The contemporary Western view of Manchu China: Edmund Backhouse and J.O.P.Bland’s China under the Empress Dowager (1910)

Embed from Getty Images My reading over the last few weeks has been very much focussed on a number of accounts dealing with the last- and arguably greatest- of the Manchu Empress Dowager, Cixi, or Tzu Hsi (1835-1908). Tzu-Hsi is a fascinating figure by whatever measure- a concubine on entry into the Forbidden City, she became the birth mother of  Emperor Tung Chi (1856-1875) and the adoptive mother of Emperors Kuang Hsu (1871-1908) and Pu Yi (1906-1967), ruling for significant periods of time as regent during the infancy and adolescence of her sons. Of course, Tzu Hsi’s time at the helm of the Chinese Court coincided with the tempestous final decades not just of the Manchu Q’ing Dynast (who had held power since 1644) but of China as a monarchy, so any study of Tzu Hsi’s biography necessarily links to political events that were of major significance to particularly British nineteenth-century beholders. Just think about this list: first, there was the TaiPing rebellion, a bloody Civil War which convulsed China for close on 15 years; arguably, the TaiPing movement gained momentum initially in response to China’s defeat in the First Opium War, so becomes one of the first internal reactions to China’s changing relations with aggressive, colonial Western powers. Ironically, the TaiPing Rebellion really only ended with the involvement of a number of Britsih officers, notably ‘Chinese’ Gordon and Frederick Townsend Ward who trained Imperial Chinese troops. Gordon’s and Ward’s main objective in the creation of the ‘Ever Victorious Army’ was of course to safeguard Shanghai (and British trading interests within), but once the seemingly unassailable TaiPing rebels had suffered their first defeat, the movement collapsed quite rapidly. While the TaiPing Rebellion with its base at Nangking affected big swathes of Southern China, Tzu Hsi and the Imperial Court at Beijing remained detached from events; what struck much closer to home were the events of the Second Opium War which necessitated a flight of the Imperial Court to Jehol (Chengde). Not only did the Imperial Court have to flee the Forbidden City, but the Court’s ceremonial life was profoundly affected by a singular act of retribution ordered by the British High Commissioner, James Bruce, 8th Lord Elgin: the razing of the Summer Palace. In fact, the first destruction of the Summer Palace in 1860 was so successful as a symbolic, as well as actual, act of humiliation for the Q’ing Dynasty that this act  was repeated in 1900 following the Boxer Rebellion. The Summer Palace was the Imperial Court’s place of retreat, symbolic of peace and harmony, so a destruction of that ceremonial space signified more than anything else the defeat, subjection and ‘inferiority’ of the Q’ing Dynasty to the invading Westerners, the ‘Foreign Devils’. And then there was the Boxer Rebellion of 1900, with the siege of the Legations Quarter and the second flight of the Imperial Court from Beijing, this time to Xi’an, the second razing of the Summer Palace, the looting of the Forbidden City- by 1900, the decline of the Q’ing Dynasty was apparent for all observers, and yet, the end of the dynasty still did not occur till after Tzu Hsi’s death; while the grand old dowager empress lived, her dynasty was shaky and tottering, but didn’t quite fall yet.

Tzu Hsi’s central position on or next to the dragon throne of course just adds to the fascination with the details of her life- she was witness to and central protagonist in key events shaping China’s late nineteenth-century history. Add to this the fact that this key political player was a female ruler, one of the very few women to occupy the Dragon Throne, and yet a contemporary to another significant Empress, Queen Victoria, and this might go a long way towards explaining why so much writing has focussed on her. Tzu Hsi’s seeming monopoly on occupying the attention of Victorian observers is certainly not due to a lack of significant subjects for biographical research; it would certainly be helpful to better understand the, for want of a better word, social history of her times.

Tzu His has recently received a lot of renewed attention, notably following the publication of Jung Chang’s The Empress Dowager Cixi ( a book I looked at elsewhere ), but the one book that remains pivotal to Tzu Hsi’s biography took me a bit longer to track down and even longer to read. I am referring to a true doorstopper of a book, J.O.P. Bland and Edmund Backhouse; China under the Empress Dowager, first published in 1910. The book, on publication, caused quite a sensation, and was widely reviewed, as here, for example, in The New York Times:

Sydney G. Corin, New York Times, 26 November 1910 :

The Empress Dowager of China died on November 15, 1908, and that so substantial a volume of biography should already be available is evidence of the commendable activity of its authors, Mr. J.O.P. Bland and Mr E. Backhouse. That the work is authoritative is is indicated by the fact that it was compiled from state papers and from the private diary of the Controller of the Empress’ household, while even a cursory glance through its 525 pages shows its excellence of tone and temper, the precision of its historical narrative, and its general value in the biographical library. Probably no such collection of Chinese documents has ever before been given to the world, or one that better reflects the realities of Chinese official life.

