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Reasons for Empress Dowager Cixi's current image


bhchao

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This might seem like a dumb question. But was Empress Dowager Tzu Hsi really the person that her image in the West supposedly portrays? Or she is viewed in a equally negative light in China?

Her image has been being a decadent ruler who indulged in luxury, palace pleasures, and sex intrigues. It's a fact that she blocked the efforts of Kang and his reformers in initiating reform. But was refusing to initiate change her only crime, and was she really the morally decadent ruler as portrayed in the history records?

It's probably true that she used funds set aside for modernizing China's navy to build her palace boat.

Something that needs to be kept in mind is Confucian officials historically regulated the content of dynastic historical archives, and traditionally have been biased against women in power. Wu Zetian could be another example. She supposedly murdered her own daughter and blamed it on the empress. But there is no concrete evidence to back that up.

Another possiblity is that Tzu Hsi's image may have been handed down by late 19th century or turn-of-the-20th Century historians in Western countries to justify the encroachments made in China at the time. Court officials sympathetic to the reformers may have also exaggerated her "minuses".

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Huh! I'm glad you brought that up. A book I read called "Dragon Lady" by Sterling Seagrave definitely made that argument and I've been thinking a lot about it. It said that the Empress wasn't even able to read (she filled in calligraphy written by others)so she wasn't even capable of personally causing all the trouble she's blamed for. It really painted her as the fall guy of the Qing Dynasty, which I thought was kindof sad. Western Scholars would say that it's pretty typical to portray a woman ruler as depraved for a lot of political and social reasons (check out Catherine the Great or Mary Queen of Scotts)... and everybody benefitted from blaming Cixi really: the feuding princes, the officials that pilfered, the foreign powers that were basically invading the country. It always seemed to me that she couldn't have been as bad as she seemed... and that a lot of others' historical images benefitted from her being the "bad guy."

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The romanisation "Tsu Hsi" is confusing

Yes, I agree :wink: Thanks for pointing it out. Actually I realized my error and edited my post to change the title of the thread to Cixi, but was busy that I logged off and forgot to change the rest of the post to Cixi.

But now you quoted it, I have to leave it in the post. :mrgreen:

A book I read called "Dragon Lady" by Sterling Seagrave definitely made that argument and I've been thinking a lot about it. It said that the Empress wasn't even able to read (she filled in calligraphy written by others)so she wasn't even capable of personally causing all the trouble she's blamed for. It really painted her as the fall guy of the Qing Dynasty, which I thought was kindof sad. Western Scholars would say that it's pretty typical to portray a woman ruler as depraved for a lot of political and social reasons (check out Catherine the Great or Mary Queen of Scotts)... and everybody benefitted from blaming Cixi really: the feuding princes, the officials that pilfered, the foreign powers that were basically invading the country. It always seemed to me that she couldn't have been as bad as she seemed... and that a lot of others' historical images benefitted from her being the "bad guy

Cixi happened to rule at a time when the Qing Dynasty was already long in decline. The Qianlong reign was actually when the seeds of decline were planted, and continued to accelerate up to Cixi's reign. If we were to put someone responsible as being the fall guy of the Qing, why not the emperor who ruled during the time of the Opium War or Qianlong himself, who failed to see the dangers ahead?

It seems like she just happened to be a woman in power at the wrong time, and acted no differently from her predecessors.

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you're actually suggesting a so-called macro history view. No one can really change what's going to happen, and even if someone makes a really big mistake, it's not the sole reason for the consequences. So, if you think Cixi was only a woman at the bad time, why do we care about the criticism on Qianlong or Yongzheng?

I'd say that moral judgement is the worst invention in history education. When historians achieved a consensus on the list of "bad guys/ good guys", then it'll be deadly difficult for us to analyze the alternative views. Today, it's really a national sport for Chinese historians to reverse the comments on some well-known historical figures, like Cixi, Qin Emperor, all these do give us more insights on what they're doing, but it's really a bad move trying to suggest that these guys are "good guys". It's just another moral judgements.

For Cixi's life, I think it's more important to see how much she contributed to what happened to China, whether it's good or bad.

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but it's really a bad move trying to suggest that these guys are "good guys". It's just another moral judgements.

For Cixi's life, I think it's more important to see how much she contributed to what happened to China, whether it's good or bad.

Cixi no doubt aggravated China's situation during the late 19th century. There is no dispute that she was a bad ruler who inhibited progress during that period.

However objectively speaking, she was not totally against change. She was merely against the speed of change or "radical" change she saw in Kang Youwei and Liang Qichao's reforms.

A ruler being a woman does not excuse her from being held accountable for wrongdoings. My point was that some negative aspects of a ruler tend to be exaggerated based on traditional bias towards a "group" which the ruler belongs in.

For example, the official Confucian view towards Wu Zetian says that she was a ruthless woman who murdered opponents to maintain her grip on power, killed her own daughter and blamed it on the empress, and was a sex addict who flirted with male courtiers. There is some truth to that (with the possible exception of killing her daughter), and that was one of the dark aspects of her reign. This view though overlooks the positives of her reign. During her reign, she promoted commoners to high government positions based on their proficiency in the civil service exams, maintained Tang Taizong's assertive foreign policy, and reduced taxes on the peasantry.

