Beijing Dispatch: Was This Powerful Chinese Empress a Feminist Trailblazer?

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BEIJING — She entered the world of an ancient empire as a teenage concubine, chosen by the emperor to share his bed for her good looks, immaculate comportment and, above all, her ability to sing.

The male-dominated court was a swirl of intrigue, forced suicides and poisonings. Eunuchs assigned to the emperor prepared her for sex with the ruler, undressing her and carrying her to his bed. After the Emperor Xianfeng’s death, she governed in the name of young male heirs — from behind a screen.

Perhaps as an escape from these oppressive restrictions, Empress Dowager Cixi (pronounced TSIH-shee), the de facto ruler of China in the final decades of the imperial dynasty, rebuilt a fantastic wonderland, the Summer Palace. It’s an extended estate of glittery lakes, luxurious gardens and elaborate wooden pavilions on the edge of the nation’s capital, attracting up to 100,000 visitors a day.

Most of them are curious Chinese from across the country who read in their Communist Party-authorized school books that Cixi was a harridan who stole the nation’s wealth and was responsible for China’s humiliating defeat by the Japanese in 1895.

But was she? Cixi, a peer of Queen Victoria’s and apparently iron-willed, has invited revisionist interpretations that view her as a feminist, at least in the context of the late 19th century, when women in China were treated little better than spittoons.

Strong women in China are often portrayed as power-hungry, and sometimes irrational, and are notably absent from the highest ranks of government. There is no Hillary Clinton figure in contemporary China (the real Mrs. Clinton is vilified by the government for talking about human rights in the country), or an Angela Merkel, who has stood up to China on trade.

When Bo Xilai, a rival to the current ruler Xi Jinping, was put on trial for corruption, he described his wife as “insane” in an effort to lessen his sentence.

So harking back to the pre-communist era for a feminist trailblazer makes sense. And to search for feminist ideals in a woman who ruled for nearly 50 years, from 1861 until her death in 1908, is understandable.

But the case of Cixi — who was isolated, undereducated and never made a break for personal freedom — is a hard argument to make.

A Chinese historian, Jung Chang, began the re-evaluation of Cixi with her biography, “Empress Dowager Cixi.” Ms. Chang, who lives in exile, argues the empress brought medieval China into the modern age, calling her an “amazing stateswoman.”

But Ms. Chang’s damn-the-man portrait of Cixi is a tad too generous even for some sympathizers. How could the empress dowager have ushered in groundbreaking innovation when much of her career was devoted to her drive to preserve the imperial family that crumbled three years after her death?

And Cixi did undermine a bold reform program begun by her adopted son, Emperor Guangxu, who favored a constitutional monarchy, not an absolute one. She then supported the Boxer rebellion, an anti-foreign, anti-Christian uprising that cost China dearly, a move she later blamed on her bossy male advisers.

A Chinese scholar, Zhang Hongjie, recently took up the cause of the empress in a sympathetic essay, “Woman Cixi,” featured in an anthology about Chinese women and men who have struggled against the odds.

He argued that she was held back by her lack of education, a given at the time because she was a woman, and that she should be given credit for trying to make amends for her mistakes at the end of her rule. But Mr. Zhang said his positive portrait made little impact.

“Cixi is still a negative character,” he said.

Her endeavors to preserve the imperial family above all else make for comparisons with Michael Corleone, the fictional Mafia boss.

“She had one of the most ruthless, savvy political minds, she was like a gangster,” said Jeremiah Jenne, a historian who leads visitors on walking tours around the Summer Palace, where he points out 500-year-old juniper and cypress trees, and paint-faded pavilions like the Hall for Dispelling Clouds, which was renovated in 1895 for her 60th birthday extravaganza.

Cixi had the Summer Palace rebuilt after an invading European army looted and burned the original, which, with its jewel-encrusted furniture and over-the-top silks, was said to be on par with Versailles.

Her reconstruction was not quite as opulent, but it was a sumptuous personal pleasure ground, intended to signify the strength of the family and its immense retinue of courtiers.

Despite the scholarly ruminations about Cixi, many Chinese tourists seem more interested in her extravagant lifestyle and come to see what is left of the loot, much faded because of neglect by the Communist Party’s cultural administrators.

A favorite is the “marble boat,” officially known as the Boat of Purity and Ease, a two-story wooden pavilion with wide verandas built into the side of the lakeshore and painted to resemble pale marble.

The official school curriculum says Cixi stole funds from the imperial Navy to renovate the boat just two years before the outbreak of war with the Japanese. Because of her thievery, the textbooks say, China lost the naval battles against Japan in 1894.

Crowds, shoulder-to-shoulder on a recent spring day, pressed against the lakeside rail, taking selfies framed by the newly green willow trees that dipped into the water.

“She had an expensive lifestyle, and China had one disaster after another,” said a middle-aged primary schoolteacher, who identified herself as Ms. Ye. She said she had no sympathy for Cixi.

“When you are backward as China was then, people will take advantage of you,” she said.

In the gift shops, there are no images of Cixi, just a few pieces of pink silk emblazoned with her calligraphy, sold as wall hangings. Commemorative coins with the portrait of Mao Zedong, cheap bangles, tea sets and hand fans do a brisker trade.

“No one likes her,” one of the young saleswomen said. “In history she is bad. Who would buy souvenirs of Cixi?”

Young Chinese tourists showed more sympathy.

“As a woman, she couldn’t make decisions in politics like the men,” said Xiao Yangchuan, 18, a first-year university student. “I think we should see her as a real person. She has her own flaws, and we should understand her era,” she said.

In the last decade of her life, the empress dowager tried to polish her image by making herself more accessible, especially to Western diplomats. But in the end, she could barely overcome the impression that, like many royals in the West, she was most interested in her dogs, gardening and fancy clothing, wrote Sterling Seagrave in his empathetic biography, “Dragon Lady.”

Pictures of her are banished to a pavilion near the exit of the palace grounds, where a large sepia photo shows her, surrounded by ladies in waiting, dressed in an embroidered gown with pearls said to be the size of canary eggs, and long talon-like finger nails.

The day before she died, the young emperor, Guangxu, was found dead — of natural causes, imperial records show. In 2008, Chinese medical investigators found extraordinarily high levels of arsenic in his remains, leading to a popular conclusion that the Empress had killed him to try to stop him from introducing political reforms after her own death.

Did she do it? “I am going with Cixi,” said Mr. Jenne, the historian.

In her final years, she was known as the “old Buddha,” a term that friendly biographers say was a term of endearment. Others see it as an appropriately scornful term for a woman who was barely literate, left little for other women to emulate and led the bankrupt Qing dynasty to its downfall in a country whose government remains as male-dominated as ever.

Follow Jane Perlez on Twitter: @JanePerlez.

Elsie Chen and Karoline Kan contributed research in Beijing.

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