a great nation at times of unprecedented change and advancement, attempting to guide it into the next century.

It could be the story of Queen Victoria but in fact it was that of another empress, a sister across the sea, one who found herself in a position of great influence through a combination of guile and a fortunate birth.

In the case of the Empress Dowager Cixi it was not her birth but her son's, who was the first born heir of the Emperor Xianfeng.

However, it was to be the mother not the child who was to control Manchu Qing Dynasty in China for 47 years.

Her story is told in a sympathetic new biography by Jung Chang, the author of Wild Swans, who believes that Cixi's reputation has been much maligned over the years. That she has been perceived as a despot and reactionary both in China and the West, desperately clinging to the old ways.

However, Jung got an idea that she was not so enslaved to the past when she was researching the practice of foot binding for Wild Swans, the barbaric and deliberate malforming of girls' feet which her own grandmother had had to endure.

"I thought that somehow the communists were responsible for ending bound feet.

Then I was surprised to find the Empress Dowager was actually responsible."

Cixi was Manchu and this crushing of a child's feet so they could grow only a few inches was done by the Han, the indigenous Chinese, so she was spared it.

She was the daughter of a government employee who was selected as one of the Emperor Xianfeng's many concubines and a fairly lowly ranking one at that.

But she gave birth to his first son, one who was to survive into adulthood and become emperor himself.

Following the death of his father when the boy was just five, Cixi engineered it so that she became regent along with Empress Zhen, another concubine of Xianfeng but with the more political astute Cixi responsible for many of the decisions.

Unlike Queen Victoria, she could not be seen to be ruling. She and Empress Zhen had to remain concealed behind a screen, quite literally the power behind the child emperor's throne.

"In China Cixi is depicted as the villain. Her image is that of a die hard conservative and a cruel and deceitful woman," says Jung. "My research found that she was nothing like that.

"She pushed for political reform. She introduced the free press, she banned foot binding, she banned cruel medieval forms of punishment like death by a thousand cuts and she was trying to introduce a constitutional monarchy with an elected parliament. In other words she was ready to give the vote to the Chinese."

She died in 1908 and Jung says that a young Mao Zedong was able to enjoy unprecedented liberty as a young teenager because of her, something that he would not permit his own people as Chairman Mao.

"He had many opportunities. He could get scholarships, go to college, go abroad if he wanted to. He could write articles for a very free press on whatever subject he wanted. He could travel with his girlfriend and check into a hotel. …

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Empress Was Not Evil. She Led Progress; BOOKS Author Jung Chang Is Familiar with the Struggles of Women in China. in Her New Book, She Tries to Restore the Reputation of One Who She Says Brought a Medieval Empire into the Modern Age. She Talks to Alison Jones
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