Friday, October 25, 2013

OOOOOH! I am so getting this book! Just ordered it!

It's Jung Chang's new biography, Empress Dowager Cixi: The Concubine Who Launched Modern China.

When I saw The Last Emperor in 1987 in the theater, I had no clue what it was about. Nor did my ignorance improve in the 1990s. It wasn't until about 1997 that I started to figure the movie out on my own.

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China (or portions of it) had been ruled by a succession of Chinese dynasties since 2100 BCE. The last of these, the Ming Dynasty, took power in 1368 CE. But the Ming were continually harassed by Mongol invasions, including one that captured an emperor in 1449 and another that reached the outskirts of Beijing in 1550. Massive poverty abounded, with famine common, and China lost most of its southeast Asian empire (what is now Vietnam, Korea, Laos, and Cambodia). In 1556, the Shaanxi earthquake killed approximately 830,000 people. Between 1592 and 1598, China and Japan fought over Korea -- with China losing.

In Manchuria, the agriculturally rich steppe northeast of China, the Jurchen peoples finally unified around 1600. Instead of tribal allegiance, the Jurchen leaders established banners, and reorganized their society around these flags. Initially, there were eight "Banners", but in time there came to be more than 30 (with the more ancient banner societies having far more prestige). Fierce tribal horseback warriors armed with strong short bows, the Jurchen began invading China in 1626. The Ming didn't have the resources to fight. They used silver as currency, but Spain shut down the New World's flow of silver to China (preferring to import it directly across the Caribbean and Atlantic rather than through Spanish colonies in Asia). Japan shut its borders to foreign trade, further reducing the flow of silver. Hoarding began, and the government found itself without money. In 1638, the Jurchen (now calling themselves the Manchu) seized Korea, cutting off more of the flow of resources and tribute to the Ming. Mutinies erupted among various Ming armies as food supplies failed to be sent. Finally, on May 26, 1644, Beijing fell to a rebel army which in turn welcomed the Manchu as the new leaders of China. The Chongzhen Emperior, the last Ming, hanged himself on a tree in the imperial garden outside the Forbidden City.

The Manchus began calling themselves the Qing. They garrisoned China with their Banner armies, and worked overtime to prove that they were as Chinese as the last guy. China is (and remains today) very Confucian, and ancestor worship and "the mandate of heaven" and engaging in ritual worship and sacrificing was considered important to retaining the people's support for the usurping Manchu. The Qing also controlled Mongolia and Tibet, where Buddhism was strong. So the Qing also engaged in extensive Buddhist worship and rituals as well. When Christians showed up, the Qing held communion. The Qing strategy was to be everything to everyone, and thus offend no one. The Qing also didn't get rid of the Ming bureaucracy. They re-energized it, they placed Manchu bannermen in positions of authority over it. But they largely left the Ming governance structure in place.

And lo and behold, this worked!! The Qing quickly conquered Xinjiang (northwest China), Tibet, and Mongolia. They easily put down a rebellion in the rich south of China, and conquered Taiwan.

But it all started to come apart in the 1700s. China was at the height of its economic and military power. But it hadn't grown. Europe had quickly surpassed it in the production of iron, gunpowder, cannon, naval vessels, and more. The scientific revolution sparked by the Protestant Reformation and the Renaissance swiftly brought Europe out of the Dark Ages, and the Age of Exploration led to the flood of new goods and wealth into Europe from the New World. China was completely bypassed by all of this. Although the great Qianlong Emperor ruled from 1735 to 1796 and was considered the best emperor China ever had, he knew little about the great changes occurring in Europe and did little about it when he did.

There was a huge demand in Europe for Chinese goods, particularly tea, jade, silk, jewelry, art, and porcelain (which only the Chinese knew how to make). China agreed to open "cantons", a handful of ports where European ships could drop off silver and buy Chinese goods at highly inflated prices. No European was allowed to cross the border of the "canton" into China proper. By the 1830s, European nations realized China had most of their silver, and they had little to show for it. To counteract this, the British in particular began shipping opium into China. China had almost no drug problem prior to this, but suddenly millions of Chinese were addicted.

When the Chinese banned opium, Britain went to war in 1841. The Chinese Navy, old and slow wooden junks, was smashed and Beijing seized in the First Opium War. China was forced to repay the cost of the war (which saw huge amounts of silver flow back to Europe), open more cantons, and permit Christian missionaries to proselytize anywhere in China. China was stunned by the way its navy sank and its vast army was easily out-maneuvered and defeated. In 1851, a wacky Christian cult formed around the city of Taiping. The Taiping Heavenly Kingdom was formed, and Chinese officials rushed to put down the rebellion. It was a slaughter: More than 20 million Chinese died, and the number of troops moving in China was three or four times that of the Napoleonic Wars in Europe. The need to provision and pay these troops, the devastation of China's great agricultural breadbasket, and the economic devastation caused by the rebellion left China reeling. And then in 1856, a Second Opium War broke out after Chinese officials seized opium from a Chinese vessel staffed by British sailors. France, Spain, and Germany joined England in attacking China, and again Beijing was seized. This time, Indochina was lost to France, and foreign ships won the right to ply all navigable waters throughout China to prevent interference with European trade.

