Friday, June 12, 2015


Just finished reading a biography of Empress Dowager Cixi, (1835-1908) who ruled China for nearly 50 years as it tried to transform itself from an inward-looking, largely agrarian empire to a more modern, forward-looking one, with and without the help of interfering countries like Britain, France, Germany, Russia, Japan and the United States.
Jung Chang (Wild Swans and Mao - the Untold Story) paints a sympathetic picture of Cixi, who rose from the status of concubine to ruler of 450 million people. And it's true, she played a leading, reforming role in turning China around. But you don't get to that position, and stay at that position, without being pretty ruthless. And Cixi was certainly that. The early coup to get rid of the regency placing her and the ex-Emperor's wife as co-governors while her feeble son, Emperor Tongzhi, came of age (conveniently dying young); diverting money from the navy to fund her lavish Summer Palace; encouraging the Boxer Rebellion (or at least not stopping it); ordering numerous executions including throwing the Emperor's concubine down a well; poisoning the Guangxu Emperor (her adopted son, whom she never liked), so as to install the more malleable 2-year old Puyi (the subject of Bertolucci's The Last Emperor), and so on. Anyway, a riveting read.

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