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  • Apr 17, 2014
  • Updated: 4:54am
My Take
PUBLISHED : Saturday, 02 November, 2013, 1:02am
UPDATED : Saturday, 02 November, 2013, 1:02am

Empress Cixi didn't save China

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.



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China's modernization (and reform ideas) under the Cixi era was forced upon her by the foreign powers which were already carving up China with treaty ports and spearheaded by returnees who were sent by the government to study aboard (Japan included) focusing more on hardware and military training. Many were exposed to the "software" of ideology of politics and free thinking which scared the flight out of Cixi who later became more of an obstructionist resisting "modernization". It seems such struggle of the mind (of adhering to traditional Confucius values versus freeing of the mind) continues as of to date.
She is possessed by the spirit of Empress Cixi to hijack the Chinese Revolution.
Alex: Yes. Cixi failed miserably. But one has to realize that China and Japan were very different cases when it came to modernization. Japan was far smaller, and had not suffered a davastating 13-year long civil war as did the Qing. If the Meiji emperor had been in China and in her place, I am not sure he would have done far better.
Sterling Seagrave's "Dragon Lady" is a must read for all those interested in China's modern and Qing history. Cixi is not as evil and depraved as what both Communists and Nationalists seek to potray her in their self-serving propaganda. To be sure, she is a conservative and non-reformer that precided over the Qing's final decline that began from Qian Long. She scuttled reforms that the young and politically inexperienced Emperor Guangxu started, killed the reformers, jailed the Emperor, and possibly poisoning him before she died. She is no reformer or moderniser by any standard. Modernisation of China may have begun during her long co-reign but it's not her effort. Rather a need to modernise China's military and economy by senior court officials, who also benefited handsomely from these reforms and virtual monopolies they created. Modernisation of China occurred during her reign because it was forced upon her by foreign powers militarily, as well as economically. These foreign powers had set up tradiing and manufacturing centres in Treaty Ports all over China from 1860. Arguably, China and the Chinese people were compelled to modernise, kicking and screaming all the way. Superstitious officials and citizens even refused to ride bicycles or build railways. By the time she was willing to modrnise, it was decades too late and too little
Just to throw out one example among many, the first seismoscope was invented in the 2nd century, China has always been "modern" by any standards. Succeeding Kangxi, Qianlong's reign was marked by self-sufficiency and prosperity with high levels of development in culture and the arts. I do not believe Empress Cixi's legacy can be pigeonholed and taken out of the context of China's thousands year long existence, this is something she was probably well aware of during her reign and made her decisions accordingly. The often convoluted narrative of Europeans about the Qing dynasty at the time reflected their narrow interests, old perceptions die hard even in the face of facts and realities. Military actions are the least effective when it comes to solving economic problems. The West had had structural economic issues, I doubt the Qing court did not understand this. Bottom line: Europe was insolvent and decided to terrorize the planet. It had nothing to do with China's reforms or so called modernization.
What is modern China? From eyes outside China or inside China?
I agree "Empress Cixi didn't save China", in fact, she made China a better and a more beautiful place. I am not saying the development of "industries, railways, electricity, the telegraph and an army and navy with up-to-date weaponry" is undesirable, it's just that ingenious architecture such as the Grand Theatre at the Summer Palace or the like is more likely to rank much higher on the human development scale, its store of value is immense, something even the cleverest twists of glass and steel can hardly match. You would be surprised to know how the Empress' personal art collection is sought-after and how rare it is to find talents that can match her stature and her level of knowledge and refinement. To easily settle for downmarket metal scraps is a sign of poor taste and a lack of vision.
By the way, the Titanic sank.
Are you kidding? Building an exquisite art collection and constructing the Summer Palace with funds intended for modernizing the Chinese army, are creditable results of her reign, at a time of foreign invasion, abject poverty of the people etc? But of course, as a westerner, you must be delighted that China was not more powerful when they invaded and plundered. Sure the art objects are 'sought after'. We see them at least in the British Museum.
And by the way, the Summer Palace has an object of ridicule, a stone boat in the lake which is structured to go backwards!
@mercedes2233. You don't process information very well. Would you rather go down in history as a patron and producer of value, or an usurper from a land that was so barren and with a mind so dull that all you could think of was to rob others? The museum business was a way to legalize stolen goods and legitimize theft. The world had been lied to and brainwashed.
At the time of turmoil, the Qing court decided to keep building. The artists, designers, architects, craftsmen and materials were paid in silver. Their logic was sound. If, as you carelessly claimed, the Qing was weak and poverty-stricken, where was the need of having eight pathetic nations to conspire against her? But to the contrary is the fact, the Qing was affluent and powerful. The first automobile was commissioned by Qianlong. Some of the world's best artists and writers were nurtured during his reign.
The Summer Palace won't become less beautiful or valuable just because some ignorant fools like you say otherwise.
If you haven’t already I’ll invite you to read Robert Hughes’s Things I Didn’t Know. The New Yorker wrote, “Hughes deftly intertwines personal and cultural history in this fiercely culture memoir….A fascinating examination of artistic patrimony and the formation of a critic.”



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