EMPRESS DOWAGER CIXI
Loved this book and you will too if you if you're interested in Chinese history and the
rise of a woman from concubine to a behind the scenes Ruler of China.
Imagine being twelve years old - maybe fourteen. You have no say about your life at all. You must obey your father - your parents - your family. They can even tell you to commit suicide and you will follow through. You've been raised to be obedient. And you cannot be married to someone of your own choosing, or married at all, until you are paraded before the Emperor along with many other girls, brought to the Forbidden City on carts.
If he rejects you, you go home to your family. If he chooses you, you go home for a year or so, until you are called. If he (or his mother) chooses you to be one of his many concubines, then you must live segregated in a harem with the rest of the women at the back of the immense Forbidden City, where you may life a life of loneliness, or rise, step by step, to be a person of privilege, maybe even his favorite. Only one young woman is chosen to be the Empress, his wife, and he may not even be the one to choose her.
Chosen for the harem, you will not choose your own décor, clothing, or food, all of it regulated to announce status. What colors of silk, how many flowers in your hair, how high your shoes, how many cooked chickens for eating; everything is dictated. You may or may not get along with the other women and girls.
There are eight rungs on the ladder of the imperial consorts and if you are Cixi you begin on rung six. You may never rise higher.
Cixi did rise, because she was submissive and well liked by the Empress.
She learned as his wife had, that the Emperor, called "The Limping Dragon," loves sex. He increases the numbers of his consorts. He also brings in prostitutes with bound feet and even goes outside for pleasure.
The Empress Zhen, his wife, and the lowly concubine became great friends. When he died, though not officially his mother though she gave birth to him, Cixi's son became the Emperor and she and The Empress became "The Two Dowager Empresses" who, still confined to the back of the palace, and sitting unseen behind a yellow screen, basically ruled China until the son was married and had his own marriage. Then the son died only a couple years later of smallpox and on his deathbed asked the women to continue their role as advisors to the council, and they wanted to keep it going that way. in 1871 Cixi chose the three year old son of her sister to be the next Emperor. The Empress Zhen died ten years later and so Cixi delayed his marriage until he was seething 19 year old. At that point she retired to the Sea Palace and kept herself entertained by designing her clothing and jewelry and having live operas performed for her entertainment. She had servants holding her cigarettes and umbrellas. It was not enough for this powerful woman. By 60 she was wearing wigs over her balding head and had lost heart.
As history goes, she would never find great peace. China would experience the Taiping and Boxer Rebellions, and wars with France and Japan as well as the invasion of Allied troops including Great Britain and the United States during her life time.
Though she may have been selected for being a obedient and unopinionated when just a girl, Cixi became hated. She had chosen a wife for the new Emperor Guangxu, who had been born her sister's son. This wife was the Empress Longyu who had been, at marriage, a 21 year old spinster, an older woman. At his death she would do the honorable thing and commit suicide, leaving his favorite concubine Pearl to fend for herself. At 64, Cixi, in an escape fleeing the Forbidden City in the year 1900 ordered Pearl to commit suicide. When she wouldn't she was tossed down a well.
Cixi lived exiled with a large group of other aristocrats and servants in Xian, but remained a ruler of China, and what I would call a secret feminist, hating the inequality that women experienced and the attitudes against them. Though she was aging, the Emperor Guangxu was a feeble man. They returned to Beijing in about 1901-1902. She died in 1908.
Of great interest to me was the power of these two women in their political alliance, which they had to handle so carefully so as to not be accused of treason, and which was immense. This is the story of strong women and weak men. Yet, they were women, and not free to live entirely as they liked however rich and privileged they had become. When lonely and young as a widow, Cixi had taken one lover, a eunuch, and when he was beheaded she had a breakdown, and never took a lover again. Unable to have more children as a Dowager, he strove to put those who were blood related to her and family on the throne of China, with failure.