Apologies for the long hiatus. Events at the library have precluded blogging. However, they are over and here we are. In an effort to avoid these long gaps I am going to make this more of a true blog, not so much the essay format. I hereby resolve to write every Friday (gulp!) about what I've read the previous week.
This past week it was Empress Dowager Cixi: The Concubine Who Launched Modern China by Jung Chang. Long, detailed and utterly fascinating. Cixi is in the same class as Elizabeth I of England or Catherine the Great of Russia – a remarkable ruler in her own right, amazing when gender prejudice is taken into account. Apparently, she has gotten a bum rap from both pre-Revolution and Communist historians, not fitting in with either group's agenda. Newly available documents and more recent scholarship inspired Jung Chang, memoirist and biographer, to correct the balance. She may even go too far in the opposite direction.
Cixi was born in 1835 into an old and illustrious Manchu family, long-time civil servants in the Qing dynasty. At age 16, she was chosen to be one of the new young Emperor Xianfeng's many concubines and entered the closed harem in the Forbidden City. Cixi was the name she was given then and her real name has been forgotten. Four years later she gave birth to the Emperor's first, and only, son which elevated her from the Third Rank to number two consort, second only to the Empress Zhen with whom she had become good friends. After the Emperor's premature death in 1860, the two women, with the help of two of Xianfeng's brothers, had themselves declared the Empresses Dowager and seized power. Cixi effectively ruled China until her death in 1908.
China in 1860 was a mess. Governed by an outmoded and unwieldy bureaucracy and hampered by a stagnating economy, the country was in many ways mired in medieval times. Circling like hungry vultures were Japan and the main Western powers – Britain, France, Russia and Germany – eager to open up the country for exploitation. Cixi had to keep them at bay, and an increasingly restless populace placated, while she tried to strengthen and modernise the nation. This incredible juggling act was performed in the face of resistance, and treachery, from the tradition-bound nobility and civil service.
Cixi's struggles, carried out with absolute ruthlessness, make for absorbing reading. She always had to remain, literally, the power behind the throne, ruling for, and later through, her son and after he died of smallpox, her nephew. While she made many mistakes, the most drastic of which was encouraging the Boxer Rebellion in an attempt to repel foreign interests, she probably did better than anyone else could have under the circumstances. Chang, I think, goes a bit far in suggesting that, if left unmolested, Cixi would have been successful in turning China into a constitutional monarchy. However, she does an excellent job of portraying an intelligent,dynamic, patriotic woman who was a natural leader. Highly recommended.
After the Empress Dowager, needing a change of pace, I read the new Flavia de Luce mystery, The Dead in Their Vaulted Arches by Alan Bradley. A big disappointment. The only thing that kept me reading was the character of Flavia. She is a wonderful and lifelike invention unlike the leaden plot of this book. The story starts with Flavia's mother's body coming home for burial. Harriet was finally found, frozen in a crevasse in the Alps. Some unusual people turn up for the event, including Winston Churchill, and one of them is murdered.
There is little detection involved in solving the crime(s) and what there is is extremely tedious. I basically skimmed the last half of the book and swore that this would be the last one I'd read. But then – Flavia is being sent to boarding school in Canada! How can I resist?