Last night the Wheeler Centre cruelly made me choose between being queer and being Chinese. Not really, of course. I’m Chinese no matter what, and I’m pretty damn queer. But I had to choose between Alison Bechdel and Jung Chang, and Jung Chang, Chinese biographer, banned on the mainland but so beloved everywhere else, and lacking the connotations of Amy Tan, was always going to win. Jung Chang has written a new biography of Cixi, Dowager Empress, scourge of China; Empress Dowager Cixi: The Concubine who launched modern China. This biography has been written exclusively using first-hand accounts, and I’m so excited to get my hands on it.
Jung Chang is an excellent speaker. She has a wealth of adorable stories, a way of turning the most tragic anecdotes into amusing moments, and a lovely way of speaking (and not a little bit of familiarity, with her Chinese words thrown in amongst her accent and her pauses). She tells of being sixteen in 1968, and committing to paper her very first piece of writing, a poem. At the time, being a writer was certainly enough to have one sent down, and that very evening, as she was lying on her bed composing her work, the Red Guards busted in for a random inspection. Desperate to hide her evidence, she tore up the pieces and flushed it down the toilet, and there her writing career stalled for a decade. Everybody laughed, though it’s ostensibly a story of how difficult life was under Mao. Chang just has a way of telling it.
Wild Swans (and her Mao biography) are banned on the Mainland, but Jung Chang herself is not, merely blacklisted. She fought to be able to visit her mother for fourteen days in every year, and while she’s in country (in Chengdu, mostly), she refrains from talking about her work, publicising, and even seeing her friends. Chang shrugged. It is the price of being a writer, she said, and I lack the words to express how this makes me feel, but I’ll try. One of the hardest things for me, when I write about identity (and you know how I love to write about identity), is how much of my family to bring into it; how much of what can hurt me to bring into it. And I love how matter of fact she is of it, how accepting of her situation. This is the fence upon which she sits, and that’s just how it is.
The audience was a delightful mix; I love looking into a queue to see a whole lot of Chinese people, not just older but younger, too, my age or so. Lots of middle-aged to older white people, some others. Sporadic mutters and giggles when the interviewer first pronounced ‘Jung’ as if it were a ‘Y’ sound,* and second repeatedly pronounced Cixi incorrectly (Chang just kept saying Cixi until it sounded okay, and admittedly 慈 is not the most easy of sounds). But then, a sign perhaps of the white audience? Laughter when Chang related of how difficult it was for Cixi to get Chinese people to go overseas, to get a Chinese person to be ambassador to foreign countries. The first Chinese ambassador to the USA was an American. But Chinese people were afraid: afraid of being kidnapped, afraid of being killed. And there were giggles from the audience, as if this isn’t something truly to fear? (Clearly they’ve never been a Chinese person in a Western country)
When asked if Cixi’s history had been influenced by any thing in particular, Chang demurred, explaining the misrepresentations. What she meant to say was, surely, misogyny. Just like Wu Zetian.
When Cixi was young, she had a eunuch lover. Eunuchs were always despised, though Chang suggests they should be figures of sympathy. Cixi instigated a canal cruise for her lover’s birthday: there were dancers, and singing, and revels. This caused an outcry, because EUNUCHS and LADIES MAKING CHOICES, and her lover was put to death, the dancers were sent off to be prostitutes, and Cixi had a breakdown.
I loved the way Chang told of Cixi’s reforms, from the sweeping societal, through to the court etiquette, and how Cixi, who loved curiosities, never rode in a car – because the driver couldn’t bow AND drive at the same time. I also loved that she waved at foreign photographers, because she had heard that foreign monarchs did that (very different from the tradition of being hidden from view all one’s life, as Chinese royals were).
I was most interested to learn about Cixi, but as an endnote, I also learnt about George Morrison, whom Wikipedia tells me was also known as ‘Morrison of Peking’ or ‘Chinese Morrison.’ He came up because a man in the audience asked if Morrison, from Geelong, was in Chang’s new book, noting that he features predominately in many other biographies of Cixi and of the period. “No,” said Chang, after a pause. It wasn’t a ‘trying to remember’ pause – it was an awkward pause, a ‘how do I say no?’ pause. Morrison, says Chang, didn’t speak Chinese. He got a lot of his information from Backhouse, a man who claimed to be Cixi’s lover and who claimed that on her deathbed Cixi told him “never let a woman rule.” It had better not surprise you, reader, to learn that he was a giant liar.
This was a free (but booked out) event at the Wheeler Centre. If you’re in Melbourne, The Wheeler Centre is a great way to see/hear some awesome stuff, for free or for cheap! Get to it.
*!! This tweet from the Wheeler Centre tells me that Jung Chang pronounces her name Yoong! Which is super interesting that she’s chosen a pronunciation that’s so different from the pinyin/romanisation. How non-standard! I apologise for making fun of the interviewer for that.