Cixi and Elizabeth: Of Shoes And Other Feet

The Dowager Empress Cixi, courtesy of Wikicommons.

The Dowager Empress Cixi, courtesy of Wikicommons.

Last week China’s president, Xi Jinping, made a triumphant tour of Great Britain, smoothly accepting the homage of politicians and the entreaties of businessmen to invest in this or that project.  Xi looked very presidential, very royal or very imperial, depending on your country of origin and political leaning.

The historical significance of Xi’s trip, and the fawning reaction of the Britons, was not lost on the Chinese public.

A meme that made the rounds on WeChat juxtaposed a picture from a TV drama about the Empress Dowager Cixi (慈禧太后) and her chief eunuch Li Lianying (李连英) with that of Queen Elizabeth and Prime Minister David Cameron.  The meme was a commentary on China’s changing position in the world.

In 1860, after being defeated by the British in the Second Opium War, China was forced to sign a humiliating treaty that resulted in a significant loss of China’s sovereignty.  Among other things, the treaty allowed European countries to sell narcotics in China, to apply their own laws on Chinese territory, and to control important pieces of territory (e.g. Hong Kong).  Many regard this treaty as the high water mark for China’s Century of Humiliation, a period from 1839 to 1949 when foreign powers including Britain, France, Germany, Russia and Japan occupied parts of China and treated them as colonies.  

The Dowager Empress Cixi, who ruled China from 1861 to 1908 through her son and nephew and with the assistance of her chief eunuch Li Lianying, is seen as a clever ruler who made the best of a bad situation at a time when China was politically weak and overrun with foreigners.  While she is personally admired, she is also closely associated with a shameful period in China’s history.

During Xi Jinping’s recent visit to Britain, parallels were drawn between Cixi’s situation and that of Queen Victoria.  To some extent, it’s now the Chinese ruler who’s dictating terms and a British one who’s are trying to make the best of an unequal situation.