A Misunderstood Villain
Ancient China was a world full of emperors and empresses. The last empress of China, Dowager Cixi, entered the world of royalty as a teenager. She was hand-picked by the emperor, Xianfeng, for her beauty and her ability to sing.
The Chinese empire was extremely male-dominated. While she was an empress, she was essentially his slave, there to serve him in any way he wanted. When Xianfeng died, Cixi was suddenly put into power. Aware of the male-dominated world she lived in, she ruled from the shadows.
She started rebuilding the Summer Palace, a magnificent building. When rebuilding was done, it finally represented the power of the Chinese empire. Today, the palace attracts up to 100,000 visitors a day. Tourists come from all corners of the world to see its lakes, gardens and extravagant pavilions.
Strong-willed, independent women in China are often viewed as irrational and power-hungry. Women during Cixi’s time were treated like livestock and their opinions were not important. Emperors were even known to blame their wives for their bad decisions.
She Went Down in History as a Disgrace
Chinese history books label Cixi as a malignant empress who stole the nation’s wealth and was the reason the Chinese were defeated by the Japanese in 1895. A different point of view would see Cixi as a revisionist and strong feminist.
A Chinese historian, Jung Chang, started re-evaluating Cixi and all the work she did in her lifetime. Chang currently lives in exile but believes that Cixi helped usher China into the modern age.
It’s true that Cixi didn’t agree with her adopted son’s reform program to favor a constitutional monarchy but Chinese scholar Zhang argues that she was held back because of her lack of education. He’s sympathetic to the struggle of being a female ruler in a male-dominated world.
Why Tourists Still Love Her
What attracts tourists to Cixi’s life is the extravagant style of living she had. One of the top sites they come to see is “marble boat” or what the Chinese know as the “Boat of Purity and Ease”. The two-story wooden pavilion was built into a lakeshore and painted to resemble marble.
Chinese school children are taught that Cixi stole money from the imperial navy to build the pavilion before China went to war with Japan. When the Chinese navy lost the battles on the water to the Japanese they blamed it on the money that was taken from them to build a fancy boat.
Cixi’s reputation has become so antagonistic and shameful in China that no souvenirs in the gift shop at Summer Palace have her face on them. A couple items have her calligraphy on them and pictures of her are banned to the back of the palace.
Young people are starting to adopt a more open-minded view on Cixi. An 18-year-old college student from China says “I think we should see her as a real person. She has her own flaws, and we should understand her era and that she couldn’t make decisions in politics like the men”.