Modern scholars kinder to Cixi

THOUGH both held the greatest power of an empire in the 19th and 20th centuries, two world leaders share contrasting historical views on their rule.

A portrait of Empress Dowager Cixi

THOUGH both held the greatest power of an empire in the 19th and 20th centuries, two world leaders share contrasting historical views on their rule.

Queen Victoria (1819-1901) is widely seen as a woman leading Great Britain to glory with power in industry, culture and politics, while Empress Dowager Cixi (1835-1908), who administered China from “behind the veil,” has been long labeled as a sinner who destroyed a nation and ruined its people. However, scholars today are looking at the former Chinese leader from a different angle.

Just like other women who commanded the highest power of the Chinese nation, Cixi, surnamed Yehenara, started her journey as a concubine of the emperor. After years of being a high-ranking concubine of Xianfeng Emperor (1831-61), she managed to become empress dowager when his son was crowned as Tongzhi Emperor (1856-75) in 1861, and kept her position in the reign of her nephew, Guangxu Emperor (1871-1908), until her death in 1908.

Though never officially crowned, the woman held the real power of a nation for 50 years. It was a difficult period, in which China had been faced with peasant revolts from the inside and powerful attacks from empires in the west.

Generally speaking, Cixi is still one of the very few Chinese women who gained power in a man’s world, and successfully defended her authority against the royal families, court officials and ordinary residents.

Cixi was once widely criticized for obstructing China’s revolution. She stopped the reform movement of 1898 led by Kang Youwei and Liang Qichao, house arrested the Guangxu Emperor and killed the scholars involved. But some scholars today believe the hasty and blind reform wouldn’t have succeeded, even without Cixi. After that, the empress dowager did permit quite some reforms, including abandoning the imperial examination system, banning on foot-binding in women, setting schools for women, and investing in modern education.

Empress Dowager Cixi also supported Li Hongzhang and Zhang Zhidong in the famous “Westernization Drive” from 1860s to 1890s, with an attempt to save China and boost its revival by learning from the west.

Though the 30-year Drive failed to actually save China, it still marked the start of modern industry in China. It sprouted a group of modern military factories like the Jiangnan Manufacturing Bureau in Shanghai, modern navy schools in the Weihai Navy School in Shandong Province, as well as civil industries like China Merchants Steamship Navigation Company in Shanghai.

The Beiyang Navy set in 1888, with 25 major naval vessels, 50 naval auxiliaries and 30 transports, was once the biggest achievement of the Drive. Yet unfortunately, its failure in the Sino-Japanese War in 1894-95 not only destroyed the Navy completely but also cracked the government’s confidence in the Drive.

Undeniably, a lot of Chinese territory was lost in her reign through a series of wars against the UK, France and Japan at the time. There were chances of gaining better outcomes for China if the administrator chose to keep fighting, especially in 1885 when the Chinese army had successfully defeated the French in Zhennan Pass in Guangxi Zhuang Autonomous Region.

It is presumed many of these decisions were out of Empress Dowager Cixi’s hands and she was valuing Qing Dynasty’s (1644-1911) ruling in China more than the nation’s territory.

Though she may have defeated the internal-disordered France if Cixi had kept on fighting, resources would have been exhausted and continuous wars might have also cracked the authority of Qing Dynasty.

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