When a woman dared to tread.
First Published: 2003
Date Reviewed: 22nd November 2012
Please note that whilst the title of the book may suggest another woman had ruled in China before Ci Xi, Laidler himself makes no mention – thus it should be noted that there had been another Empress to rule China, Wu Ze Tian (also called Wu Zhao), between the years 690-705. Please also note that due to the different methods of transliterating Chinese into English, I have included the two most, in my opinion, used. (Any discrepancies are my own as I used my own knowledge to transliterate the method not used in the book.)
Laidler presents a biography of the Empress Ci Xi (Xu Xi/Tzu Hsi) from teenager to death, looking at how she managed to defy tradition to become the ruler of China and the ways in which she kept that power in the face of opposition.
The Last Empress is a difficult book to define. At once very detailed politically, it misses out a lot of information that would have been of use, yet what it does include is incredibly interesting and Laidler’s style makes for an easy read.
Ci Xi is surely a fascinating character to learn about (though it should be noted that for reasons unknown Laider has called her by her clan name – don’t let that fool you into thinking she was the only Yehonala at court). The way she came to power, her confidence and intelligence, the punishments she meted out to her enemies, and her lack of emotion for many of those in her care – Laidler makes sure that he provides a balance and includes discussions of why she became such a despot. Whilst admitting that her lust for power was unquenchable, Laidler questions her background and how being a woman, and at that a woman forced to become an emperor’s concubine instead of marrying the man she loved, would have given rise to a vengeful spirit, a woman with no love for the dynasty she had been brought to serve.
And this is key to what makes Laidler both accessible and hard to dispute – he may have his own views, but seldom are these included subjectively. Laidler’s work is incredibly unbiased, he damns and glorifies both sides, always presenting the various arguments and possibilities, and succeeds so well in his goal that the reader will have a tough time working out where his loyalties lie beyond his loyalty to introduce Ci Xi to his reader. Indeed all evidence points to him being completely objective. Such a method of writing is a relief when you consider that many books err more on one side than another, creating discomfort when the reader does not agree with the author’s views.
Unfortunately, however, Laidler’s writing is marred by a lack of referencing. Sometimes this is literal – he doesn’t reference any source at all, leading it to seem as though he wrote all the facts when he of course did not – and otherwise there is just a simple lack of footnotes. Both issues are a major drawback as they bar further study into the sources and limit the knowledge the reader can gain into what Laidler has researched, what is common knowledge, and what he took from elsewhere – is what you’re reading true or made up, and how much is speculation? (From the way it’s written all speculation appears to be what is obvious speculation – the rumours recounted by Laidler.) It also means that on many occasions where quotations are included, there is no way of finding out the original source of the work, beyond the name of the speaker. The only upside of this marring is that the work is largely chronological and there is no major aim to convince the reader of a certain idea, meaning, at least, that one will not be able to cite Laidler as the source for reasons of debate. It does mean that Laidler’s work has little value for the student, which given the overall lack of importance given to Chinese history in western academic institutions is disheartening.
Poor editing and some bad writing join the source work. Sentences sometimes make no sense or are unfinished. Despite, or maybe due to, the easy style, phrases such as “had been begun” seem to have slipped through the net, and there are far too many errors. In fact it is as though no proofreader were employed at all. The extent to which grammatical and spelling errors flourish means that any actively engaged reader, wanting to make notes and copy sections, will likely have to edit the text themselves, and the writing on occasion reads as though written by a person with scant knowledge of the English language.
Laidler writes a great deal about the naval warfare between the Europeans who wished to trade according to their own customs, and the Chinese who wanted to keep their traditions. In the main this means that the reader not only develops knowledge of the Empress herself, but of the context surrounding her reign and the reasons she was the last empress. However sometimes Laidler does go off on a tangent in ways that don’t apply to his main subject, resulting in pages that suggest the author was perhaps more interested in military history than the woman who took charge. This is not a huge issue, but it does mean that there are gaps left in Ci Xi’s life where it would have been sensible to either concentrate more on the ruler or, if such is the case, simply let the reader know that there is little known about the empress at that particular point in time.
