Empress Dowager Cixi

Until 1850 or so, most Chinese believed the world was flat. "By the end of the 19th century the pressure from the world of ideas," wrote Yale history professor Jonathan Spence in Time magazine, "had led to strident and insistent demands for new structures of justice, new realms of freedom of aesthetic endeavor and the dissemination of information, and abandonment of autocracy for either a genuinely circumscribed constitutional monarchy or popularly passed republican form of government."

In late imperial times the agricultural land in the north was worked by people who owned the land while the land in the south was owned by landlords who didn’t work the land themselves. Peasants who worked the land in the south either paid a fixed rent in crops or a fixed rent in cash or paid their landlords with a share of their harvest. It was more of commercial operation than a feudal one. In the north peasants paid high agricultural taxes that were not abolished until 2006.

The threat presented by colonialism and Western power, forced the Chinese to take a hard look at themselves and re-evaluate their system of beliefs. In many cases traditional ideas about Confucianism, the Mandate of Heaven and authority were tossed out and Western ideas of capitalism, modernism, militarism and ultimately socialism and Marxism were embraced.

Websites and Resources

Good Websites and Sources on Empress Dowager Cixi: Court Life During the Time of Empress Dowager Cixi etext.virginia.edu; Wikipedia article Wikipedia ; Cixi’s Luxurious Life xinhuanet.com ; Book on Cixi royalty.nu; The Last Emperor Puyi Wikipedia article Wikipedia ; Time Asia time.com ; Hartford Courant hartford-hwp.com/archives; Puyi Biography royalty.nu/Asia

Forbidden City: FORBIDDEN CITY factsanddetails.com/china; Wikipedia; China Vista ; UNESCO World Heritage Site Sites World Heritage Site ; Maps China Map Guide ; Summer Palace Used by Cixi ; Wikipedia Beijing Trip.com ; Travel China Guide ; Map China Map Guide ; Summer Palace Factsanddetails.com/China

Good Websites and Sources on Early 20th Century China Sun Yat-sen Wikipedia article Wikipedia ; Time Asia time.com ; My Grandfather Sun Yat-sen Asia Week ; May 4th Movement Wikipedia article Wikipedia ; Chiang Kai-shek Wikipedia article Wikipedia ; New York Times Obituary New York Times ; Madame Chiang Kai-shek Wikipedia article Wikipedia ;

Zhu Shilin’s Sorrows of the Forbidden City (“The Secret History of the Qing Court,” 1948), the first important film made by a Han Chinese director about the Qing/Manchu court set during the Hundred Days” Reform. Li Han-hisang did a series of films on Empress Dowager Cixi.

Foreigners in China: 19th Century Tea Trade in China Harvard Business School ; Early Chinese Emmigrants to America: Central Pacific Railroad Museum cprr.org/Museum ; Chinese Americans Wikipedia Wikipedia ; Taiping Rebellion: Taiping Rebellion.com taipingrebellion.com ; Wikipedia Taiping Rebellion article Wikipedia ; Books About Taiping Rebellion questia.com; Boxer Rebellion National Archives archives.gov/publications ; Modern History Sourcebook fordham.edu/halsall ; San Francisco 1900 newspaper article Library of Congress ; Wikipedia Wikipedia ; Cox Rebellion PhotosCaldwell Kvaran ; Eyewitness Account fordham.edu/halsall ; Sino-Japanese War.com sinojapanesewar.com ; Wikipedia article on the Sino-Japanese War Wikipedia ;

Good Websites and Sources on the Opium War : Emperor of China’s War on Drugs Opioids.com ; Good Images from the Period on MIT’s Visualizing Cultures MIT’s Visualizing Cultures , MIT’s Visualizing Cultures , MIT’s Visualizing Cultures and MIT’s Visualizing Cultures ; Wikipedia article Wikipedia ; Websites on the Qing Dynasty Wikipedia Wikipedia ; Qing Art cosmopolis.ch ; Qing Dynasty Explained drben.net/ChinaReport ; Recording of Grandeur of Qing learn.columbia.edu Court Life During the Time of Empress Dowager Cixi etext.virginia.edu

Good Chinese History Websites: 1) Chaos Group of University of Maryland chaos.umd.edu/history/toc ; 2) WWW VL: History China vlib.iue.it/history/asia ; 3) Wikipedia article on the History of China Wikipedia 4) China Knowledge; 5) Gutenberg.org e-book gutenberg.org/files ; Links in this Website: Main China Page factsanddetails.com/china (Click History)

