The end of the 19th century was a humbling time for imperial China.
Foreign powers, armed with superior weapons and powerful navies, carved out pieces of China virtually at will. Rebellions played havoc with the country's resources and its tax revenues. A string of weak or incompetent emperors, hampered by an overbearing bureaucracy and oppressive traditions, virtually guaranteed the decline of China's fortunes.
A few officials tried to maintain a semblance of stability but, within the court, a single figured remained constant throughout the decades that led to the end of an empire that had survived for millennia.
The Dowager Empress – emperor maker and dynastic scourge – loomed as a tall shadow behind everything that happened to China for more than half a century.
History has not been kind to the Dowager Empress who spent almost her entire life confined within the walls of the Forbidden City. She has been labeled a murderess, a saboteur, a thief of destiny and a master puppet master who may or may not have killed her own son. She was also one of the towering figures of China's history, managing a difficult and complex court so inward focused that the needs of the country were secondary to the favor of the throne.
In her new novel, The Last Empress, Anchee Min tries to endow the woman with a personality. She does this in a first person account intended to expose the Dowager Empress's inner thoughts, motivations and survival instincts with a view to explaining why she did the things she did.
It is an ambitious project for really there may be no point of reference for what goes through the mind of a woman that oversaw the decline of an empire; a woman whose position was not only unique but also came at a nexus of history, a time when not only China, but the world, changed.
The novel is a sequel to Empress Orchid, a fantastic book that chartered the travels of the young daughter of a down-on-his-luck provincial governor who, through good looks, luck and bravery, catches the eye of the emperor.
Orchid becomes a royal concubine and later gives Emperor Hsin Fein a son, his only surviving son. As a result, Orchid's star rises and, when Hsin Fein dies, she takes over running the Chinese empire until her son is old enough to sit on the throne.
The Last Empress finds Orchid as the matriarch of a dynasty charged with ruling an empire that is falling into ruin.
Min paints the picture of a woman out of her depth struggling to be a good person while keeping up with a court constantly plotting against her and enemies far too powerful to withstand. She makes the empress come across as an almost naïve woman, forced to compromise to look after the throne first and herself second.
It is difficult to believe that somebody so entrenched in government doesn't really understand the consequences of her actions.
Just as it is difficult to believe that she doesn't have a single selfish bone in her body despite all the lives that she sacrifices or the difficult decisions that she makes. Lives and decisions that invariably guarantee she maintains or enhances her position.
Interesting as the book is, and students of history should certainly be interested, it is difficult to get into the story. The Last Empress is more a collection of vignettes than a coherent narrative. The aging empress is the one thread holding it together as chapters jump from one point in her life to the next and rarely lead into one another. Perhaps it is an effort to highlight the complexity of a life or put into words the isolation of life within the Forbidden City.
Whatever the goal, The Last Empress is not nearly as riveting a read as Empress Orchid.
Will political reform necessarily follow economic development in China? It's a question worth asking, though too few in America's China-watching circles bother, preferring to treat the country's inevitable freeing up as a foregone conclusion.
The American presidents since Richard Nixon who have almost single-handedly steered China policy from the White House have shown a consistent – and blind – willingness to accept this conventional wisdom.
Those who suggest that China may remain an authoritarian, one-party state for ages to come while becoming ever richer and more powerful are invariably shouted down by academic and policymaking elites – who themselves are compromised by their ties to US business interests in China.
That's what James Mann contends in The China Fantasy: How Our Leaders Explain Away Chinese Repression. Is he right? Surely it cannot be wrong to wish for more debate, and he does make a few good points along the way.
In one chapter, Mann attacks illusions American scholars, politicians, businessmen and other pundits hold about China such as the "Starbucks fallacy" – the idea that a growing Chinese middle class will demand greater choice in government, as it does for coffee (he argues, convincingly, that they are too indebted to the Party for their success).
But many examples of the conventional thinking he chooses to argue against are easy targets, and feel cherry-picked. In only 112 pages, Mann has little room to build a case and instead comes off as simply complaining at times.
Moreover, a key premise of his argument – that America's naïve thinking about China is what stands in the way of political change – is itself hopelessly naïve. Mann seems to be under the illusion that China would be unable to resist pressure to make reforms it did not already want – and that America still has the leverage to make such demands credibly.
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