Because for all his fair treatment of Ci Xi, and the approach that suggests a writer unbiased about gender, Laidler also leaves out aspects of Ci Xi’s power that would have added much to his work. Whilst explaining that Ci Xi’s rise in power over her husband was due to her sexual prowess, and including an explanation for how a woman confined to a world devoid of intact men might improve certain muscles – emphasis here on ‘might’, for there is no evidence that she did – Laidler neglects to discuss the issue any further. And considering it is apparent that Ci Xi retained her place as favourite for reasons other than abilities in the bedroom, there is a seeming lack of information in general. It is not detrimental, but it does suggest that Ci Xi’s rise was predictable, which given her time was not the case. And although there was a prophecy that a woman of Ci Xi’s clan would conclude the dynasty, speculation is of course no good basis for argument. What does seem to be reality is that no one really knows how Ci Xi came to power; that really ought to have been highlighted.
Hearing one lady holding forth on the evils of foot-binding, she pointedly asked if the European practice of binding women’s waists in whalebone corsets was not similarly barbaric.
Laidler does succeed in demonstrating how familial and social tensions created problems for China when it was faced with the invasive forces of the Europeans. Setting the backdrop of the stereotypical dynastic court that believed itself invincible, the author shows how tradition which was otherwise sustainable fell flat when confronted by the opposing beliefs of other countries. He gives a lot of time to Kuang Hsu (Guang Xu), the impotent boy Ci Xi chose (for the very fact he could not sire children) as heir to her dead son, and the ways in which, upon reaching majority, the now emperor tried to balance what he knew to be the iron will of his aunt with his own views of cultural and political reform. This not only means that Kuang Hsu is given a prominent place in the biography, but also that Laidler can adeptly reveal how Ci Xi changed her opinions on tradition and foreign powers – which is particularly interesting when placed alongside the way she manipulated tradition for her own ends.
And what is endlessly interesting is how this most powerful ruler of the wrong gender, of little status, and hated by so many, was able to take over a dynasty, a people, and keep that power for so long that her actions gave her reformist enemies exactly what they wanted.
Laidler’s book may not be in anyway polished but it provides a basis for further reading. Yet a basis it is, due to the speculation and content choices.
May 18, 2013, 10:15 am
Interesting review, Charlie! I somehow remember already reading a review of this book on your blog, but I don’t remember it being so detailed. I have this book and have read the introduction, but didn’t continue with the main book. I found that the introduction was not ‘serious’ enough and the writer had used his time in China, spent on some other work, to write this book, without the serious work that it demands. When I read your review, I realized that my guess was probably correct. When I was talking to one of my Chinese friends about the important women in Chinese history during the past 150 years, we talked about Ci Xi, the Soong sisters and Jiang Qing, Mao Zedong’s wife. When I asked my friend what people thought about Ci Xi today and whether people are still critical of her, she said that people are more sympathetic towards her now as she had faced challenges those days which were tough to handle especially if one was a Chinese woman during those times. I don’t know whether Laidler’s book reflects that. When I visited the Summer Palace in Beijing, the guide told us that there were three rooms there where three varieties of food were cooked, for the Empress Ci Xi – one whose fragrance she used to enjoy, another which gave visual pleasure by the way it was arranged on the plate, and a third which was of exquisite taste which Ci Xi used to eat. Does Laidler talk about that?
Thanks for this wonderful review, Charlie! This is a really unique topic and though Laidler’s book has its shortcomings, I am glad he wrote this book and I am glad that you reviewed it.
May 18, 2013, 3:57 pm
Sounds like a really interesting time period to read about. I know very little about China and its rulers maybe a subject to consider reading more about. Sorry to hear this book didn’t quite live up to your expectations.
June 18, 2013, 9:35 am
Vishy: I wrote a short summary of it… last year, I think. Yes, the introduction isn’t the best one, that’s for certain. I seem to remember it’s about documentaries, which, while interesting and showing that Laidler took a particular (new) interest in Ci Xi, does also infer that the book may have been quick to print, an attempt to get somewhere else, and so forth. It’s a good book overall, but indeed very different to other historical non-fiction works. Laidler is generally sympathetic, though in an objective way – I know that doesn’t really make sense, but basically he never gushes or writes in a scathing manner. I don’t remember Laidler talking about food, he might have, though he was mostly focused on politics.
Thank you! And I agree, such a book was needed.
Jessica: Ci Xi was the first Chinese historical figure I really read about (I’d read a fictional work a few years previously as well as been to an exhibition), and I’d say she’s a great person to start with if you’re looking to learn about Chinese history in general. It wasn’t a bad book, but yes, it could have been better.