The Forbidden City

The Forbidden City, by Geremie R. Barmé, London: Profile Books/Cambridge, Ma.: Harvard University Press, 2008.

Chapter 5: The Dowager

The walkway and walls separating Qianlong's retirement palace from the eastern sector of the Inner Court of the Forbidden City. [Photo: GRB]

pages 91-92 For details of the imperial women and the Virtuous Consort's elevation, see Evelyn S. Rawski, The Last Emperors, A Social History of Qing Imperial Institutions (Berkeley: University of California Press, 1998), p.133.

page 93 On the proximity of the Western Six Palaces to the Hall of Mental Cultivation, see L.C. Arlington and William Lewisohn, In Search of Old Peking, with an introduction by Geremie Barmé (Oxford and Hong Kong: Oxford University Press, 1987), pp.58-59.

page 93 My translation of the reign title, or era name, of the Tongzhi Emperor as 'joint rule' follows a more contemporary convention. The title is just as likely to mean 'return to order', 'return to harmony', or 'rule within the tradition'. The historian Mary Wright, who wrote a major work on the Tongzhi Restoration, remarked on the unreliability of translations of Chinese imperial reign titles in her 'Note', 'What's in a Reign Name: The Uses of History and Philology’, The Journal of Asian Studies, vol. 18, no. 1 (November 1958), pp.103-106. This elicited a well-known rejoinder from Edward H. Schafer, see 'Communications', The Journal of Asian Studies, vol. 18, no. 3 (May 1959), pp.431-32.

page 97 A number of the empresses and empresses dowager of the Qing era were powerfully, and fiercely, involved with politics. In this context, see Rawski, The Last Emperors, p.127ff. It is also worth noting that during the early years of the reign of the Ming Zhengtong Emperor (Zhu Qizhen, r. 1436-50, and again as the Tianshun Emperor, 1457-65), the Empress Dowager Zhang had ruled from behind the screen in his minority. However, her demise in the boy's fifteenth year in 1442 saw the countervailing force of the dictatorial eunuch Wang Zhen win influence over the weak ruler, so much so that he led the emperor into a disastrous military campaign that saw him captured. See Frederick W. Mote, Imperial China: 900-1800 (Cambridge, Ma.: Harvard University Press, 1999), pp.626-628.

page 100 The Secret History of the Qing Court (Qinggong mishi), also translated as Sorrows of the Forbidden City, was produced in Hong Kong in 1948. It was directed by Zhu Shilin and the screenplay was by Yao Ke.

page 101 For the famous, and influential, account of the Empress Dowager as murderer, see J.O.P. Bland and E. Backhouse, China Under the Empress Dowager, Beijing the History of the Life and Times of Tzu-Hsi, compiled from State Papers and the Private Diary of the Comptroller of Her Household (London: William Heineman, 1910), p.300. For an example of the influence of this account, see also Arlington and Lewisohn, In Search of Old Peking, pp.54-55.

[A reproduction of a famous portrait of Cixi by Katherine A. Carl in the alley immediately outside the Palace of Accumulated Elegance. Photo: GRB]

pages 101-102 See Yehonala Genzheng (Na Genzheng, said to be a ninth-generation descendant of the famous Qing poet Nalan Xingde, son of Mingju) and Hao Xiaohui, Wo suo zhidaode Cixi Taihou (Jincheng Chubanshe, 2005), pp.119-128. For a recent collection of essays on Cixi and her controversial life, see Liu Beisi, ed., Shi shuo Cixi (Beijing: Zijin Cheng Chubanshe, 2004).

page 102 Following the disastrous Boxer rebellion of 1900, the Empress Dowager attempted to charm members of the Beijing diplomatic community. Among other things she invited diplomats' wives to tea, meals and picnics, sharing the delights of the garden palaces with them. These imperial parties became so common that one Madame von Rosthorn, the daughter of a Viennese dentist who was married to the Austro-Hungarian minister, declined an invitation 'because it is so common'. Despite this, American diplomatic wives were enthusiastic about their royal encounters, and their accounts are in sharp contrast to the more misogynistic views of journalists and diplomats. In the same year that the Bland and Backhouse work appeared another biography of Cixi was published by Philip Walsingham Sergeant, The Great Empress Dowager of China. In the Preface to that book Sergeant he remarks that:

When I went out to China to edit the Hong Kong Daily Press, the Boxer troubles were just approaching their acutest point. It was customary then for foreign journalists and other residents on the China coast to speak of the Empress Dowager as a bloodthirsty old harridan, a murderous-hearted hag, and the like... Times have changed since then. We have read in recent years many whole-hearted eulogies of the Old Empress Dowager, both before and after her death two years ago. For some reason which I cannot profess to explain, it is from American pens that the warmest praise has come. (Philip Walsingham Sergeant, 'Preface' in The Great Empress Dowager of China, London: Hutchinson & Co., 1910, pp.vii-viii.)