Books: 1) The Boxer Rebellion by Diana Preston; 2). Autumn in the Heavenly Kingdom China, the West, and the Epic Story of the Taiping Civil War by Stephen R. Platt (Alfred A. Knopf, 2012). Platt is an associate professor of history at the University of Massachusetts, Amherst. 3) God's Chinese Son by Yale's Jonathan Spence is also about the Taping Rebellion. Other Books from the period. The Opium War: Drugs, Dreams and the Making of China by Julia Lovell (Picador, 2011); 2) China: Alive in the Bitter Sea by Fox Butterfield; 3) China: A New History by John K. Fairbank; 4) China's Imperial Past: An Introduction to Chinese History by Charles O. Hucker; 5) In Search of Modern China by Jonathan D. Spence; 6) The Chan's Great Continent: China to Western Minds by Jonathan Spence (Norton, 1998). 7) Cambridge History of China multiple volumes (Cambridge University Press); 8) The Last Emperors: A Social History of the Qing Imperial Institutions by Evelyn S. Rawski (University of California Press, 1999); 9) Sea of Poppies by Amitva Ghosh (Farrar Straus Giroux, 2008) is a novel set during the Opium Wars mostly in India but also in China that was shortlisted listed for the Man Booker Prize. You can help this site a little by ordering your Amazon books through this link: Amazon.com.

Empress Dowager Cixi

Cixi as the Goddess of Mercy

Empress Dowager Cixi (1835 – 1908) was a Chinese empress dowager and regent who effectively controlled the Chinese government in the late Qing dynasty for 47 years, from 1861 until her death in 1908. A member of the Manchu Yehe Nara clan, she was selected as a concubine of the Xianfeng Emperor in her adolescence and gave birth to a son, Zaichun, in 1856. After the Xianfeng Emperor's death in 1861, the young boy became the Tongzhi Emperor, and she became the Empress Dowager. Cixi secured power by ousting a group of regents appointed by the late emperor and assumed regency, which she shared with Empress Dowager Ci'an. Cixi then consolidated control over the dynasty when she installed her nephew as the Guangxu Emperor at the death of the Tongzhi Emperor in 1875, contrary to the traditional rules of succession of the Qing dynasty that had ruled China since 1644. [Source: Wikipedia]

In 1861, when a powerful leader could have turned the country around, the Chinese throne was taken over by a succession of child emperors who were controlled by a former concubine known as the Empress Dowager Cixi. Cixi is the title of honor for the Empress Dowager in late Qing dynasty. Her real name was Yulan, but people (except her husband and parents) were forbidden to call her Yulan, according to the complex rules of feudal system.

Less than five feet tall and known to ordinary Chinese as "that evil old woman," Cixi rose from the position of a third-level concubine to become the ostensible ruler of China for nearly half a century by bearing the Emperor of China his only son. A staunch anti-reformist, she was exploited by Western powers, who she claimed to despise, and brought untold hardship and despair to ordinary Chinese and oversaw the collapse of Qing (Manchu) dynasty.

Isabel Hilton wrote in The Guardian, “One of Emperor Xianfeng's 3,000 concubines, Cixi rose through the ranks by producing an heir, Tongzhi, and when Xianfeng died in 1861 she ousted other contenders and installed herself as sole regent for her son, ruling China for 47 years....The times that Cixi dominated were critical to the shaping of modern China, a country that resembles the Qing autocracy in many ways, though without the empire's relatively free press and anticipated suffrage. The top echelons of Chinese politics remain as male-dominated and vicious as ever, and Cixi remains as gripping a subject. [Source: Isabel Hilton, The Guardian, October 25, 2013 ***]

The main hall in the Hall of Mental Cultivation (Yangxin Hall, on the western side of the Inner Palace within the Forbidden City) is where Qing dynasty emperors received courtiers. The Eastern Chamber of Warmth is where the Empress Dowagers Cixi “reigned over China behind the curtain.” There are two thrones here with a sheet of yellow gauze between them. The child emperor---the four-year-old Emperor Guangxu’sat on the throne in front while the Empress Dowager sat behind the screen in the large throne, telling the child emperor what to do. A placard in Tiananmen Square during the 1989 democratic uprising (I was there in late May during my very first trip to China!) that showed a cartoon depicting Deng Xiaoping as Cixi “ruling behind the curtain.”

Books: Empress Dowager Cixi: The Concubine Who Launched Modern China by Jung Chang; China Under the Empress Dowager by E. Backhouse and J.O. Bland; The Dragon Empress by Marina Warner; Dragon Lady by Sterling Seagrave;

Early Life of Empress Dowager Cixi

left The girl that would later become the Empress Dowager Cixi was born Lan Kuei ("Little Orchid") on November 29, 1835 into a family of Manchu government officials. The daughter of a minor Manchu official, she taught herself to read and may have been engaged to a handsome general named Jung Lu. In 1952, at the age of 16, she became a concubine of the Qing Emperor Hsein Feng (Xianfeng) and entered the Forbidden City and was given the name Cixi.

Isabel Hilton wrote in The Guardian, "Xianfeng faced enormous problems: the Taiping rebellion was to last 10 years and take millions of lives, the treasury was bleeding, foreign powers were rudely knocking down the empire's closed doors. Cixi began to offer the emperor unwanted advice, inspiring in him the prophetic fear that she might interfere in state affairs after his death. To keep her under control, on his deathbed he set up an eight-man regency to run China."

