Was Cixi a moderniser or arch-conservative femme fatale who presided over China's collapse? This question was raised by best-selling author Jung Chang in a speech this week based on her new book Empress Dowager Cixi: The Concubine who Launched Modern China. The answer is neither.
Having already decided against Cixi, I had little interest in the topic until author Angelo Paratico trashed Chang's book in a Post op-ed this week. As it is, I think they are both wrong. Cixi is best understood as alternating between being a piecemeal reformer and arch-conservative throughout her career, which spanned five decades, depending on political circumstances. Whenever she introduced reform, it was too little too late, or just wrong-headed, such as when, in 1905, she abolished the centuries-old civil service examinations and undercut whatever support was left for her from the wealthy elite.
To see the extent of her failure, you need only compare Cixi with the Japanese Emperor Meiji, whose reign roughly coincided with hers but was one which propelled a nation's rise rather than setting it on the path to collapse. When she played the reformer, she in fact shared many of Meiji's ideas, just as her right-hand man Li Hongzhang was a mirror image of Ito Hirobumi, the architect of the Meiji Restoration: learning from Western industrialisation, science and technology while preserving the superior Chinese culture.
So Chang was right, but in a highly misleading way. Under Cixi, she observed, China achieved all the attributes of a modern state: industries, railways, electricity, the telegraph and an army and navy with up-to-date weaponry. That was because she allowed reformist officials like Li and Zeng Guofan to proceed with those advances. How powerful was this reform? During the Sino-Japanese war of 1894, half of Li's new Chinese fleet was sunk in just one day.
It's rare to find something the Communists and the Kuomintang agreed on; for both, Cixi was an unmitigated villain. My friend Angelo seems to share this view too. But I agree with Chang that Cixi has been misunderstood. To judge her fairly, you have to consider what she aimed to achieve. And judging by her own goals, you have to conclude Cixi was a dismal and complete failure.