In all of China’s history, only two women have ever conquered and held on to the heights of power. Both enjoyed long reigns, though only one was characterized by callous intrigue and an ever present struggle for power. Cixi maintained an iron grip at the center, while the rest of the country was torn apart by inner turmoil and foreign wars. Due to their personal characteristics and shortcomings, they both left a lasting imprint on Chinese history. However, Empress Dowager Cixi acquired the reputation of the “Dragon Empress” due to her reported cruel behavior, callousness and the fact that to maintain her position behind the curtain, she allegedly poisoned most of her family. Cixi received some of the worst press in history, but, finally, over a century after her death, her life and reputation are being re-examined.
Most of these impressions were due to Backhouse’s work on the Empress, and as he was a very respected Sinologist at the time, his work shaped the image of China in the West, and many historians based their works on China on Backhouse’s works. He worked for the Times of London and in collaboration with another correspondent, JOP Bland, wrote 2 bestselling books: China under the Empress Dowager, and Annals and Memoirs of the Court of Peking. Backhouse’s works, however, have come under increasing scrutiny recently, with many professional historians doubting the authenticity of the sources he used. He largely relied on Ching Shan’s diary when writing China under the Empress Dowager, a source which later turned out to be a fabrication.
Backhouse’s memoirs Decadence Mandchoue, written in 1943, were only published in 2011 and mainly in Hong Kong due to the explicit nature of the content. Before that, the document fell into the hands of the British historian Hugh Trevor-Rope, who chose to write his own biography of Backhouse: Hermit of Peking: The Hidden Life of Sir Edmund Backhouse, which cast Backhouse as a fraud. Trevor Rope called the Backhouse’s memoirs “worthless historic documents”, as well as snobbish and pornographic. Shanghai based historian Paul French calls it “…perhaps quite the maddest book on China ever written by a foreigner.”
Over a century after her death in 1908, mystery still shrouds the life and personality of the Empress. Earlier sources paint her as a tyrant whose enemies often mysteriously dropped dead. Others link her to sexual intrigue within the palace walls. Backhouse, for instance, claims he had an affair with her when he was 29 and she was 65. However, recent scholars have discredited many of these sensationalist claims and suggest a more complicated woman behind this caricature.
Cixi was born November 29, 1835 to a Manchurian Family. Once she turned 16 she was brought to the Forbidden City to join Emperor Xianfeng’s court—considered a privilege at the time. According to Daniele Vare’s book The Last Empress, she became the emperor’s favorite concubine after he heard her sing, and she soon bore him a son. This earned her the title Tzu Hsi, meaning “empress of the western palace,” known as Cixi today. When Xiangfeng died, aged 30 in 1861, her son was the only male heir, and he became Emperor Tonghzi, thus making her the empress dowager and a regent ruler. Cixi relinquished the regency when her son came of age, however he died about 2 years later, some speculated due to syphilis, but recent scientific evidence proves he was actually poisoned. While deciding who should replace Tongzhi, his wife and unborn child died as well. Cixi became regent again, this time for her three year old nephew Guangxu. This seemed far too convenient, and although the court announced Tongzhi’s wife’s death as suicide due to her continuous mental instability, The New York Times reported that the circumstances aroused “general suspicion“.
Some historians have pointed to these events as proof of Cixi’s political shrewdness and callous calculations to hold onto power. However, as Sterling Seagrave has points out, even if they were murdered, it doesn’t necessarily mean that Cixi ordered the hit. The late emperor had five brothers; all had their own rivalries and ambitions for the throne. In general, Seagraves book, Dragon Lady, paints the Empress in a much softer light and presents her as more of a victim of circumstance. She certainly was a bright, ambitious woman, but her life was anything but a fairy tale. She is quoted to have said this about her childhood: “I have had a very hard life ever since I was a young girl. I was not a bit happy when with my parents… My sisters had everything they wanted, while I was, to a great extent, ignored altogether.”
Seagrave adds: “One might wish for her sake that her life had been just such a burlesque filled with Florentine intrigues and Viennese frivolity, because the truth is melancholy…Under those layers of historical graffiti was a spirited and beautiful young woman trapped in a losing proposition:…A figurehead empress who lost three emperors to conspiracy; a frightened matriarch whose reputation was destroyed as she presided over the decline of a bankrupt dynasty”. Many still hold her responsible for the fall of the Qing Dynasty and blame her for holding lavish events and banquets instead of spending the money on the military and navy, where it was needed. However, the problems facing the Qing Dynasty at the time did not originate with Cixi, and, as Paul S. Ropp pointed out, no emperor in the 19th Century was very capable. In any case, the problems facing the dynasty were so vast and complex that even a capable and engaged emperor would have had great difficulty in meeting the twin challenge of internal turmoil and external aggression. Cixi rebuilt the Summer Palace with funds that were meant for the navy, and this is often presented as proof of her selfish behavior, while foreign powers kept increasing their hold over China. In retrospect, it seems that Cixi was more a symptom of the weaknesses of the Qing Dynasty than the cause of it. The court was torn between conservative and reformist individuals, and she maintained her power by alternating appeals to both groups, allowing neither to dominate for long.