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Dragon Lady: The Life and Legend of the Last Empress of China Paperback – August 31, 1993

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Product Details

  • Paperback: 624 pages
  • Publisher: Vintage (August 31, 1993)
  • Language: English
  • ISBN-10: 0679733698
  • ISBN-13: 978-0679733690
  • Product Dimensions: 8 x 5.3 x 1.1 inches
  • Shipping Weight: 15.2 ounces (View shipping rates and policies)
  • Average Customer Review: 4.0 out of 5 stars  See all reviews (46 customer reviews)
  • Amazon Best Sellers Rank: #271,692 in Books (See Top 100 in Books)

Editorial Reviews

From Library Journal

The Dowager Empress Tzu Hsi, ruling from behind the silk curtain, held extraordinary power during the last decades of China's tottering empire. Her name has always been linked with unflattering adjectives like ruthless and cunning. Now, Seagrave explains why the woman has had such a bad press. In this quite irresistible history, the author argues that it was a trio of Englishmen who were ruthless and cunning, and it was through their flawed and distorted reporting on the court that Tzu Hsi received the bum rap from which she has never recovered. Seagrave's revisionism is based on the earlier revelations of Hugh Trevor-Roper's Hermit of Peking ( LJ 4/1/77), itself a lively book, but Seagrave is matchless when it comes to turning avid research into engaging history. Wonderful for the general reader (a helpful cast of some 200 characters is provided) but the book also has the notes and bibliography of a scholarly study.
- John H. Boyle, California State Univ., Chico
Copyright 1992 Reed Business Information, Inc. --This text refers to an out of print or unavailable edition of this title.

From Kirkus Reviews

Spectacularly told debunking of myth and legend surrounding China's last empress--the Dowager Empress Tzu Hsi (1835-1908)--by Seagrave (The Marcos Dynasty, 1988, etc.). Born the obscure daughter of an obscure Manchu officer in 1835, Tzu's notorious ride to fame and power began in the imperial concubinage in 1856, when she gave birth to a boy heir. Seagrave's aim here is primarily to destroy longstanding myths about this most powerful of Chinese women, myths created by Western imperialist adventurers of pen and sword who painted her as the Wicked Witch of the East. The author's primary target and culprit is the infamous British literary agent Edmund Backhouse. Living in China at the turn of the century, Backhouse apparently culled gossip and rumor and fabricated evidence in order to coauthor, with J.O.P. Bland, the influential 1910 book China Under the Dowager Empress--which, according to Seagrave, presented a ``bloodthirsty caricature'' of Tzu that mixed ``Western fantasy and Chinese pornography.'' Backhouse reported that Tzu's ascent to power included killing off enemies with poisoned cakes, keeping hordes of false eunuchs close at hand, and choreographing wild sexual escapades in the Imperial Palace--escapades to which Backhouse claimed invitation. Seagrave relies partly on Hugh Trevor-Roper's Hermit of Peking (1974) to expose Backhouse as a prurient fraud who willfully set out to create a fictitious empress who would satiate Western stereotypes of sex-starved Asian women and justify British adventuring inside China. Seagrave also exposes other Western writers--including Pearl Buck--who perpetuated Backhouse's seamy portrait. An engrossing, fact-filled read and masterful debunking of a troubling distortion of Chinese history. (Sixteen pages of illustrations--not seen.) -- Copyright ©1992, Kirkus Associates, LP. All rights reserved. --This text refers to an out of print or unavailable edition of this title.

More About the Author

Sterling Seagrave (born 1937) is the author of thirteen non-fiction histories and biographies, many co-authored with his wife, Peggy Seagrave. He grew up in Asia, in the remote Golden Triangle opium country on the Burma-China border, when Burma was still part of British India. He is in the 5th generation of American medical missionaries, teachers, and doctors who first came to Burma in 1832. He was in Burma when it was invaded by Japan in 1942, but with other family members were aboard the last refugee ship to India. His father, bestselling author of Burma Surgeon and Burma Surgeon Returns, was General Stilwell's chief medical officer in the CBI Theater. In 1947-8 when Britain gave Burma its independence, multiple civil wars broke out that continue today, and led to a military dictatorship still in power now. He was educated at a boarding school in India, then later in North and South America. In 1958, he dropped out of college and went to Cuba, age 21, as a stringer for the Chicago Daily News, instead helping Fidelistas in Pinar del Rio move ammunition and medicines brought by smuggling boats from the Florida Everglades. Since age 18, he has been a journalist at various newspapers including four years at The Washington Post. In 1965 he resigned to freelance throughout Asia for magazines including TIME, LIFE, Newsweek, Esquire, GEO, Atlantic, and Smithsonian. In 1979, he began writing investigative books, about the secret use of chemical and biological weapons, followed by a series of books on the powerful dynastic families of Asia, revealing their true histories disguised by propaganda and hagiographies. Death threats from Taiwan followed publication of The Soong Dynasty, a nationwide bestseller and top choice of the Book of the Month Club. The film option was purchased by George Roy Hill and Paul Newman. Next came books about Japan's looting of Asia in WW2, and how the treasure "vanished" when it was secretly recovered by the CIA to bribe foreign dictators and oligarchs. More death threats caused him to move to Europe in 1985 with Peggy Seagrave. They are now French citizens, writing their fourteenth book. Many have been bestsellers in multiple languages, including Mongol. In France, Seagrave has published three French editions in Paris, and has had long interviews in Paris Match, Nouvel Observateur, and Valeurs Actuel. They lived on a sailboat for ten years, then moved ashore to restore a 13th C stone wine-cave first built by the Knights Templar. It is surrounded by vineyards, with fine views of the Pyrenees and the Mediterranean. They have spent 17 years restoring it, while continuing to research and write books. They are now working on film projects, as well, including a major documentary film about his father, being produced by a Chinese film company; Seagrave's father was chief surgeon both for Stilwell's American forces, and Chinese armies retaking Burma from Japan. So the "Burma Surgeon" is a legendary figure in China as well.