Hsein Feng was not the best of leaders. He reportedly spent much of his time smoking opium and chasing after transvestites and girls with three-inch "lily feet." While he indulged himself, Cixi studied Confucianism and dabbled with Buddhist and shamanist mysticism.

After sleeping with Cixi, the emperor raised her status one rank. On April 27, 1856 at the age of 20, she gave birth to a son, Tsai Ch'un (Tongzhi), and her rank was raised again to an inner circle concubine. After producing a son, she and the emperor became closer and she assisted him with some decision-making while his health declined.

Empress Dowager Cixi Secures Power

Emperor Xianfeng

The Empress turned out to be barren. While the Emperor was on his deathbed, Cixi pleaded with him to name her son as his successor. Recalling the moment Cixi later said, "I took my son to his bedside and asked him what he was going to do about his successor to the throne...I said to him, 'Here is your son; on hearing which he immediately opened his eyes and said, 'Of course he will succeed to the throne."

The Emperor stayed true to his word and arranged for Cixi (now the empress dowager) and eight regents to run the court while his son (now Tongzhi or T'ung Chih) grew up.

After the Emperor died in 1861, Cixi was named an empress dowager and Tongzhi’s co-regent. She effectively seized power by ordering the arrests of the eight regents and arranging the forced suicides of two of them with silk ropes. She then outmaneuvered a rival empress dowager and ruled the court behind the scenes through a "bamboo curtain." Tongzhi was five when the Emperor died. He ascended to the throne at the age of 18 but died of small pox or syphilis two years later.

Cixi was a master of court politics and intrigue and managed by keep her power even after her son died. After he died Cixi presided over the Grand Council and pushed through her choice for emperor: Guangxu, her three-year-old nephew (the son of her sister and a prince). When he ascended to the throne she went briefly into retirement and he developed a fascination with Western technologies, particularly clocks and bicycles.

Cixi’s Rule

Isabel Hilton wrote in The Guardian, “Formally, Cixi had no power, but she succeeded in mounting a coup against the regents with Empress Zhen, the late emperor's principal wife, before he was buried. Cixi falsely accused the regents of forging the emperor's will, and in the first of what would be a substantial list of Cixi fatalities, ordered the suicide of the most important two. Her son was crowned Emperor Tongzhi, and Cixi's extraordinary political career was launched. [Source: Isabel Hilton, The Guardian, October 25, 2013 ***]

“Since she could never sit on the throne herself, her continued power depended on the emperor being a child. In this, one might say, she had a lot of luck. Her own son died as a teenager in 1875 and another child, her three-year-old nephew, succeeded as Emperor Guangxu. Cixi promptly adopted him, though, bizarrely, she instructed him to address her as "my royal father". It was not a warm relationship. The death of the former empress Zhen, which some would add to Cixi's account, left Cixi in sole charge and her reluctance to hand over the reins on the boy's maturity was palpable. She reluctantly "retired" in 1889 and devoted herself to building a pleasure ground on the outskirts of Beijing. It was not the last of her. She came out of retirement to help with the trauma of a lost war against Japan in 1894, after which she retained an active role in state affairs, a position that left her well placed for her next coup. ***

Cixi’s biographer Jung Chang wrote: "In some four decades of absolute power, her political killings, whether just or unjust … were no more than a few dozen, many of them in response to plots to kill her." According to Hilton, “ Life at any court is a rough game: the combination of intimate emotions and absolute power generates a special form of cruelty in those who survive. A woman who began her adulthood as a 16-year-old grade-three imperial concubine in 1852, and rose to hold supreme power in the Manchu empire for the best part of 40 years, is likely to have a few unpleasant traits. Nevertheless, a few dozen political murders – without counting the deaths further afield in suppressed rebellions and more distant wars – is not nothing. Her victims included the emperor Guangxu's son's favourite concubine, thrown down a well, and Guangxu himself, by then deposed by her, dispatched with arsenic on the eve of her own death to ensure that he made no comeback. ***

China Begins Modernizing

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First Shanghai train
In the late 1800s China began imitating Western technology. The Chinese were especially anxious to learn the European trades of shipbuilding and gunsmithing. In the 19th century a reformist named Feng Gui-fen said: "A few barbarians should be employed and Chinese who are good in using their minds should be selected to receive instructions so that in turn they may teach many craftsman...We should use the instruments of the barbarians, but not ape the ways of the barbarians. We should use them so we can repel them."

Not everyone believed that imitating the West was the answer to China's problems. In his 1919 travelogueTravel Impressions of Europe, the Chinese traveler Liang Chi'ch'ao wrote: "We may laugh at those old folks among us who block their own road to advancement and claim we Chinese have all that is found in Western learning. But we should laugh even more at those who are drunk with Western ways and regard everything Chinese as worthless, as though we in the last several hundred years have remained primitive and have achieved nothing?"