China's slow-motion collapse, which began with the First Opium War in 1841 and ended with the abolition of the monarchy in 1912, is difficult to understand. Was it just poor leadership at the top? Sure, some emperors were just small children when they assumed the throne, but what about the regents? Where they incompetent? The Qing army fell apart, and warlords took over. Why did warlordism arise? Why was the central government so weak, and getting weaker? How did the emperors go from being absolute rulers in 1800 to figureheads in 1850? Was the immense reliance on Confucianism really to blame? If the imperial court was truly effective in using ritual to enhance its power, why did the empire collapse so swiftly? What role did Tibetan Buddhism play or not play, for good or bad, in the collapse or sustenance of the empire?

Good luck with finding answers, because while most histories of China can list dates and actions and who did what when and to whom, there is very little "why" or discussion of causality in Chinese histories. One can point to slavery, the enshrinement of slavery in the Constitution, the inability of federalism to resolve the slavery issue, economics, demographics, and other things as causes of the U.S. Civil War. But just try asking, "Why did China grow weak?" Uh,, uh...... hmm.....

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In 1851, at the age of 16, Lady Cixi became the third of the 18 wives taken by the Xianfeng Emperor. Initially just a "noble lady" (second-from-the-bottom of the eight ranks of wives), she became Concubine, then Consort, then Noble Consort, and finally Imperial Noble Consort. She gave birth to Xianfeng's only male son (that made her Empress), who in 1861 became the Tongzhi Emperor.

But the Tongzhi Emperor was only five years old when he became emperor, and Cixi was named regent along with Empress Dowager Ci'an. Tongzhi died at the age of 18. Cixi and Ci'an selected Tongzhi's four-year-old cousin as the the Guangxu Emperor, and again provided a regency. Ci'an died in April 1881 when Guangxu was just 10 years old, leaving Cixi to rule China.

China was crushed by Japan in 1894 in the First Sino-Japanese War. Guangxu became determined to rapidly modernize China. His efforts created a massive backlash which threatened to unseat the Manchu rulers of China. Cixi intervened, had her grand-nephew declared insane, and began ruling China again in 1898 as regent. Desperate to expel foreigners from China or at least make them respect Chinese power, Cixi allied herself with the anti-Christian, xenophobic cult known as the Boxers in 1900. The Boxer Rebellion slaughtered hundreds of Christian missionaries, but was put down when eight foreign armies invaded China. Cixi was forced to flee Beijing, and did not return until 1900 (18 months later). Back in power, Cixi instituted reforms even more radical than those of her grand-nephew.

It was all too little, too late. Warlords of all types were tearing China apart. The Guangxu Emperor died of arsenic poisoning on November 14, 1908, probably at Cixi's order. Cixi herself died two days later.

Cixi picked two-year-old Puyi, nephew of Guangxu, to be the new ruler of China on November 13. (Last-minute choices like this were not unusual in the Qing dynasty.) His father, the indecisive Prince Chun, was named regent.

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Was Cixi some sort of back-stage martinent, pulling the reactionary conservative strings? Was she an illiterate hillbilly who manipulated everyone around her so she could retain as much autocratic power as she could for as long as she could? Or was she a sweet-natured girl from the sticks at the mercy of misogynist, hide-bound men who were slurping at the trough of a dying China?

For most of the 20th century, Cixi was portrayed as a "dragon lady", the arch-conservative and bitch who destroyed China in her greedy grasph for power. More recently, however, authors like Sterling Seagrave have challeged this, portraying Cixi as an illiterate naif who was at the mercy of the men who made a greedy grasp for power in China.

Now comes Jung Chang, a China scholar whose 2005 book about Mao Zedong was highly controversial. Chang argues that Cixi was not as illiterate and pathetic as Seagrave says, but also not the dragon lady and kneejerk reactionary that she's been portrayed either. Cixi had to retain the support of the highly conservative and deeply influential bureaucracy that ran China, but at the same time was highly patriotic and desperately wanted to make China strong again through progressive reform. With China already in deep trouble, Cixi's options were limited and her own choices (sometimes poorly made) limited them even further.

We'll see! The book comes out in four days. I'm on pre-order.

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