I read a book recently that mentions how the wives of foreign missionaries in China during the late 19th century personally met the Empress Dowager, and the feedback on her was far different from the negative qualities reported in the news media overseas. Of course this doesn't mean she was a "good" ruler, but it does shed some light on how certain aspects of a person can be exaggerated to suit a certain bias.

Anyways I do think that the internal strife and backwardness in China during the early ROC years has its roots in Cixi's inaction to implement much needed reforms.

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However objectively speaking, she was not totally against change. She was merely against the speed of change or "radical" change she saw in Kang Youwei and Liang Qichao's reforms.

I always wonder if i were her, what i would do to save the muddled dragon at that time. At that time, China was really worst at every possible ways. Alongsides all colony powers, there was a Taiping Rebellion and a growing revolution force. And inside bureaucracy, the conservative officals was a dead block to radical reforms but they were the only hardcore supporters of the sick dynasty. And the rise of Han Chinese army would damage must be worrying to Manchuese too.

Then how would you deal with it? To introduce a shock therapy?

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I always wonder if i were her, what i would do to save the muddled dragon at that time. At that time, China was really worst at every possible ways.

It was already too late to save the dragon by the time of Cixi's reign. These changes should have begun during the twilight years of Qianlong's reign. Unfortunately Qianlong had a Sino-centric attitude in his perceptions of the outside world. He regarded Western science and technology as inferior inventions created by the "barbarians". This closed-door approach to foreign policy and global commerce contrasted sharply with Kangxi's approach.

A lesson to be learned from this late-Qing period is that pride can be an inhibition to progress. Wasn't pride the most deadly of the seven deadly sins according to the Catholic Church? It's an issue today that's afflicting the current administration in Taiwan with regards to its approach in cross-Strait communications.

A pragmatic approach during late-Qing probably would be to merge Western science, medicine, technology, and structural forms of government with traditional Chinese values such as Confucian ethics.

Some late 20th century historians call Kang Youwei an opportunist whose "radical" reforms were too sudden of a change for China, a society that was deeply entrenched in neo-Confucianism on the political level. I think his intentions were good, but it came too late in history to save the muddled dragon. Also a more realistic approach would be to implement incremental changes gradually despite the desperate situation, and play the foreign powers off against each other to buy yourself time.

Both Cixi and Kang Youwei were right, and both were wrong. If I was Cixi, I would have completely stepped down much earlier on in favor of a "middle of the road", reformist government.

Considering this history (despite my ideological opponent in the CCP), I'm glad that the CCP is adopting a pragmatic line in making China much stronger than it was during the late 19th century by not repeating the mistakes of its Qing predecessors.

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  • 1 month later...
studentyoung
This might seem like a dumb question. But was Empress Dowager Tzu Hsi really the person that her image in the West supposedly portrays? Or she is viewed in a equally negative light in China?

Hmm, have you heard of this book named 《宫女谈往录》, written by an unknown but conscientious intellectual called 金易according to his records of chatting with a Maid of Honor, who was one of Empress Dowager Tzu His’s close maids?

http://book.sina.com.cn/nzt/his/gongnvtanwang/

《宫女谈往录》(Chinese version)

Thanks!

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Seagrave's book is very well written, although it's interesting because it is more a history of her time than of the Empress Dowager herself. For what documents are left through which we could actually know her?

I think the best point Seagrave makes is that Robert Hart, who was probably the only westerner who would really know, considered her quite nice personally. And she apparently had tea with the wives of some foreign diplomats at some point, some of whom wrote about it.

I think the really amazing thing about Cixi is how much damage Edmund Backhouse managed to do to her reputation.

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  • 1 year later...
[Or is she (Ci Xi) viewed in a equally negative light in China?/QUOTE]

Having lived in China for over 20 years I have not once met a Chinese who knows anything about Ci Xi (or cares, anyway).

With regard to Ci Xi, there are many views about her. Seagrave has good and readable stuff (but he is wildly inaccurate about Chinese eunuchs) and Marina Warner has some good stuff too (also wildly inacurate about eunuchs). However, these two are professional journalists and not professional historians. They have read and regurgitated the official records about her, and the amount of spin about her is tremendous. Careful thought will soon bring you to the concuisin that what has been wirtten about her is based on hearsay, gossip, and rumour. I do not think anyone has ever written a book about Ci Xi after serious and detailed investigation into her life.

Start off with the vaguenes about where she came from, who her parents were, where she was born, how many brothers and sisters she had, and get lost in the vagueness and mystery of her affair with her first eunuch and why why died. Start adding in the guff published by Der Ling, and see how it clashes with Seagrave and Warner, Read Katherine Carl's book about her. She at least met her and provides an honest account of her, though she did not get to know her in detail. Read the American Envoy's wife's account of her meetings with Ci Xi and learn how little she lfound aout about Ci Xi. The unanswered questions surrounding her murders, and political machinations are legion. The more you will read the more you will realise that she is a mystery woman with a capital M.

Ci Xi is an enigma. But she is worth studying, and fun to do so too. But be careful which book you read. No two books say the same thing.

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