Among the leading reformists in the late 19th century and early 20th century were Zheng Guanying, who helped China build its first series of modern industries; Wang Tao, a thinker and publisher of China’s first modern newspaper; and Liang Qichao, a key figure in the Hundred Day Reform 1898 and the constitutional movement that led to the drafting of China’s first constitution in 1908

Li Hongzhang, the Chinese foreign minister of the late 19th century, had to make various compromises on Chinese sovereignty, including cession of railway rights to Russia, which led to his being reviled by his contemporaries. A century later, Li's reputation is still controversial in China, but he is widely regarded as an original thinker who played a difficult hand with skill.

Guangxu and Attempts at Reform in China

Guangxu as a child

Guangxu, the second to last emperor of the Qing Dynasty, is best known for his unsuccessful attempt to modernize China by instituting reforms to the system of government in 1898, the so-called Hundred Days Reform aimed to adopt a constitutional monarchy. The reforms turned out to be short-lived, just like the emperor himself.

Enlightened Qing Dynasty statesman tried to introduce Western technology and modernize China while keeping the Qing dynasty intact. Ignoring conservatives in his court, the 27-year-old Emperor Guangxu launched a reform movement called Hundred Day Reform in 1898 in which he set about abolishing institutions that had held back China's progress. As part of his modernization campaign he hoped to establish transportation networks, beef up the military, translate Western books, educate the masses and get rid of "bigoted conservatism and impractical customs."

The reforms failed when the Empress Dowager Cixi staged a palace coup and Emperor Guangxu was imprisoned in the Hall of Impregnating Vitality on an artificial island in the Forbidden City, where he studied English and international affairs but never again wielded any power. The coup took place on September 21, 1898 and was carried out by Manchu generals and members of the Manchurian elite. Once installed as the leader of China, the Empress Dowager canceled all the reforms except those involving the military.

Isabel Hilton wrote in The Guardian, “In 1898, Guangxu, who had good reason to dislike his "royal father" launched a radical reform programme under the guidance of two former imperial scholars, Kang Youwei and Liang Qichao, and against the resistance of the more conservative elements at court. Kang – portrayed here one-dimensionally as a scheming upstart – persuaded the emperor that Cixi was an obstacle that had to be neutralised. Cixi moved first: by September 1898, she had deposed and imprisoned Guangxu and taken the reins again herself. Those reformers who did not escape were executed. Also executed were two entirely innocent men, whose trials Cixi had stopped to prevent the emperor's role in the plot to assassinate her becoming public. [Source: Isabel Hilton, The Guardian, October 25, 2013]

Near the end of her rule, the Empress Dowager made a few feeble attempts at reform. She ended the 2000-year-old Confucian exams system in 1905, outlawed cruel punishments, improved the legal and education system and modernized railroads. But these reforms were too little, too late. Central authority began to crumble after her death in 1908.

Guangxu’s Death

On November 11, 1908, the 37-year-old emperor died suddenly in the Summer Palace where he had been under house arrest since 1898, when the Empress Dowager Cixi launched a coup against him. Even though the death was officially announced to be caused by disease, it has been the subject of speculation. Even in his own day, the cause of death was disputed. The emperor's doctor's diary recorded that Guangxu had ‘spells of violent stomach ache’, with his face turning blue. Such symptoms are consistent with arsenic poisoning. Actually, three persons were suspected behind the murder. The empress, her eunuch Li Lianying, and general Yuan Shikai, who betrayed Guangxu in the last days of the reforms and directly caused their failure. [Source: Danwei.org]

In November 2008, study released right before the 100th anniversary of Guangxu's death, concluded that that the cause of Guangxu's death was indeed arsenic poisoning. The Beijing News reported that the tests, which took five years to carry out, showed lethal doses of arsenic present in the emperor's hair and clothes, which were retrieved from his tomb. The tested arsenic level is not only higher than normal, it is also higher than the level found in a mummified body of other people living in the emperor's own time. It was also found that the arsenic levels in the roots of Guangxu's hair were higher than at the tips, thus ruling out the possibility of chronic poisoning from long term arsenic intake from medicines. “ [Ibid] The day after Guangxu's death, his adversary and persecutor, the Empress Dowager Cixi, also died. Could it be that knowing she was in her last days, she gave the order to kill him so that he would not outlive her? Or was it general Yuan Shikai who feared that once the emperor resumed power, he would be the first one to be eradicated for treachery? Science has no answer for these questions. “ [Ibid]

Life of Luxury of the Empress Dowager Cixi

The Empress Dowager spent much of her time in the outskirts of Beijing in the Summer Palace, a huge complex with a marble boat built in 1888 with money that was supposed to be spent on building a modern navy. See Summer Palace, Places

The cost of running her court was $6.5 million a year (an astronomical sum at that time). She celebrated her birthdays with the release of 10,000 caged birds, and banquets with 128 courses with 30 kinds of desert and dishes like fried magnolia and lotus flowers, ducks tongues and stuffed melons.

