54 of 55 people found the following review helpful
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.
36 of 36 people found the following review helpful
on September 13, 2001
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.
28 of 29 people found the following review helpful
on April 28, 2008
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. Trevor-Roper initially authenticated the false `Hitler diaries' in 1983, which benefited his employer the Times of London. He later withdrew this opinion when scientific tests proved the documents were fakes. As for Seagrave he wrote the book Yellow Rain: A Journey Through the Terror of Chemical Warfarein 1981 endorsing the claim that the Soviets engaged in chemical warfare against the Hmong peoples. That dispute has never been resolved.
The recent novels by Anchee Min (Empress Orchidand The Last Empress: A Novel) have expressed a view similar to the one presented by Seagrave. Tzu Hsi is presented as more of a victim of political intrigue than a perpetrator of murderous plots. A version of the older view was set forth in George MacDonald Fraser's Flashman and the Dragon Lady.
On the whole I have found the attempt to understand who Tzu Hsi really was, how much power she possessed, and how she exercised that power to be incredibly frustrating. The Chinese imperial court was so absurdly isolated for so long that it appears impossible to ever determine the truth of the matter. My guess, for what it's worth, is that Seagrave and Min version is likely more true and that the portrayal of her as the evil dragon lady conveniently fed into the justification of British imperial aggression.
This review has strayed farther from discussing the merits of this book than I like to do. Seagrave performed a service in exploding Backhouse's false history, but his writing is not particularly good, he loses the reader (this one anyway) in a maze of details, and he asserts facts with far more certitude than appears warranted. I can not recommend reading the book unless you really want to immerse yourself in the mystery of Tzu Hsi's life. This book tells part of the story, but can not be relied upon to tell it all.
27 of 28 people found the following review helpful
on January 18, 2009
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. This is especially important for a book of this nature, where the author is claiming to unveil a secret history - when he can't read the vast majority of 1st hand accounts, all he can do is infer from the standard line.
Anyway, the author writes in a readable style, his web of conspiracies makes for an interesting read, and he may even offer some interesting insights on the times, but ultimately this book has to be considered an entertaining historical fiction, rather than the significant piece of scholarship it pretends to be.
46 of 53 people found the following review helpful
on October 31, 2001
This book is less a biogrogaphy of "the dragon empress" Tzu-Hsi of China than a revison of 19th century Chinese history.
This work is important because the author has rechecked the validity of the usual sources on 19th cent history and found them very wanting - and very biased to boot. It shows the worth of double checking your sources when doing research and questioning 'experts'. Mind you, this could also apply to this book to some extent as it could have been improved with more chinese sources.
Where this book fails is as a biography of Tzu-Hsi, she only takes up a small section of the book, the rest is all explanation of various plots and "foreign devil" attrocities in china. Nobody comes out of it well.
For an interesting (and probably mostly correct) overview of 19th century China this book is invaluable - as a biography of Tzu-Hsi it does not accomplish a great deal and you feel you know very little about the subject at the end of the book.
10 of 10 people found the following review helpful
on June 19, 2001
This history flies in the face of the popular conception of Tzu Hsi, propagated by a cabal of British reporters & writers in China at the turn of the 20th century & seemingly swallowed hook, line & sinker by historians & the popular press for the next hundred years. Not having read these authors accounts of the supposed excesses in the behaviour of Empress Tzu Hsi, I can only comment on Seagrave's version of events. The life story of the Empress is a fascinating one, worthy of the telling, & the sources of Seagrave's research stand up to fairly close examination. It is a detailed history spreading through the eight decades of her life, so if you pick up this book because you enjoyed the movie "55 days at Peking" (as I did) then you are in for a disappointment. The Seige of the Legations was apparantly something of a sham with the principle Chinese general, charged with the of taking the Legations, spending a fair amount of his afforts giving assistance & succour to the defenders rather than bringing about their downfall. I was left with a somewhat pitiable final impression of Tzu Hsi that I feel has a significant parallel with the fate of her country during her lifetime. Never a prime mover of events she, like China, was much more a victim of Manchu intrigue & obsolescence & European duplicity & greed. This book however, is extremely well written & not at all dry. The content, presentation & opinion is first class & I really enjoyed the read.
13 of 14 people found the following review helpful
on November 7, 2003
Seagrave has made a brilliant career of exploding sacred cows and correcting historical falsehoods and lies, and exposing the criminality and propaganda upon which so much of "history" is built. In this epic account, drawing on overlooked and previously unpublished sources, Seagrave destroys longheld myths (that are still touted as "fact" by most western and Chinese scholars) and presents a startling and critical "flip side" reappraisal of the collapse of the Ching dynasty and the life of the eternally demonized Empress Dowager Tzu Hsi. The demented British propagandists, Edmund Backhouse and J.O.P. Bland, are finally exposed as liars and frauds whose blatant propaganda unfortunately helped define world opinion, and in turn agitated further western atrocities upon China and the Ching regime. Chinese operatives Kang Yu-Wei, and the legion of corrupt ultra-reactionary princes behind the throne (the true power in the late Ching), are also spared no quarter. Tzu Hsi herself is shown to be a somewhat ignorant hostage and figurehead, caught between Ironhat Manchu operatives wreaking havoc internally, and imperialist foreign powers intent on using all pretexts to carve open China and plunder it. More importantly, Seagrave provides evidence that virtually none of the hellish acts attributed to Tzu Hsi ever happened, and backs it up with convincing evidence. She was not the all-powerful and evil murderess and animal as depicted by scores of "world class" intellectuals and East Asian scholars (even Jonathan Spence) and generations of books and films glorifying Tzu Hsi's "reptilian evil". This, along with "Soong Dynasty", is an essential read for anyone who wants a starlingly clear view of late Ching-early Republic era China. Highest possible recommendation.
