Cixi: The Woman Behind the Throne

The concubine who became China’s last empress

The Empress Dowager Cixi (Yu Xunling)

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Seagrave's 1992 biography of Cixi, Dragon Lady, is among the most thorough attempts to sift the solid facts from the sticky sea of rumors about the empress. He takes nearly 500 pages to explain what he calls "the hoodwinking of history" by a British journalist and his assistant in the early 20th century.

As a reporter for the Times of London, George Morrison's dispatches from Peking in the late 1890s and early 1900s were the only glimpse most Westerners got inside the Forbidden City. He wasn't a bad reporter, but he made the mistake of listening to a young man named Edmund Backhouse, an Oxford-trained linguist who contributed to many of Morrison's articles. As other sources—including Morrison's own diary—later revealed, much of Backhouse's "reporting" was utter fiction. But by the time Morrison realized this, it would have damaged his own reputation too much to reveal the truth.

In 1898, the emperor Guangxu launched the Hundred Days Reform, a well-intentioned but poorly implemented attempt to modernize many aspects of Chinese society that nearly caused a civil war. Cixi ultimately regained the regency with support from conservatives who opposed the reforms. She stayed in power until her death in 1908, but her reputation was tarnished by slanderous rumors spread by the leader of the failed reform, Kang Yu-Wei.

The image of Cixi as a cruel and greedy tyrant gained historical traction in 1910, when Backhouse and another British journalist, J.O.P. Bland, published the book China Under the Empress Dowager. It was praised at the time for being a thoroughly researched biography, but as Seagrave notes, Backhouse forged many of the documents he cited.

It's hard to know what Backhouse's motivations may have been for this historical hoax, but perhaps sensational lies simply paved an easier path to fame than nuanced truth. Seagrave suggests that Backhouse had an unhappy childhood, suffered from mental illness and was "brilliant but highly unstable."

Through Seagrave's lens, the historical image of Cixi takes on a softer, sadder aura than the monster of Backhouse's creation. She was certainly a bright, ambitious woman, but her life was anything but a fairy tale.

"One might wish for her sake that her life had been just such a burlesque filled with Florentine intrigues and Viennese frivolity, because the truth is melancholy…Under those layers of historical graffiti was a spirited and beautiful young woman trapped in a losing proposition: …A figurehead empress who lost three emperors to conspiracy; a frightened matriarch whose reputation was destroyed as she presided over the decline of a bankrupt dynasty," he writes.

About Amanda Fiegl

Amanda Fiegl is a former assistant editor at Smithsonian and is now a senior editor at the Nature Conservancy.

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