The Empress Dowager covered her face with white cake make-up and placed patches of cherry rouge on her cheeks and lower lip. According to Manchu custom, she didn't cut her hair, her feet remained unbound and the nails of her third and forth fingers were over four inches long. Her wardrobe required 160 bolts of silk, satin and gauze each year to make. A $5 million exhibit in Kong Hong called "Empress Dowager Cixi---Her Art of Living," included displays of the empress's facial creams, soaps and skin bleach, her stone massage roller, hairpins, headdresses and gold nail casings.

The Empress Dowager reportedly entertained herself by ordering her maids to engage in slapping contests and by playing a game of her own invention called "Eight Fairies Travel Across the Sea." She rested her head on a pillow stuffed with tea leaves and rose petals, slept on a 10-foot-long, fire-heated brick bed, and took medicines made from crushed pearls. Once when a hairdresser accidently plucked two hairs from her head she ordered the hairdresser to put them back. At parties she used to clap her hands to draw everyone's the attention and then asked if anybody needed to pee. She didn't ride in a train until she was 67.

The Empress Dowager drank human’s mother’s milk as part of effort to stay young. Her favorite dish reportedly was Mandarin sweet and sour dish. She also reportedly had a big sexual appetite. The were rumors or dubious origin that she even had Englishmen brought into her chambers to satisfy her sexual demands. There also stories that she fell in love with the eunuch Li Lienying

Cixi on the Imperial barge on Zhonghai

Images of the Empress Dowager

Owen Edwards wrote in Smithsonian magazine: Though not a charmer, even by the somber photographic portrait standards of the day, the empress dowager seemed to like the camera and imagined that the camera liked her, says David Hogge, head of archives at the gallery and curator of an exhibition of photographs of Cixi by Xunling, the son of diplomats . ‘she thought about self-representation, and---out of the norm for Chinese portraiture’she sometimes posed in staged vignettes that alluded to famous scenes in court theater. Sometimes she looked like a bored starlet.” [Source: Owen Edwards, Smithsonian magazine, October 2011]

The empress dowager probably directed the photographer, not the other way around. Archivist Hogge says she may have taken the camera-friendly Queen Victoria as her role model. Sean Callahan, who teaches the history of photography at Syracuse University, agrees: “Xunling’s pictures bear little evidence of his having much feeling for Chinese art history traditions---but resemble those of the court of Queen Victoria, “to whom...Cixi bore a certain physical resemblance.”

Cixi used the portraits as gifts for visiting dignitaries---Theodore Roosevelt and his daughter Alice received copies. But soon, Hogge says, they showed up for sale on the street, which happened more commonly with photographs of prostitutes and actresses. How the portraits leaked is not known. If their intent was to rehabilitate Cixi’s reputation, they failed. In the Western press, she was portrayed as something like the mother of all dragon ladies, and the impression remained long after she died in 1908, having appointed China’s last emperor, Puyi.

Cixi’s English Lover?

Kent Ewing wrote in the Asia Times, In his memoirs Decadence Mandchoue , the British reporter and scholar Sir Edmund Trelawny Backhouse, “claimed that, at the age of 32, even though by nature he was homosexual - indeed, ravenously so - he became the favorite lover of the Empress Dowager Cixi (1835-1908), then 69, whose oversized clitoris she would deftly employ to his pathic delight. And, when Sir Edmund wasn't frolicking with the "Old Buddha", as she was affectionately known, he was giving it to just about any young, attractive eunuch in her service. Sex with eunuchs - and with catamites in the "bathhouses" of Peking (now Beijing) - was Backhouse's preferred form of eroticism. [Source: by Kent Ewing, Asia Times, June 18, 2011]

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Summer Palace Boat

“As Decadence Mandchoue begins, it is an April afternoon in 1899, and Backhouse is about to meet the love of his life - whom he dubs "Cassia Flower" - in one of the city's male brothels, but their passionate love-making will be cut short a year later by Boxer Rebellion riots that force the establishment to shut down. Backhouse will never see Cassia Flower again, but the memory still burns bright in the memoirs he wrote at the end of his life, 45 years later. “ [Ibid]

“His true heart may have been with Cassia Flower, but when the empress called, Backhouse was nevertheless dutifully and erectly present, even if a powerful aphrodisiac was required to get him through prolonged nights requiring three to four orgasms with his insatiable, near-septuagenarian royal partner. This exacting sexual schedule continued until shortly before Cixi's death, at 73, in 1908 - or so these memoirs attest.” [Ibid]

“By the way, did you know that Cixi, de facto ruler of China for 47 years, did not die of natural causes, as history records? No, she was murdered - with three brutal, point-blank shots to the abdomen - by none other than Yuan Shikai, one of the eight regional viceroys during her reign who was later to become second president of the Republic of China. All that's according to Cixi's chief eunuch, Li Lien-ying, who happened to be Backhouse's best friend and so gave him the exclusive scoop, not to mention his personal diaries detailing all of his years of service to the empress. Unfortunately, those diaries are nowhere to be found; nor can any of the other corroborating "papers", claimed but conveniently "lost" by the author, be located. There is also no reason to believe in an affair Backhouse alludes to with the famously gay Irish novelist, poet and playwright Oscar Wilde. Add to the long list of tall tales the meeting he recounts with iconic Russian novelist Leo Tolstoy. “ [Ibid]

Book Decadence Mandchoue by Sir Edmund Trelawny Backhouse (Earnshaw Books, 2011).