Customer Reviews

I read this with great interest while studying that period of history.
And it is a well written book, easy to read, well researched, very educational, and highly entertaining.
Vimala Nowlis
Very balanced in looking at the history of the politics and personalities.
Lynn S.

Most Helpful Customer Reviews

51 of 52 people found the following review helpful By Joanna Daneman #1 HALL OF FAMETOP 10 REVIEWERVINE VOICE on December 29, 2003
Format: Paperback
This is a worthy biography of Tzu Hsi, the Last Empress of China. While some people criticize the history, the distortion over the events and character of Tzu Hsi still rage today. I have read the Backhouse account that Seagrave attributes to besmirching the Empress's reputation and I agree, it's imaginative, inflammatory rot. The Backhouse bio attributes some sexual exploits of the author so is completely suspect. But it was taken as gospel for years. This biography is more balanced, and shows the various sides of the despotic but venerated ruler who tried to stem the tide of modernism in Old China, and failed. The onslaught of the Western culture broke down centuries of stable peasant culture, making way for the Revolution. An interesting look into the last remnants of Imperial China.
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34 of 34 people found the following review helpful By "teencynic" on September 13, 2001
Format: Paperback
I read this with great interest while studying that period of history. I expected at first, a run-of-the-mill biography of one of history's most notorious women (I've read several, and a few on Cixi), but instead got a crsip, intelligent, highly entertaining and surprisingly sympathetic account of the last dowager.
The authors (Sterling and Peggy Seagrave) have done a great job. Not only is this the most readable account by far, but it's also a daring new take at the myth that she was demonic, debuched, and depraved, showing her as a sad, lonely old woman, cut off by her status and encased in the fast-disintegrating world of the Forbidden City. Not since Cleopatra (though this is arguable) has anyone -a woman, particularly- been so vilified (and even now with more understanding at her story, Cleopatra is still regarded by many to be the epitome of of Oriental decadence, and that was two thousand years ago).
The Seagraves' version is more spare in its tone, with rich historical fact and subtle humour. It brings one to mind of Evelyn B. McCune's book EMPRESS, on Wu Zitian (or Wu Jao, as she called her). They have the same narrative verve and refreshing outlook, though DRAGON LADY has the advantage of being a serious biography instead of a historical novel.
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26 of 27 people found the following review helpful By Douglas S. Wood on April 28, 2008
Format: Paperback
The life story of the Dowager Empress Tzu Hsi (or Cixi) seems destined to remain shrouded in the fog that surrounds the history of the Forbidden City in the late 19th and early 20th centuries. She has been portrayed as a single-minded ruthless ruler who murdered her son in order to retain power, engaged in sexual escapades with her "eunuchs", and wasted precious military resources on personal luxuries. Sterling Seagrave presents a revisionist view of her as being on the edges of power, barely surviving court intrigues, and an almost unwilling political actor.

The first view was perpetrated by Edmund Backhouse and held from the early 1900's until Backhouse was exposed as a forger and con man by Hugh Trevor-Roper in his 1976 book Hermit of Peking: The Hidden Life of Sir Edmund Backhouse (History & Politics). Backhouse had forged a purportedly Chinese diary. In his own memoirs Backhouse revealed himself to be delusional as well as pornographic. He claimed to have sexual liaisons with a parade of famous people including prime minister Lord Rosebery, Oscar Wilde, and Tzu Hsi herself (some 150 to 200 times by his account). Backhouse also is reported to have fabricated thousands of corroborating documents that he donated to eminent libraries in England.

Seagrave takes Trevor-Roper's work as a starting point and then launches into his own history that soon bogs down in minute details of court intrigue. While it seems clear that Backhouse's accounts have no credibility, it is not so clear that Seagrave's account is a fair, full, and true account either.

Trevor-Roper and Seagrave have their own credibility issues.
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23 of 24 people found the following review helpful By Amazon Customer on January 18, 2009
Format: Paperback
An interesting read, but wildly problematic, and I'd like to discuss the problems.

First, the author is constantly going on about wild sex parties. I mean, over and over. It should have been limited to a quick condemnation of Edmund Blackhouse, but instead he goes on and on about every example he can. Even in the follow-up notes, he includes an unrelated tangent about a Chinese journalist he knew in Laos that liked going to Thailand for sex with a pair of minors...huh.

Also, he has no pretense of objectivity. Certain characters in this book become villains, and the author gives the impression of cherry-picking facts and adjectives to denigrate the people he doesn't like. One victim of this treatment, for instance, was depicted as a fool for "flunking" the Imperial exams, and "barely passing" on the fourth try, when the Imperial exams had an incredibly low pass rate, and passing on the fourth try would have been considered an impressive achievement.

Third, he seems to be concerned with attacking the common wisdom that Cixi was some kind of sex pervert, when I don't think anybody actually holds to this view. Certainly scholars don't, and I think to the extent that Cixi is part of the common wisdom, it's in the image of a wasteful monarch, reigning over a government that was out of touch and antiquated. So a lot of this book came off as an angry attack on a straw man, in the form of a book that has been generally acknowledged as false for the past ninety years or so.

Fourth, the author himself does not speak Chinese! He feigns skill at being able to remove the prejudices from the scant Western accounts of the era, but one can't help but feel that he attempted a project for which he was wildly unqualified.
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