mjj (flemmings) wrote,

Not happy with the current O'Brian. It's December and I want to read something about China. 'That Jonathan Spence about the first emperor, that should do...' Except that Jonathan Spence is The Chinese Emperor which I bought in another edition and read last month. This leaves me with a French *novel* about the first emperor or Marina Warner's popular biography about the last empress. Neither of them are pleasant people, but history is usually a better bet than fiction when dealing with unpleasant people who are oh so salaciously outrageous in their excesses.

Alas, no. Not when the biography is written in 1976. Warner does something I've seen a lot of biographers do and never thought was entirely cricket. 'Tz'u-Hsi (that's Ci Xi in pinyin) must have seen this and that.' 'The young concubine must have felt that and the other.' Must she indeed? And just how do you know? Especially since it seems many of the western historical sources are, to put it mildly, unreliable.
As a reporter for the Times of London, George Morrison's dispatches from Peking in the late 1890s and early 1900s were the only glimpse most Westerners got inside the Forbidden City. He wasn't a bad reporter, but he made the mistake of listening to a young man named Edmund Backhouse, an Oxford-trained linguist who contributed to many of Morrison's articles. As other sources— including Morrison's own diary— later revealed, much of Backhouse's "reporting" was utter fiction. But by the time Morrison realized this, it would have damaged his own reputation too much to reveal the truth.
The image of Cixi as a cruel and greedy tyrant gained historical traction in 1910, when Backhouse and another British journalist, J.O.P. Bland, published the book China Under the Empress Dowager. It was praised at the time for being a thoroughly researched biography, but as Seagrave notes, Backhouse forged many of the documents he cited.
And if I'm going to read about the Qing court, I'd like someone who gives a more nuanced presentation of eunuchs than Warner's hysterical, corrupt, inane, shrill, feather-headed abnormalities. Le sigh. Back to Japanese, then.
Tags: china, history, reading_10

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