Lurid, Erotic Descriptions by Cixi’s Lover?

On his first sexual encounter with Cixi, in her boudoir at the Summer Palace, Backhouse wrote: " I took in my hands her abnormally large clitoris, pressed it toward my lips and performed a [s]low but steady friction which increased its size. She graciously unveiled the mysteries of her swelling vulva, even as that of Messalina, and I marvelled at the perennial youth which its abundance seemed to indicate.” [Source: by Kent Ewing, Asia Times, June 18, 2011]

"She allowed me to fondle her breasts which were those of a young married woman; her skin was exquisitely scented with the violet to which I have made allusion; her whole body, small and shapely, was redolent with la joie de vivre; her shapely buttocks pearly and large were presented to my admiring contemplation: I felt for her a real libidinous passion such as no woman has ever inspired in my pervert homosexual mind before nor since." [Ibid]

“In other chapters,” Kent Ewing wrote in the Asia Times. “ Backhouse describes a vampire prince, lightning-struck lovers and oracles with crystal balls that recapture the past for the Empress Dowager while also foretelling her future - quite wrongly, as it turns out. Backhouse was, as he tells it, present for all of this and duly records what he heard and saw, including rattling tables and revelatory messages from the spirit world during a seance. “ [Ibid]

“In one particularly bizarre chapter, Backhouse is enjoying the pleasures of young male prostitutes in a Peking bathhouse when the Old Buddha crashes the orgy dressed as a man and insists on watching. A eunuch and a well-endowed bath attendant are bidden to perform for the empress and, as Backhouse reports, the show is well received: "Everything went swimmingly (like a fish in midstream) and in due course ejaculation into the pathic's rectum was faithfully accomplished. This achieved, both parties rose and kowtowed to the Empress ..." But, her curiosity not yet sated, Cixi then orders a young imperial duke to also serve as pathic in the extended sexual fun and, after this, there follows a display of "69" - which Backhouse points out (in case you didn't know) is called "soixante neuf" in France and which (again, in case you didn't know) "is only easy when the parties are of the same length". [Ibid]

Credibility Problems of Cixi’s Lover

Kent Ewing wrote in the Asia Times, “What readers are left with is, quite probably, the steamy, self-aggrandizing fiction of a lonely, dying old man - once celebrated for his scholarship and linguistic genius - who wrote to comfort and distract himself during the final year of his life, 1943-1944...In his time, Backhouse was highly regarded in Peking for his ability as a researcher and translator. He worked for The Times of London and, in collaboration with another Times correspondent, JOP Bland, wrote two best-selling books on China: China Under the Empress Dowager (1910) and Annals and Memoirs of the Court of Peking (1914). These two works were pivotal in shaping Western perceptions of the Qing court under Cixi. [Source: by Kent Ewing, Asia Times, June 18, 2011]

“Backhouse was accused of forgery, however, by another Times correspondent, Dr George Ernest Morrison, for his heavy reliance in China Under the Empress Dowager on the diary of a high court official, Ching Shan, a source later proved to be a fabrication. The accusations against Backhouse were never fully substantiated during his lifetime, but in 1976, 32 years after his death, British historian Hugh Trevor-Roper wrote a damning biography, Hermit of Peking: The Hidden Life of Sir Edmund Backhouse, which revealed the once-revered sinologist to be an inveterate fraud, a licentious homosexual and, even worse, anti-British. “ [Ibid]

Trevor-Roper characterized Backhouse as a hermit because of his tendency to avoid other foreigners in Peking and expressed disdain for his loss of faith in British constitutional monarchy and his apparent attraction to the fascism that had taken hold in Europe and Japan in the run-up to World War II. As for his bawdy memoirs - which had been gathering dust on a shelf at Oxford University's Bodleian Library since Backhouse's death - Trevor-Roper wrote: "No verve in writing can redeem their pathological obscenity." Trevor-Roper himself was later implicated in the Hitler Diaries hoax. [Ibid]

Graham Earnshaw, publisher of Decadence Mandchoue wrote: “ The issue of whether or how much of it is a fantasy is of course important... There is now no way to know how much was real and how much made up. But at the very least I believe his descriptions of homosexual brothels and behaviour in that place and era are accurate and a first-hand job. Beyond the veracity/fantasy question is the fact the writing is very good, and the sex scenes hilariously over-the-top, the stories recounted with wonderful intellectual pixieness. I enjoyed spending time with this fascinating, over-educated and over-sexed man. He deserved to be given the chance to respond to Hermit, even if from beyond the grave. I am proud to have published it.

