She entered the world of an ancient empire as a teenage concubine, chosen by the emperor to share his bed for her good looks, immaculate comportment and, above all, her ability to sing.
The male-dominated court was a swirl of intrigue, forced suicides and poisonings. Eunuchs assigned to the emperor prepared her for sex with the ruler, undressing her and carrying her to his bed. After the Emperor Xianfeng’s death, she governed in the name of young male heirs — from behind a screen.
Perhaps as an escape from these oppressive restrictions, Empress Dowager Cixi (pronounced TSIH-shee), the de facto ruler of China in the final decades of the imperial dynasty, rebuilt a fantastic wonderland, the Summer Palace. It’s an extended estate of glittery lakes, luxurious gardens and elaborate wooden pavilions on the edge of the nation’s capital, attracting up to 100,000 visitors a day.
Most of them are curious Chinese from across the country who read in their Communist Party-authorized school books that Cixi was a harridan who stole the nation’s wealth and was responsible for China’s humiliating defeat by the Japanese in 1895.
But was she? Cixi, a peer of Queen Victoria’s and apparently iron-willed, has invited revisionist interpretations that view her as a feminist, at least in the context of the late 19th century, when women in China were treated little better than spittoons.
Strong women in China are often portrayed as power-hungry, and sometimes irrational, and are notably absent from the highest ranks of government. There is no Hillary Clinton figure in contemporary China (the real Mrs. Clinton is vilified by the government for talking about human rights in the country), or an Angela Merkel, who has stood up to China on trade.
在中国，强势女性常常被描绘为迷恋权力的人，有时还不理性，在政府高层中显然极少能见到她们。当代中国没有希拉里.克林顿(Hillary Clinton)式的人物（希拉里本人因为在中国谈论人权而受到中国政府的诋毁），也没有安格拉.默克尔(Angela Merkel)那样的人，默克尔敢在贸易问题上与中国抗衡。
So harking back to the pre-communist era for a feminist trailblazer makes sense. And to search for feminist ideals in a woman who ruled for nearly 50 years, from 1861 until her death in 1908, is understandable.
But the case of Cixi — who was isolated, undereducated and never made a break for personal freedom — is a hard argument to make.
A Chinese historian, Jung Chang, began the re-evaluation of Cixi with her biography, “Empress Dowager Cixi.” Ms. Chang, who lives in exile, argues the empress brought medieval China into the modern age, calling her an “amazing stateswoman.”
华裔历史学家张戎从她写的传记《慈禧太后》(Empress Dowager Cixi)入手，对慈禧进行重新了评价。身居海外的张戎认为，慈禧太后把中国从中世纪带入了现代社会，她称慈禧为“了不起的女政治家”。
But Ms. Chang’s damn-the-man portrait of Cixi is a tad too generous even for some sympathizers. How could the empress dowager have ushered in groundbreaking innovation when much of her career was devoted to her drive to preserve the imperial family that crumbled three years after her death?
And Cixi did undermine a bold reform program begun by her adopted son, Emperor Guangxu, who favored a constitutional monarchy, not an absolute one. She then supported the Boxer rebellion, an anti-foreign, anti-Christian uprising that cost China dearly, a move she later blamed on her bossy male advisers.
A Chinese scholar, Zhang Hongjie, recently took up the cause of the empress in a sympathetic essay, “Woman Cixi,” featured in an anthology about Chinese women and men who have struggled against the odds.
He argued that she was held back by her lack of education, a given at the time because she was a woman, and that she should be given credit for trying to make amends for her mistakes at the end of her rule. But Mr. Zhang said his positive portrait made little impact.
“Cixi is still a negative character,” he said.