The influence of the book has been pervasive, with much of its detail retold in unexpected places; for example, Pearl S. Buck’s wonderful Imperial Woman, a superb piece of writing, draws many of its most memorable details straight from Bland and Backhouse, as does Anchee Ming’s Empress Orchid; the richness of detail provided in the original source is compelling and seductive, and authoritative. Or is it? Is it actually possible for Backhouse and Bland to be true? Can Westerners have had access to sources that allow them to write and authoritative and ‘correct’ version of the biography of China’s most powerful, and least visible woman, a woman who lived in ceremonial  seclusion and whose lack of visibility was an important part of her political self-fashioning? Hugh Trevor-Roper’s work, especially his Hermit of Peking (1977) discredited Edmund Backhouse as a reliable historical source, and of course, this necessarily led to the conclusion that many of the ‘sources’ that were published by Backhouse and Bland in 1910 were by implication also fabricated. And if the sources are questionable, so must be the conclusion. If only History was that easy… I am perfectly aware of these discussions and debates, and still, I consider the 1910 book a valuable source, but maybe not quite for the reasons one might expect?

For me, the value of Backhouse and Bland’s original biography of Tzu-Hsi lies precisely in the fact that part of it is fabricated. The bits that are fabricated seem to be largely focussed on Tzu His herself, or where the authors provide colour, emotions, and domestic context, often in order to make sense of events both to themselves and also to their audience. Backhouse and Bland show that for them the character of the monarch determines their perception of a different culture, so we as readers need to see what Tzu His is like to be able to understand ‘China’, because this unimaginably vast country with its alluring, fascinating, exotic culture is shaped by the morals and beliefs of the ruler at its head. Tzu His herself has to be the key to a country full of contradictions, and obviously, this non-Christian woman compares badly to the Christian Empress of Great Britain and India, Victoria. The image of Tau His that emerges from Bland and Backhouse is therefore a strange mixture of historical fact (and there are plenty documented dates, events, ‘facts’) and stereotype, told both through a gender and an imperial, racial lens. Given who the authors were, this seems inevitable, so for me, the fascination of the book lies in thinking about the stereotypes that shape Backhouse and Bland’s image of Tzu-Hsi and therefore, by implication, China.

First, there is intelligence, fierce, stern, formidable intelligence, informed by deep learning, but learning that is stale and antiquated, and learning that remembers the glories of an once great empire but one now fallen into decline.

Then there is indolence, luxury, pleasure. As the learning is just recalling a shadow of former greatness, there is a void, and this void is filled not by industry and work but by resorting to an indulgence of the senses. Backhouse and Bland’s Tau His craves jewels, fine foods, exotic goods, and erotic pleasure, but she becomes twisted and corrupted by these indulgences. In Backhouse and Bland, this finds an expression i one of the most  fascinating chapters in the book which deals with the court eunuchs. The authors roundly condemn the political role of eunuchs, describe them as scheming and devious, and this corruptness necessarily expresses itself through perverted expressions of sexuality which in turn twist, corrupt and ruin the rulers in contact with them. While eunuchs have some effect on male emperors, their influence over a lone female ruler has to be detrimental. Especially when some of these eunuchs are ‘pretend- eunuchs’ and actually the secret lovers of the sexually frustrated and rapacious Tzu-Hsi.

And finally, there is gender. Indolence and luxury, sensuality and beauty need to be tempered through justice, action and wisdom, but a lone female ruler lacks these characteristics of the male Prince. So, where Elizabeth I has her Leicester, Tzu His needs her foil, so enter tall handsome bannerman and love interest Jung Lu, who assumes the role of arbitrator and mediator. For me, what is most interesting about reading Backhouse and Bland (which as a text veers between superb page turner and unbelievably stodgy verbiage) is not what it says about the Empress Dowager at the helm of late nineteenth-century China, but about the Westerners trying to make sense of a country they both deeply loved and were desperate to understand.

Right, next up? Backhouse and Bland’s Annals and Memoirs of the Court of Peking, and if I am feeling brave, a look at Backhouse’s previously unpublished memoirs, the Decadence Manchoue. And as regards Tzu Hsi, what I want to know more about is the material culture of a Manchu Emperor. There are some intriguing photographs dating to the early 1900s showing the Empress; these are carefully staged photographs depicting the most glorious ceremonial garments, and given my interests in self-fashioning and identity, I really need to look at what image TzuHsi herself stage-managed through these images and her ceremonial appearances.


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