“My mentor Gareth Powell had the following comments on Backhouse and Kent Ewing's review which I think worth passing on: It is a well written criticism but the writer fails to grasp the importance of the book. For all his manifest faults Backhouse was an educated man who had access to a court that was pretty much totally closed to all foreigners. That we have an eccentric, a man much given to boasting and often a liar there is no doubt. But his writings have great value simply because of their rarity.

We have the same situation with Anna Leonowens. Yes, we can prove that some of what she wrote was bollocks. And yes, her life after the period in Thailand takes some strange twists and turns. But although she was a liar, and although her depiction of the king left much to be desired she is worth reading and publishing because we have no one else. A distorted view through a telescope is better than no view at all.

Decisions and Eunuchs in the Empress Dowager's Court

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Empress Cixi's eunuchs
Describing the decision making process of Empress Dowager Cixi, one courtier said, "In the morning an order is issued; in the evening it is changed. Unavoidably outsiders will laugh, But there is nothing that can be done about it." Another court member said: "She is very changeable; she may like one person today, tomorrow she hates the same person worse than poison."

Describing her temper on official said, her eyes "poured out straight rays; her cheekbones were sharp and the veins on her forehead projected; she showed her teeth as if she were suffering from lockjaw." Another court member said, "It was characteristic of Her Majesty to experience a keen sense of enjoyment at the troubles of other people."

With the exception of the Emperor, the 6,000 residents of the Forbidden City were eunuchs or women. Much of the day to day operation of the imperial court was taken care by Li Liyang, the Empress Dowager's favorite eunuch. He headed an imperial staff that oversaw thousands of cooks, gardeners, laundrymen, cleaners, painters and other eunuchs that were ordered around in a complex hierarchy with 48 separate grades.

"Each eunuch was apprenticed to a master," wrote Marina Warner, biographer of the Empress Dowager, "and his eventual success or promotion depended on the favor in which his master was held. On his master's death, a young eunuch might be forgotten...until the day he himself died but if he was apprenticed to the chief he might rapidly acquire influence."

Cixi: the Benevolent Reformer?

In her biography of Cixi, Jung Chang aims to "comprehensively overturn the conventional view of Cixi as a deeply conservative and cruel despot", said Jonathan Cape, and show how she abolished foot-binding, developed foreign trade and diplomacy, and revolutionised China's education system. Isabel Hilton wrote in The Guardian, “This approving biography advances a vigorous defence of a woman whom history has often demonised as a venal reactionary: one who murdered without a second thought to protect her own interests, who squandered the national treasury on her own pleasures and who set back reform in China to preserve herself. History often has trouble giving powerful women their due and correctives are in order, but Chang's admiration for her subject can sometimes seem a little unqualified: the empress dowager in these pages was an enlightened, even caring ruler who drove through a modernisation programme. Had she lived just a little longer, China might have become a stable constitutional monarchy. As it is, Chinese citizens still cannot vote. [Source: Isabel Hilton, The Guardian, October 25, 2013 ***]

“Where does the truth lie in Cixi's much told story? Her talents were highly regarded by many statesmen and officials who encountered or served her. She managed to steer the increasingly leaky ship of the Qing state through serious internal rebellions, foreign incursions and wars, trying to make the best of a weak position. Though protocol confined her to palace life and limited ritual journeys, she was eager to learn about foreign countries, customs and fashions and cultivated a shrewd strategic understanding of the world. That Cixi was a remarkable woman is not in doubt. ***

” Although most of Cixi's previous biographers have demonised her, others have been more measured. This is a spirited, if partisan contribution. Her role in crushing the reforms of 1898 and her support of the Boxer rebellion remain her most controversial actions. Did the reformers' plot against her excuse the dismantling of reforms that she was to borrow wholesale just a few years later? Jung Chang praises these as proof of Cixi's progressive character; others have judged them as too little too late, grudging concessions that failed to save the rule of the Manchu – outnumbered 100 to one by their Chinese subjects. ***

Chang's previous book, “Mao: The Unknown Story,” was published in 2005. Chang is best known for the bestselling “Wild Swans,” which looks at the history of China through the lives of her grandmother, her mother and herself, and has sold 10 million copies worldwide. Chang has based her biography on Cixi on "long and detailed" research in newly opened Chinese and western archives, said publisher Jonathan Cape, and has revealed "a totally different picture" of Cixi "to the one that has prevailed for a hundred years". ***

Decline of the Qing Dynasty and the Boxer Rebellion

At the end of the 19th century China existed as a nation in name only. The Qing dynasty controlled only parts of China and the rest of China was divided among warlords and foreigners who controlled different parts of the country. As the Qing dynasty fell apart more and more of China was wrestled from its control.

