December 2013 - January 2014

Arts & Letters

Jung Chang’s ‘Empress Dowager Cixi’

By Linda Jaivin
Jonathan Cape; $32.95

Although Empress Dowager Cixi agreed to sit for a portrait by the American artist Katharine Carl in 1903, she forbade Carl to use Western techniques of perspective for the face. In the detailed, even sumptuous painting, Cixi’s features appear flat, shadowless, idealised. They only hint at the formidable and complex character of the woman who dominated Chinese politics from the second half of the 19th century until her death in 1908.

Regent to two young emperors, first her son and later her nephew, Cixi could be cold-blooded, petty and ruthless towards those she perceived as political enemies, yet appear warm, generous and charming to others. When in 1898, her nephew, the Guangxu Emperor, instituted a far-reaching reform program, she ordered his advisers executed and put him under house arrest for the rest of his life. Yet later she endorsed many of the same reforms herself.

Jung Chang’s Empress Dowager Cixi is as much campaign as biography. In order to install her subject as a proto-feminist, forward-thinking, even pro-Western icon, Chang cherrypicks historical sources to fit her thesis (in the process drawing on some of dubious accuracy, such as the albeit entertaining memoirs of the soi-disant “Princess” Der Ling), and smears and belittles Cixi’s enemies (including intellectual figures who, right or wrong about Cixi, deserve to be taken seriously) while sanctifying those in favour. Weirdly, there are even several minor errors on the first page. An example: Cixi’s Manchu ancestors didn’t “smash across the Great Wall”; they were invited in to help quell a rebellion. Chang freely ascribes motivation to historical personages, yet I don’t recall seeing one of Cixi’s most insightful attributed quotations: “I can make people hate me worse than poison, and can also make them love me. I have that power.”

In Mao (2005), Chang and co-author Jon Halliday set out to demolish their subject, disregarding evidence that would complicate their picture of a murderous tyrant. In this book, Chang’s ends are different, her means similar. In her effort to make us love Cixi, Chang even lends a noble justification to the dying Cixi’s decision to have her nephew murdered; later, Chang breezily notes that Cixi had killed “no more than a few dozen” people for political reasons.

Chang rightly observes that the past century has on the whole “been most unfair” to Cixi, not so rightly implying that her book is a pioneering, even lone corrective. The truth is that recent decades have seen historians undertake a lively, broad, intellectually probing and sophisticated re-examination of Cixi’s rule and personality, and in China itself this has also been diversely reflected in popular culture. Chang does confect a sumptuous portrait. Her tendency to paint out the shadows on its subject’s face, however, leaves the work as lacking in perspective as the polemics she decries.

Linda Jaivin

Linda Jaivin is an author and translator of Chinese. Her books include Eat Me, The Infernal Optimist and A Most Immoral Woman. Her most recent works are the novel The Empress Lover and the Quarterly Essay ‘Found in Translation’.

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