10 of 10 people found the following review helpful
on May 20, 1998
Tzu Hsi is one of those characters in history that suffers from a gross distortion of her actual person on the pages of conventional history. She has been portrayed as an all-powerful conniving and blood thristy leader of the Chinese Empire shortly before the Revolution of 1911. She is portrayed in the opening scenes of the movie, "The Last Emporer" as the somewhat sinister and ancient woman talking with the young 4-year-old Pu Yi.
Sterling Seagrave endeavors in his 1992 book called "Dragon Lady" to dispell the myths that have grown up around the life Tzu Hsi. Futhermore, he reveals that the myths had their start with rumormongering on the part of British and European journalists interested in advancing the interests of Britain in China at the expense of the independent Chinese government, nominally headed by a woman, at the time of the Boxer Rebellion.
11 of 12 people found the following review helpful
on February 19, 2007
Like many other reviewers pointed out, this book deals with general 19th century Chinese History instead of being a pure biographical account of Empress Tzu-Hsi.Carefully researched, it explores the events and myths that surounded this utterly mysterious figure.Futhermore, Seagrave explains how The Empress Dowager has been vilified by racist,looting, lying mediocre pseudo "writters"; Edmund Backhouse and George Morrison.They forever destroyed Tzu-Hsi's image with false accounts of her life, influenced by their own ignorance and Victorian hypocrecy.
Very little is known about Tzu-Hsi's actual role in the Chinese government since the English, in their endless stupidity, burned the Manchu Court Archives.Indeed, Seagrave describes the disgraceful and shameful role the British had in China, from the destruction of the priceless Han Libraby,the completely unjustified Opium Wars, the looting and destruction of the Summer Palace, the looting of the Forbiden City, to the killing of thousands of innocent Chinese civilians, victims of racist Imperial bigotry.
Seagrave spends too much time giving biographical information on secondary characters which makes the book tedious at times.Other than that, his book is very interesting and brings light to certain myths about the last years of the Manchu Emperors of China.I wish the Hardcover edition of this book was not out of print, Vintage uses horrible paper quality and this book deserves a better editorial treatment...
10 of 11 people found the following review helpful
on June 8, 2004
Seagrave tells the story of Tzu Hsi, the celebrated Empress Dowager who dominated the Qing court for almost half a century. He goes entirely against the views of earlier biographers, who have labeled Tzu Hsi as an evil genius, to give a story of a fairly ordinary woman overwhelmed by the nearly impossible task of trying to reform a failing dynasty against intense opposition from the reactionary Manchu noblemen.
Familiar events to students of Qing dynasty history, such as the Tung Chih era, the Hundred Days Reform, and the Boxer Rebellion are all here, but these events, especially the last, are treated quite differently by Seagrave, who tells a story entirely different from most accounts.
Seagrave also goes into some detail regarding the lives and characters of George Morrison and Edmund Backhouse, China experts and correspondents for the London Times, who are the primary creators of the traditional accounts of Tzu Hsi's crimes. Backhouses's extravagantly pornographic accounts are particularly bizarre - it's incredible that he could have ever been taken seriously as a historical source.
There are some problems with the book. Every source listed in the bibliography is in English, raising the question of how much Seagrave has studied the Chinese literature, even if he knows the language. Seagrave does make some statements of fact which are obviously speculation, such as "Tzu Hsi pushed for her nephew's selection as the new Emperor in part to rescue him from his mother's abuse." (p 161) And the endnotes are also occasionally off, referring to the wrong page in the text. These flaws are fairly minor, but they are troublesome in a book which revises traditional understandings so radically.
One subject which Seagrave touches on briefly, but really could have expanded further, is the consistent demonization of women in traditional Chinese history. Women were blamed for the collapse of the three earliest dynasties. Empress Wu, in the Tang dynasty, was also described as a tyrant and nymphomaniac, often compared to Tzu Hsi, but it seems probable that this account also was exaggerated if not altogether false. Another imperial mistress was blamed for sparking a civil war that ended the Tang's glory days. Nor has this ended in the modern era - the attempt to blame the disasters of the Cultural Revolution on Mao's wife shows that Chinese tradition is still strong in the Communist age.
Seagrave's account of this important era, and of how mythology and pornograph
y were turned into history is an amazing story, full of colorful incidents.