It was an extraordinary story. A woman in a profoundly man’s world who found herself ruler over a great nation at times of unprecedented change and advancement, attempting to guide it into the next century.
It could be the story of Queen Victoria but in fact it was that of another empress, a sister across the sea, one who found herself in a position of great influence through a combination of guile and a fortunate birth.
In the case of the Empress Dowager Cixi it was not her birth but her son’s, who was the first born heir of the Emperor Xianfeng.
However, it was to be the mother not the child who was to control Manchu Qing Dynasty in China for 47 years.
Her story is told in a sympathetic new biography by Jung Chang, the author of Wild Swans, who believes that Cixi’s reputation has been much maligned over the years. That she has been perceived as a despot and reactionary both in China and the West, desperately clinging to the old ways.
However, Jung got an idea that she was not so enslaved to the past when she was researching the practice of foot binding for Wild Swans, the barbaric and deliberate malforming of girls’ feet which her own grandmother had had to endure.
“I thought that somehow the communists were responsible for ending bound feet. Then I was surprised to find the Empress Dowager was actually responsible.”
Cixi was Manchu and this crushing of a child’s feet so they could grow only a few inches was done by the Han, the indigenous Chinese, so she was spared it.
She was the daughter of a government employee who was selected as one of the Emperor Xianfeng’s many concubines and a fairly lowly ranking one at that.
But she gave birth to his first son, one who was to survive into adulthood and become emperor himself.
Following the death of his father when the boy was just five, Cixi engineered it so that she became regent along with Empress Zhen, another concubine of Xianfeng but with the more political astute Cixi responsible for many of the decisions.
Unlike Queen Victoria, she could not be seen to be ruling. She and Empress Zhen had to remain concealed behind a screen, quite literally the power behind the child emperor’s throne.
“In China Cixi is depicted as the villain. Her image is that of a die hard conservative and a cruel and deceitful woman,” says Jung. “My research found that she was nothing like that.
“She pushed for political reform. She introduced the free press, she banned foot binding, she banned cruel medieval forms of punishment like death by a thousand cuts and she was trying to introduce a constitutional monarchy with an elected parliament. In other words she was ready to give the vote to the Chinese.”
She died in 1908 and Jung says that a young Mao Zedong was able to enjoy unprecedented liberty as a young teenager because of her, something that he would not permit his own people as Chairman Mao.
“He had many opportunities. He could get scholarships, go to college, go abroad if he wanted to. He could write articles for a very free press on whatever subject he wanted. He could travel with his girlfriend and check into a hotel. He had the kind of freedoms I couldn’t dream of when I was growing up in China.”
Jung believes that the Empress Dowager has been unfairly lumped in with Mao in being described as a despot.
Mao’s reign of intimidation, terror and indoctrination coupled with plans for economic growth which contributed to wide spread famine and the deaths of tens of millions of Chinese puts him on a par with Stalin and Hitler, Jung argues.
Cixi, she says, was far more benign, responsible for only a few dozen political killings in her assumption and retention of power.
One of the fatalities, however, was her adopted son Guangxu, her nephew, who was made Emperor following the premature death at 18 of Cixi’s son, Tongzhi.
She felt that under Guangxu China would have fallen into the hands of Japan and, as she lay dying, arranged to have him murdered to prevent that happening.
The real damage to Cixi reputation was done, Jung says by the political forces that followed her, when Imperial rule was swept away by Republicanism and her name was reviled. Any achievements that were recognised were attributed to the men serving her.
Jung wants the new book to change people’s views of her and is even translating it into Chinese in the hope that it might be published there. Her books – the autobiographical Wild Swans and a biography of Mao – are famously banned in China. Jung herself has lived in Britain since 1978, after the death of Mao meant she was finally able to pursue her studies abroad.
She is permitted to go back to visit her elderly mother but only under the strictest controls.
“I can go back for a limited few days but in order to do that I have to undertake not to have anything to do with politics. I can’t talk to the press or see friends.”
She says she is saddened by the current regime which she feels is trying “to wind the clock back and to go back to Mao’s time. It is just depressing that they are not nearly as enlightened as the Empress Dowager Cixi more than 100 years ago.
“It is inevitably going to damage the development of China. We all know that creativity and initiative has to come from a rather free environment.”
During her own trials as a young woman, when she was forced to work as a peasant, a barefoot doctor, a steelworker and an electrician (with no formal training for any of these jobs) she says she still yearned to write. “When I was growing up it wasn’t possible. I wrote my first poem on my 16th birthday, then the Red Guard came and I had to flush it down the toilet.
“But when I was working as a peasant, in the paddy fields and as an electrician up electricity poles, my mind was writing with an invisible pen.”
* Jung Chang is speaking at the Library of Birmingham on Monday, October 14 at 7pm in the Studio Theatre. For more information go to: www.libraryofbirmingham.com/event/Events/jungchang