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In defense of the Grand Empress Dowager

When one thinks of powerful and influential women in the second half of the 19th century, it would not be surprising for the list to come up rather short, as the circumstances most women around the world found themselves in prevented them from foraying into society beyond a limited set of roles. Over the past week, I asked some of my friends who they thought could potentially top out a list of the century’s most influential women. Beyond “I have no idea” and “Why are you asking me this?” the only name which consistently came about was that of Queen Victoria, who reigned over the United Kingdom and its vast global empire for over six decades. If she can manage to remain a household name well into the 21st century and have an era named after her, then she probably is without a doubt not only the most important woman from the 19th century but also one of the greatest figures to have lived back then, irrespective of gender. However, there is another, who in my opinion beats out Queen Victoria, consigned to obscurity in the West and maligned by most in the East. 

Cixi, Grand Empress Dowager of the Qing Dynasty, was born to a Manchu family in Beijing in 1835. When she was only 16 years old, she was selected to enter the Forbidden City as one of the Xianfeng Emperor’s many consorts. In an impressive stroke of luck, she was one of the chosen few among over 60 candidates sent in from all over the Empire! Although she had a low rank within the complex structure of the Emperor’s harem, she secured her position by giving birth to Zaichun, the Emperor’s first and only son. In addition, her ability to read and write Chinese proved advantageous to her, as she was able to assist the Emperor in exercising his duties, giving her a thorough education regarding the art of governing. When Western invaders during the Second Opium War invaded and razed through Beijing, burning down the cherished Old Summer Palace, the Imperial Court fled northwards to avoid the dangers brought about by the invaders. Upon the Emperor’s death a few months later, Cixi’s five-year-old son was enthroned as the Tongzhi Emperor, with Cixi and Empress Dowager Cian, the Emperor’s official wife, serving as co-regents. 

Although tradition dictated women were strictly forbidden from meddling in politics, Cixi skillfully used her wit and cleverness to assert herself as the power behind the throne. Since the new Emperor was only a child, whoever controlled the regency would wield true power in China until the Son of Heaven came of age. Sensing the danger of having highly reactionary elements serve as the new Emperor’s minister regents as encroaching Western powers sought to continue to interfere with China, Cixi engineered a coup against the board of regents whom the deceased Xianfeng Emperor had entrusted to run political affairs throughout his successor’s childhood. After clearing the board and securing her position as the official regent, Cixi effectively controlled China for over five decades until her passing in 1908. 

After the fall of the Qing dynasty, Nationalists and Communists alike derided Cixi’s memory, framing her as an inefficient and corrupt despot ultimately responsible for China’s decline throughout the nineteenth century. Traditional historians in China have always been prejudiced against powerful women within court affairs, and the fact her legacy has been mostly defined by those deeply opposed to Imperial rule in China and one-sided accounts fed by ignorant Western contemporaries prevents one from acquiring a clearer understanding of who Cixi truly was, and her contributions to launching modern China. 

Over the summer I had the opportunity to read two books on Cixi. The first, “Empress Dowager Cixi: The Concubine Who Launched Modern China,” by Jung Chang, is a 2013 biography that dives deeply into the inner workings of the Qing court of the time and does a lot to explain Cixi’s contributions to modernizing the almost medieval China of the time. Suppressing foot binding, cleaning up the bureaucracy, improving tax collection, crushing the Taiping rebellion and launching the Tongzhi restoration are just some of her deeds. Without Cixi’s position as regent, many historians agree Imperial China would have succumbed to the ash heap of history a lot earlier than 1912. Chang wrote this biography after going through court records, correspondence and diaries, which revealed a much more intimate picture of Cixi’s role in Chinese history. The second book, “With the Empress Dowager,” by Katharine Carl — an American artist invited to paint Cixi’s portrait and live within the Imperial Court in the early 1900s — does a lot to demystify Cixi’s enigmatic persona and bring down the perception of a power-crazed despot which still lingers to this day. 

As history is written by the victors, the modern understanding of Cixi has been distorted by relying on those who always had a deep contempt for her and the regime she symbolized. However, in defense of the Grand Empress Dowager, she presents the perfect example as to why contentious figures ought to be thoroughly analyzed and reviewed to have a more complete understanding of their role in history. Certainly, she was no saint worthy of canonization, but she certainly also was not the vicious “she dragon,” which decades of history built upon palace gossip, revolutionary vitriol and Western xenophobia made her up to be. 

To bring things back to the question of who the most important woman of the 19th century was, I close with a quote by Cixi herself: “Although I have heard much about Queen Victoria . . . still I don’t think her life is half as interesting and eventful as mine. Now look at me, I have 400 million people all dependent on my judgment.” That ought to settle any contest.

I invite you all to learn more about Cixi, whose storied life kept me wonderfully entertained throughout 75 nights while living out in Arkansas for the summer.

Pablo Lacayo is a senior at Notre Dame, majoring in Finance while minoring in Chinese. He enjoys discussing current affairs, giving out bowl plates at the dining hall, walking around the lakes, and karaoke. You can reach him at placayo@nd.edu

The views expressed in this column are those of the author and not necessarily those of The Observer.