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Wednesday, June 3, 2015

“Dragon Lady: The Life and Legend of the Last Empress of China”, by Sterling Seagrave

601 pages, Alfred A. Knopf, Inc., ISBN-13: 978-0679402305

It has been said, or course, that history is written by the winners, and sometimes the losers can get a very bad press, indeed. The truth of this statement can be found in the tale of Tzu Hsi, the last Dowager Empress of China, who has been seen as a combination of Lucrezia Borgia, Fu Manchu, and Richard III, but the truth was rather different.

In Dragon Lady: The Life and Legend of the Last Empress of China, Sterling Seagrave tells the true story of Tzu Hsi, this infamous Empress Dowager who dominated the Qing court for almost half a century. He goes entirely against the views of earlier biographers who have labeled Tzu Hsi as an evil genius in order to give a story of a fairly ordinary woman overwhelmed by the nearly impossible task of trying to reform a failing dynasty against intense opposition from the reactionary Manchu noblemen. Familiar events to students of Qing dynasty history (such as the Tung Chih era, the Hundred Days Reform, and the Boxer Rebellion) are all here, but these events, especially the last, are treated quite differently by Seagrave, who tells a story entirely different from most accounts. Seagrave also goes into some detail regarding the lives and characters of George Morrison and Edmund Backhouse, China “experts” and correspondents for the London Times, who are the primary creators of the traditional accounts of Tzu Hsi’s supposed crimes (Backhouses’ extravagantly pornographic accounts are particularly bizarre; it’s incredible that he could have ever been taken seriously as a historical source).

Not having read these authors accounts of the supposed excesses in the behavior of Empress Tzu Hsi, I can only comment on Seagrave’s version of events. The life story of the Empress is a fascinating one, worthy of the telling, and the sources of Seagrave’s research appear stand up to fairly close examination. It is a detailed history spreading through the eight decades of her life, so if you pick up this book because you enjoyed the movie 55 days at Peking (y’know, as I did) then you are in for a disappointment (the Siege of the Legations was apparently something of a sham with the principle Chinese general, charged with the of taking the Legations, spending a fair amount of his efforts giving assistance and succor to the defenders rather than bringing about their downfall). I was left with a somewhat pitiable final impression of Tzu Hsi that I feel has a significant parallel with the fate of her country during her lifetime. Never a prime mover of events, she, like China, was much more a victim of Manchu intrigue and obsolescence rather than European duplicity and greed.

Overall this is a worthy and much needed reassessment of Tzu Hsi. While some people criticize the history, the distortion over the events and character of Tzu Hsi still rage today (the Backhouse bio attributes some sexual exploits of the author so is completely suspect, but it was taken as gospel for years). Seagrave is more balanced, and shows the various sides of the despotic but venerated rulers who tried to stem the tide of modernism in Old China, and failed. The onslaught of the Western culture broke down centuries of stable peasant culture, making way for the Revolution. An interesting look into the last remnants of Imperial China.

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