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Jung Chang and the making of China

Filed under: Non-fiction

Tony Scotland reviews 'The making of China', featuring Jung Chang in conversation with Colin Thubron at the LSE on Thursday October 3rd 2013.

Towards the end of her long reign as de facto ruler of China, the Empress Dowager Cixi paid a surprise visit to a gay bathhouse in Peking. She thought it would be amusing to see all the dissolute young men diverting themselves, and instructed her Chief Eunuch to arrange a visit incognito. But even a yellow riding jacket, men’s trousers and a windproof cape over her head failed to disguise her identity, and a hundred hot bodies leapt out of the steam as a terrified attendant shouted ‘Prostrations!’ Her Majesty then ordered the diversions to continue, while she directed operations over a cup of tea.

It’s a colourful story, but mostly myth – invented by the eccentric Orientalist Sir Edmund Backhouse, who was unmasked as a fraud and a fantasist by Hugh Trevor-Roper in 1977. As Backhouse was also the source of all The Times’s highly influential anti-Qing dispatches from late Manchu China, Western historians have had to revise the long-held view of Cixi as a depraved despot and a xenophobic reactionary.

But now a new biography by Jung Chang (author of Wild Swans, and co-author of Mao: The Unknown Story) presents an unequivocal case for Cixi as a generally benign reformer, who tried to fashion a feudal China into a modern constitutional monarchy.

In a public interview with RSL President Colin Thubron, Chang told the audience in the Sheikh Zayed Theatre at the LSE that Cixi had opened up a dialogue with the West, introduced industry, railways, electricity, the telegraph and modern weaponry, and abolished such barbaric punishments as death by a thousand cuts. Furthermore it was Cixi – and not Mao, as Communism teaches – who banned the ancient practice of foot-binding (and to give an idea of  its cruelty, Chang produced, from a silk purse, a tiny shoe which had belonged to her bound-footed grandmother). By Chang’s reckoning, Cixi – a charismatic but womanly ruler who loved her lakeside summer palace, painted in watercolours, tamed birds and bred dogs, designed gardens, jewellery and cosmetics, and launched women’s liberation in China – seems to have been less a Lucrezia Borgia than a Catherine the Great.

The author conceded that Cixi was probably responsible for the murder of her imprisoned nephew, the reformist Emperor Guangxu – but her sole motive had been to save the Qing empire from the Japanese expansionists who were pretending to support his reforms.

Jung Chang said her sources for the book included transcripts of Qing edicts now available online and original documents in the archives in the Forbidden City. The Chinese authorities had raised no objection to her researches, although they had banned her two previous books and restricted her visits to China to a fortnight a year. She was now translating the book into Chinese for publication in Hong Kong and Taiwan, but she doubted whether it would be published in mainland China, because the Party showed signs of resurrecting the old orthodoxy that Cixi was a demon and Mao a hero.

Tony Scotland is the author of The Empty Throne: The Quest for an Imperial Heir in the People’s Republic of China.