Dragon Lady: The Life and Legend of the Last Empress of China

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Dragon Lady: The Life and Legend of the Last Empress of China

Sterling Seagrave

Publisher: Vintage Books

Format: Paperback

The last empress of China—Dowager Empress Tzu Hsi (1835-1908)—is remembered as one of history's monsters, an iron-willed concubine who, after usurping power in 1861, ruled from the Dragon Throne for half a century. Her reign, in the aftermath of the Opium Wars and through the Boxer Rebellion until the collapse of the 2,000-year-old empire, has traditionally been seen as one of murder, poison, and intrigue. But the wicked image is false. In 1974, to the dismay of scholars, Sir Edmund Backhouse—the biographer most responsible for the widespread vision of Tzu Hsi as monster—was revealed to be a con man. And now the author of the celebrated best-seller The Soong Dynasty has undertaken the first complete reappraisal of the empress—exposing Backhouse's writings about her as a major hoax and forgery, and establishing that the most important Western correspondent in Peking during her reign—Dr. George Morrison of the London Times—kept a secret diary contradicting his own dispatches about Tzu Hsi. Drawing on many unpublished or long-overlooked contemporary sources, Sterling Seagrave shows us Tzu Hsi as a complex woman whose desperate—though often misguided—efforts to hold her country together take on a different coloration in the context of unrelenting foreign attempts to colonize and tear it apart. Far from being all-powerful, she was actually a hostage of vengeful Manchu princes who were using her in a power struggle against both Chinese reformers and foreign interference. Here at last is an authentic portrait of this fascinating historical figure, as well as insight into the Western craving to believe in a sinister, dragon-haunted Orient. Dragon Lady is at once a compelling biographyand the equally compelling story of how a myth was contrived, how it endured, and how, ultimately, the truth has emerged.

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