DRAGON LADY: The Life and Legend of the Last Empress of China by Sterling Seagrave
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DRAGON LADY: The Life and Legend of the Last Empress of China

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KIRKUS REVIEW

Spectacularly told debunking of myth and legend surrounding China's last empress--the Dowager Empress Tzu Hsi (1835-1908)--by Seagrave (The Marcos Dynasty, 1988, etc.). Born the obscure daughter of an obscure Manchu officer in 1835, Tzu's notorious ride to fame and power began in the imperial concubinage in 1856, when she gave birth to a boy heir. Seagrave's aim here is primarily to destroy longstanding myths about this most powerful of Chinese women, myths created by Western imperialist adventurers of pen and sword who painted her as the Wicked Witch of the East. The author's primary target and culprit is the infamous British literary agent Edmund Backhouse. Living in China at the turn of the century, Backhouse apparently culled gossip and rumor and fabricated evidence in order to coauthor, with J.O.P. Bland, the influential 1910 book China Under the Dowager Empress--which, according to Seagrave, presented a ""bloodthirsty caricature"" of Tzu that mixed ""Western fantasy and Chinese pornography."" Backhouse reported that Tzu's ascent to power included killing off enemies with poisoned cakes, keeping hordes of false eunuchs close at hand, and choreographing wild sexual escapades in the Imperial Palace--escapades to which Backhouse claimed invitation. Seagrave relies partly on Hugh Trevor-Roper's Hermit of Peking (1974) to expose Backhouse as a prurient fraud who willfully set out to create a fictitious empress who would satiate Western stereotypes of sex-starved Asian women and justify British adventuring inside China. Seagrave also exposes other Western writers--including Pearl Buck--who perpetuated Backhouse's seamy portrait. An engrossing, fact-filled read and masterful debunking of a troubling distortion of Chinese history.

Pub Date: April 30th, 1992
ISBN: 0679733698
Page count: 480pp
Publisher: Knopf