During the past week, newspapers and other news sources have carried stories about two world leaders who share a characteristic rare among the powerful players on the
international scene—they are both women and both are Asian. Women have not had an easy time reaching the heights of power in Asian countries, but they have moved faster
than American women. The stories about President Tsai Ing-wen of Taiwan (above) and President Park Geun-hye of South Korea (below) have made me think about the fact that the United States is lagging behind many other countries in having a power structure that includes both men and women. What is it that makes us so backward?
Thinking about this inspired me to go back to a book I read a few years ago— Jung Chung’s biography Empress Dowager Cixi: The Concubine Who Launched Modern China (Knopf 2013). I wrote a blog post about it at the time, but recent events both here and
around the world makes the book even more relevant today.
Cixi was born in 1835, during a period when China was isolated from most other countries. A few Europeans and Americans had visited China, but there was little trade between China and the West and even less understanding. Chinese leaders considered the Westerners to be barbarians and most Westerners scorned the Chinese as ignorant and backward. Cixi was destined to revolutionize the relations between China and the rest of the world.
Girls and women at that time were not expected to play any role in public life. They existed to provide sons and heirs to their husbands. Cixi went to the royal court as one of many
concubines for the emperor, but she had the great good luck to bear a healthy son. This changed her life. The emperor was sickly and because Cixi could read and write, she could help him handle his government duties. Doing this taught her a lot about government and how it worked. When the emperor died young, Cixi’s five-year-old son became emperor.
Cixi was intelligent and politically astute. Her husband had appointed eight regents to govern the country while his son was a child, but Cixi knew she could do the job better. She allied herself with her husband’s childless wife and the two of them became guardians of Cixi’s son, the child emperor, and effectively ruled the country. Because women could not be acknowledged as rulers, Cixi sat behind the royal throne, concealed by a screen, to listen to official reports and make decisions about what should be done.
During the late 1800s, Europe and America because more aware of the valuable resources China had to offer to the world. Europeans and Americans, as well as the Japanese, competed to get access to natural resources and to the China trade. The struggle led to the Opium Wars and to many other battles. Cixi and some of her supporters recognized that in order to keep the country independent they had to accept some Western ways. Education was reformed so that young students learned more than just the classics of Chinese literature; representatives were sent to Europe and America and foreign diplomats were finally welcomed into the Chinese court.
Cixi was by no means a perfect person; she could be cruel and impose harsh punishments and death upon her enemies, but she set the course of China toward modernization. By the time she died in 1908, China was ready to enter the twentieth century and take its place on the world stage. Now, more than a hundred years later, reading about the Dowager Empress Cixi gives us an idea of what a strong and powerful woman she was. Her determination and strength can help us to understand where China is today—a world leader. And reading about how the Dowager Empress was maligned and underestimated by many of the leaders in her own country and internationally may make us ponder whether Americans are also underestimating the women leaders in our country. I strongly recommend reading Jung Chung’s book Empress Dowager Cixi: The Concubine Who Launched Modern China (Knopf 2013).