The Qing dynasty was weakened by the Opium Wars and the Taiping Rebellion. The Empress Dowager supported the Boxer rebellion in 1900 and at one point declared war against the United States, Japan and seven European countries.

In her book The Boxer Rebellion, Diana Preston wrote of the Empress Dowager: "On the one hand she was afraid of the Boxers because they threatened her rule. She couldn't control them. On the other hand, they represented a growing and highly motivated army she didn't have to pay, one that might help her 'purify' China of its corrupting foreign influences." Her own troops finally joined the Boxers.

Cixi survived the Boxer Rebellion , but with a reputation for cruelty and treachery. She needed help dealing with the foreigners clamoring for greater access to her court. So her advisers called in Lady Yugeng, the half-American wife of a Chinese diplomat, and her daughters, Deling and Rongling, to familiarize Cixi with Western ways.

After the Boxer Rebellion the Empress Dowager fled from the Forbidden City in Beijing for Xian with her court. She and the Emperor managed to slip out of the city disguised as peasants. Even though the Qing Dynasty was in ruins, foreigners kept it propped because they viewed a Qing dynasty under their control better than a potentially hostile newcomer and they saw no better alternative.

According to a famous story, after the Boxer Rebellion, when Empress Cixi was worried that European troops were going to attack the Forbidden City, she summoned Emperor Guangxu and his favorite concubine Zhen Fei and then ordered the palace evacuated. Zhen Fei begged for the Emperor to stay behind and negotiate with the Europeans. Cixi, the story goes, was enraged by the “Pearl Concubine’s” audacity and ordered some eunuchs to throw her down a well at the Forbidden City.

There is no evidence to support this story. Cixi’s great, great nephew told Smithsonian magazine. “The concubine was sharp-tongued and often stood up to Cixi, making her angry. When they were about to flee the foreign troops, the concubine said she’d remain within the Forbidden City. Cixi told her that the barbarians world rape here if she stayed, and that it was best if she escaped disgrace by throwing herself down the well. The concubine did just that.” The well is popular stop at the Forbidden City and is so small that neither story seems likely.

Death of the Empress Dowager and End of Qing Dynasty

Last photo of Cixi

The Empress Dowager Cixi died at the age of 72 on November 15, 1908. The day after she died, court officials announced that the death of imprisoned Emperor Guangxu. The cause of his death remains a mystery. One rumor has it he was poisoned on the empress dowagers orders. According to a Penguin Biographical Dictionary of Women, she "almost certainly ordered the simultaneous death by poisoning of the young emperor and empress the day before she died in 1908."

Near the end of her life the Empress Dowager said, "I have often thought that I am the cleverest woman that ever lived and that others cannot compare with me. 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."

Just before she died Cixi arranged for Guangxu’s nephew---her grandnephew---to be named the last emperor of China. In 1928, Cixi's grave was desecrated by graverobbers who pulled her pants down. On February 12, 1912, the 6-year-old child emperor of the Qing Dynasty abdicated, ending more than 2,000 years of imperial rule in China. The Qing Dynasty was brought down by a highly organized revolutionary movement with overseas arms and financing and a coherent governing ideology based on republican nationalism. See Separate Article ; SUN YAT-SEN AND ATTEMPTS AT CHINESE DEMOCRACY

Isabel Hilton wrote in The Guardian, “The last few years of Cixi's career were no less dramatic and mirror the contradictions in her record. Her biggest mistake was to encourage the disastrous Boxer rebellion, a violent anti-foreign and anti-Christian movement that culminated in a bloody siege of the foreign legations in Beijing. That ended in a punitive foreign rescue and huge indemnities to the countries concerned. China, and Cixi, paid a heavy price for what she later admitted was a mistake. She herself had to flee the capital, pausing only to order the killing of Guangxu's favourite concubine. When she returned to the capital she was chastened, and set about making friends with the ladies of the Legation quarter, the wives of the resident diplomats, in a belated effort to restore her reputation in the world. She launched her own reform programme within two years, using the exiled Kang Youwei's blueprint. She died in 1908, having poisoned Guangxu with arsenic the day before, thus creating what was to be the final vacancy on the Dragon throne. It was filled by the child Pu Yi, the last emperor In 1927, under the KMT (nationalist) government, Cixi's tomb was dynamited by robbers, her jewels and her teeth stolen and her body left exposed. [Source: Isabel Hilton, The Guardian, October 25, 2013]

Image Sources: 1) Cixi, Columbia University; 2) Shanghai train, Tales of Shanghai website; 3) Cixi, China Pag website; 4) Guangxu, Brooklyn University; 5) Summer Palace, photo Ian Patterson ; 6) Eunuchs, China Today; 7) Images from Pu yi website

Text Sources: New York Times, Washington Post, Los Angeles Times, Times of London, National Geographic, The New Yorker, Time, Newsweek, Reuters, AP, Lonely Planet Guides, Compton’s Encyclopedia and various books and other publications.

Last updated November 2016

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