China

Look at who is running the country

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

taiwan-president

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

park_geun-hye_8724400493

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

Painting of the Dowager Empress Cixi

Dowager Empress Cixi

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).

Dowager Empress Cixi–the woman who modernized China

This weekend the aisles of my neighborhood grocery store are crowded with colorful packages of candy and it’s flying off the shelves. The doors are hung with scarlet and gold banners bearing large Chinese characters offering good wishes for the New Year. For a week San Francisco will be celebrating the arrival of the Year of the Horse, and crowds of people will watch the big parade downtown. But while big cities along the coasts are well aware of the holiday smaller American communities may not even know it is going on.

Painting of the Dowager Empress CixiChina sometimes seems the most foreign of foreign countries to those of us who live in the West. The language is difficult to learn, and the customs sometimes strike us as odd. That’s why there is a special thrill in discovering an individual who helps us cross the bridge and see what life looks like from a Chinese viewpoint.

This week I have been reading Jung Chang’s Empress Dowager Cixi, which has given me a glimpse of what it was like to grow up in 19th century China. Cixi was born in 1835 while China was still 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 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. I strongly recommend reading Jung Chang’s book about the Dowager Empress.

Pearl Buck–Woman of the Week

News that China is launching an English-language television service in America started me thinking about how closely we Americans are now entwined with life in China. We hear news about China almost every day and see Chinese faces on TV news frequently. Most of this familiarity is linked to politics and world events, but don’t let’s forget the pioneers who first led Americans to think about Chinese life and to begin to understand Chinese people. One of the most important—a woman writer now almost forgotten—is Pearl Buck.

Pearl Buck grew up in a missionary family in China. From an early age she realized she was different from the children around her. Pearl could feel people staring at her. She remembers how she felt walking to the market one day when she was about six years old. As she passed two boys one of them made a face and yelled “foreign devil”. Pearl knew her blonde hair and blue eyes made her look strange and different to the Chinese children around her. Her family lived near other missionaries and had quite a comfortable life, but she had no friends her age and always felt isolated and alone. Her beloved nurse, Amah Wang, taught her to speak Chinese and told her many Chinese folktales. As she grew up, Pearl was able to read and write both English and Chinese and felt equally at home in both languages. She knew many Chinese folktales, but she also read and reread the complete works of Charles Dickens, one of her family’s prized possessions.

When Pearl went to the United States to attend college, she realized how little she knew of American life. She could tell her classmates stories about life in China—about how many Chinese people were so poor they sometimes let their girl babies die. Once when Pearl was picking flowers near her house, she found the bones of a baby girl who had been buried secretly. She could never forget the poverty and suffering Chinese people endured, but the American students she knew found her stories weird and horrible.

Pearl moved back to China and married a man who worked with the Chinese to develop modern agricultural methods. She and her husband lived in a small Chinese city and again were feeling isolated. In the turmoil of Chinese politics and anti-Western feelings, Pearl had a hard time feeling accepted by either Chinese friends or the missionary community she had grown up with. She turned to writing and produced one of the best-selling novels of the era in The Good Earth which tried to present an honest picture of the lives of average Chinese people. The book won the Pulitzer Prize in 1932 and was a Book-of-the-Month Club selection. The novel has been translated into many languages and remains in print to this day. In 1937, she won a Nobel Prize for Literature, the first American woman to do so. Still, critics complained about her literary qualities and politicians attacked her ideas.

Politically Pearl Buck was controversial. After she moved permanently to the United States in 1935, she became an advocate for civil rights and women’s rights. Horrified by the fate of mixed-race children, she started an adoption service for these children, many of them fathered by American soldiers in Asia during World War II. During the Cold War she was called a Communist in the United States and was refused permission to visit China with President Richard Nixon. The reputation of her books has fluctuated both in China and the U.S. over the years, but there is no denying that they strengthened ties between the two countries by introducing hundreds of thousands of Americans to the lives and struggles of Chinese people living half a world away. Now we can see the lives of these people played out on our TV screens every day, but we owe a lot to the pioneers who started introducing us to them.

 

 

Meanderings

Standing Still is Not an Option

Art, Spirit, Nature

there is a web that connects all things

From The Pink Shed

from the pink shed

Self Improvement

Self improvement,Self Growth, Mindset, Self Discovery

Other Side of the Mountains

Travel. Taste. Teach.

Jonelle Patrick's Only In Japan

Every day, stuff you'd never see anywhere else.

Little Fears

Tales of humour, whimsy and courgettes

The WordPress.com Blog

The latest news on WordPress.com and the WordPress community.

alinefromabook.wordpress.com/

Always on the hunt for a good story

Teacups and Tyrants-Adele Fasick looks at people, books, and history

Viewing today’s world through the light of the past

Laura Macky Photography

Journey of a body on this earth

Chris Andrews

News, articles, and interviews.

Routine Matters

A writers guide to just getting on with it

Such Eternal Delight

Historical Costuming and Cultural Context

Art Attack

Discovering art in everything

Melonie's Poetic Life

A topnotch WordPress.com site