I just finished reading the historical novel, The Last Empress , by Anchee Min. It was an interesting account of the last half of the life of Ch’ing Empress Tzu Hsi, more commonly known as the Dowager Empress. Although, as a woman, she could not be the formal ruler of the empire, she served as regent or co-regent for both her son and the adopted son who succeeded him. When not officially appointed co-regent by the court, she still maintained a great deal of power through her influence on the emperor, and the favor she had with many important government ministers.
Visiting the Summer Palace and the Forbidden City last August, I learned that the Empress was a “bad guy” in Chinese history – depicted as despotic, xenophobic, self-serving, and prone to nepotism. In other words, she was the embodiment of the evils of imperial power. This well-researched novel presents her in a different light, as someone trying to maintain a failing empire in the face of weak leadership and a court with all the aforementioned qualities assigned to her by her detractors.
The novel is set in the years from 1863 to 1912 – beginning shortly after the first Opium War and covering the Boxer Rebellion. Reading the novel left me pessimistic about Chinese governance and Western involvement in the country. Has nothing changed in the last 125 years in terms of the nature of Chinese governance and the opportunistic involvement of the West?
Just reading about the way that imperial China was managed was amazing – rulers who had basically never left the Forbidden City, knew nothing of the life of their own people, and possessed virtually no practical knowledge exercised severely limited control over the military, provincial governors, etc. However, so much of what I read about the Ch’ing dynasty reminded me of the treatment in many of the books I read preparing for this trip of the party elite in contemporary China – out of touch and out of control – mostly just trying to hold it together enough to stay in power.
Reading about the way the West characterized the Empress Tzu Hsi was humiliating and eerily familiar. She was cast by the Western press (and by the Chinese governments that would suceed the Ch’ing era) as a reactionary, seeking to maintain her power and to subvert the will of the Chinese people (i.e. the establishment of a parliamentary system of governance). Using government tyranny and the Boxers (a xenophobic collection of military units joined by peasants who attacked missionaries, embassies, and other foreign interests) as an excuse to invade, 15 separate foreign governments divided up China. In the end, despite their claims that the regime was anti-democratic, they decided to allow a puppet Ch’ing dynasty to continue, mostly (so I have read in many accounts) because they thought they could make more money than they would should the continue devolve into clan warfare. Just as the behavior of the U.S. and other Western nations was dishonest and selfish then, so does it seem to me that the way the U.S. treats the China today is marked by similar arrogant self-interest. Take Copenhagen for example. Of course China, the nation whose modern ascension derives from manufacturing the West’s goods cheaply because they don’t have the same legal protections for their environment or their workers as in the West is unwilling to sacrifice their lucrative position. Naturally corporations that relocate their manufacturing to China, Americans who continue to buy products made in China, and a U.S. government propping up what is supposedly a capitalist economy by borrowing back the money that their citizens put into the China when they purchase all those goods manufactured by under-protected workers raising their children without clean air, food or water don’t seem to care that they are the motor driving the whole mess. That’s my lay-persons take on the situation.