Presumably, Sergeant is referring to such works as Katherine A. Carl's 1906 With the Empress Dowager of China, as well as Isaac Taylor Headland's Court Life in China (1909) and Sarah Pike Conger's Letter from China (1909).

page 102 For the quotation from Ian Buruma see his 'Preface' to Victor Segalen, René Leys, translated by J.A. Underwood (New York: New York Review Books, 2003), p.xiii.

The pavilion Delights of Lian Stream (Lianxi Lechu) at the New Garden of Perfect Brightness (Xin Yuanming Yuan) in Zhuhai, Guangdong. A salacious performance staged regularly at the pavilion is called 'Secret History of the Qing Court' and consists of the six scenes which incorporate the popular stereotypes of the wanton dowager: 1. Ruling behind the screen; 2. The two palaces compete for imperial attention; 3. Li Lianying's nocturnal visits to the Palace of Accumulated Elegance; 4. The puppet emperor; 5. Death of the Pearl Consort; and, 6. Cixi's constant assignations with her lovers. [Photo: GRB]

page 103 Regarding the relationship between Segalen's work and Simon Leys, see Leys, 'Victor Segalen, les tribulations d'un poète en Chine', Le Figaro, 3 February 2005.

page 104 For the quotations from Lo Hui-min, see his paper, 'The Ching-shan Diary: a clue to its forgery', East Asian History, no.1 (June 1991), p.104.

page 104 For Sterling Seagrave's remark, see his Dragon Lady, The Life and Legend of the Last Empress of China, with the collaboration of Peggy Seagrave (New York: Alfred A. Knopf, 1992), p.13.

pages 105-107 From Sir Edmund Trelawny Backhouse, Décadence Manchoue (Peking, 1943, unpublished manuscript), pp.111-114, Wade-Giles spellings have been changed to Standard Chinese Hanyu pinyin. Of course, that the 'inverted' Backhouse (his memoir is otherwise lasciviously homoerotic) should turn the imaginary encounter with the Empress Dowager into one in which she 'perverts' her sex by penetrating him perhaps reflects his own prejudice (and one more widely held in the West) that China was 'sick' and 'topsy-turvy'.

page 107 Regarding A Beijing Man in New York, see the chapter 'To Screw Foreigners is Patriotic' in my In the Red, on contemporary Chinese culture (New York: Columbia University Press, 1999), pp.255 and 275-277.

page 107 In relation to royalty and authorial concupiscence, one thinks of Kingsley Amis, a man who (to quote his son Martin) 'lived for adultery', and who had his own, far more chaste erotic dreams of the sovereign. Knighted in 1990, that novelist's somniloquism grew more intense in his later years and his nocturnal encounters would generally feature Sir Kingsley advancing on the royal bosom despite Betty Windsor's protests, 'No, no, Kingsley. We mustn't.' See Charles McGrath, 'The Amis Inheritance: Does literary talent, as well as all that goes with it, run in the family?', The New York Times Magazine, 22 April 2007, p.46.

A scene showing the young Tongzhi Emperor with the two dowagers seated 'behind the screen' in a mock throne room at the New Garden of Perfect Brightness in Zhuhai, Guangdong. [Photo: GRB]

pages 108, 110-112 55 Days at Peking (1963) was directed by Nicholas Ray, Andrew Marton (credited as the second unit director) and Guy Green (uncredited), made by Samuel Bronston Productions and released by Allied Artists. The Bloody Avengers (Baguo Lianjun), directed by Chang Cheh and released in Hong Kong in 1976, was a response to the Hollywood movie, and it told the story of the Boxer Rebellion from the Boxer point of view.

page 113 For these references in order, see Jung Chang and Jon Halliday, Mao, the Untold Story (2005): 'subjects' (pp.337, 500); Ke Qingshi as 'a favourite retainer' (p.515); PLA Unit 8341 charged with the security of the Lake Palaces dubbed 'the Praetorian Guard' (p.274ff). Wang Dongxing is the leader's 'trusted chamberlain' (p.532), and Zhou Enlai his 'slave' (pp.271-272); Mao's use of the 'royal we' (p.589). Mao's women 'provided him with sex, and served him as maids and nurses' (p.628). For my review of Chang-Halliday, see 'I'm So Ronree', The China Journal, No. 55 (January 2006), pp.128-139. Reprinted online by China Digital Times at:
A far more judicious and reliable account of the latter years of the Chairman than that given in Mao, the Untold Story can be found in Frederick C. Teiwes and Warren Sun's The End of the Maoist Era: Chinese Politics during the Twilight of the Cultural Revolution, 1972-1976 (Armonk, NY: M.E. Sharpe, 2007).