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  • Oct22

    The Art of Moving and Shaking

    October 22, 2019 in China ⋅ ☀️ 19 °C

    She poisoned her son. This much we know. It wasn’t mentioned during her lifetime, because to speak of it meant sudden death. But now, after exhuming her son’s body, we know it’s true. She fed him arsenic.

    She was never supposed to rule. She was only a concubine, a legalized harlot, a sexual plaything. But when the old emperor died, her son, the baby emperor, was only three years old, and she took the opportunity to rule in his name. It didn’t hurt that her lover was a powerful general who made it known that she was in charge. Of course, the arrangement worked to his benefit as well.

    Her son knew that he himself, not his mother, was the emperor, so at the age of nineteen he asked her to allow him to take his throne. She refused. He attempted a revolution to gain what was rightfully his. The general intervened and crushed the revolution. He captured the son and killed thousands of Chinese so that she might remain in power. She wanted to keep an eye on her son, so she arrested him and imprisoned him in a building next door to the fabulous estate we visited today. He was under arrest, that is, until the arsenic she fed him accumulated in his body enough to kill him.

    She and her consorts, including the general, lived in a fabulous estate called the Summer Palace. We saw it today. All of the resources of a great nation were concentrated in these buildings and grounds that are nothing less than an oriental dream world. She took the annual tax revenues earmarked for the navy. She said she wanted to use it to build a ship and to train sailors, so the Navy Department gave her the money. She used it to build a ship made of marble on her private man-made lake and to train sailors to work as her servants while she was onboard. And her people suffered, at the hands of the British, the French, the Dutch, the Germans.

    Her name was Ci Xi (pronounced Tsuh Shee), the Empress Dowager, and she ruled with a rod of iron. When the styles in Europe changed, she rebuilt her marble ship in the new Victorian fashion. Near the end of her life, she designated a nephew, another three-year old, to be the new emperor. He was only three, as was her son when he had risen to the throne. She had lots of time. And her people stayed high on opium to escape the pain of being enslaved to Europeans and to the corrupt Ci Xi.

    Before the French Revolution Louis XV said, “Apres moi, le deluge.” (“After me comes the storm.”) But these words could have been uttered by Ci Xi. She died in her bed in 1908, leaving three-year-old Pu Yi to deal with a century that began with two World Wars and the revolutions of Sun Yat Sen, Chiang Kai Shek and Mao Tse Tung. Her heavenly fantasy, the Summer Palace, has been restored to its former glory, and today people from all over the world come to see what kind of opulence one person might create when cursed with limitless resources and an insatiable appetite. From every nation people still come to see it and to wonder at its beauty and its cost.
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