It’s the PopulesQue I’m interested in

I’ve been thinking for a while about what it’s like to live in an Empire. These thoughts are provoked by the imperial behaviour of the United States in the world and by that country’s presidential election fervour. My feeling has been since the Bush 2 era, that if the rest of the world is going to suffer the effects of who lives in and wields power from the White House, then we too should vote for that country’s president. (On social media we certainly all behave as though that choice was ours already!)

I’m not really interested in the conquering of peoples and the military expansion of empires, I’m more interested in the life, choices and compromises that go on under the bureaucracy (strong or weak) that is inevitably imposed once the conquering is done. (And in our case if you consider how some of us were ‘conquered’ by the US, its very much in the realm of the cultural, intellectual, rather than the physical — although bear in mind that all that culture the US shares with us is backed up by a formidable desire to use force to maintain those investments.) I’m interested in what status people who didn’t vote for the conqueror have, what options, what manouvrebility. I’m interested in their cultural choices, how they take on and lose languages, how they morph their clothing, accents, personae, interests and tastes, how they raise their children under impositions subtle and not so subtle.

So I bought two books I thought might enlighten me somewhat: Mary Beard’s SPQR and Jung Chang’s Empress Dowager Cixi. I was working on the assumption and impulse that when puzzled by the present, scratch in the past for some useful insights, and use a guide who instincts you trust — in this case I know Mary Beard to be a serious thinker about women’s positions and issues and I’ve already read Jung Chang’s wonderful Wild Swans.

These two books really have little to do with each other. Beard is a historian of the Roman Empire and a classicist at Cambridge and Chang is an author  (who also holds a PhD) with two major books about China already published (Wild Swans is a generational story of her grandmother, mother and her self, and Mao: The Unknown Story with husband Jon Halliday, which I’m now reading). Beard’s book is about an empire of a very long time ago but which lives with on powerfully in the Western imagination, Chang’s book is about a single individual, a woman, sitting on the cusp of change at the turn of the 20th century, and so just behind us in time but from a corner of the Earth whose history we (over here in the Western hemisphere) know so little about. Both books’ intentions collide somewhat with mine, but they nevertheless reveal some very interesting things about empires. But first a quick plot summary.


Beard’s book is about empire under the emperors and the first thousand years of Rome and how it shifted from a republic to an empire. The SPQR of the title is deliberate and not just cosmetic. It stands for Senatus Populusque Romanus (“The Roman Senate and — the Q in SPQR — People”) and she uses it to gauge the shifts in governance from that intention when Rome was a republic all the way through to the autocratic rule of a single man (the Caesars), the increasing irrelevance of the senate and the wholesale abandonment of the presence of the people who were instrumental in electing the two consuls who were in the top tier of governance when Rome was a republic. Beard’s interest is in this shift from limited democracy (only citizens who were men could participate) to autocracy. Except for a chapter at the end, the book mostly focuses on this period and spends a lot time on the various emperors even while admitting that to focus on the character of the man at the top of the pile might tell us very little about a system and the lives lived in it.



Caracalla or Marcus Aurelius Severus Antoninus Augustus

Beard does pay attention to the Roman idea of citizenship and its fluidity which is very interesting. She shows that as the empire spread it made citizens of a whole range of peoples who came under its dominion. It was also possible to be freed as a slave and get citizenship at the same time. The shift from non-citizen to citizen did not involve any real formality and no tests or proofs (so unlike today). Connected to the political identity of citizen is of course the status of slavery, which in Rome, unlike the colonial era, did not make slaves of particular kinds of subhumans, but was imposed on conquered people and their progeny. Slaves had all sorts of identities and all sorts of jobs in the Roman empire, they also moved from slave to free fairly regularly. Beard also tells us about the emperor Caracalla who made 30 million people across the Roman world into citizens in 212 CE. Why is a bit mysterious, Beard and other historians can’t quite work out the motive. This new status for Gauls, Germans, Britons etc, however didn’t mean a lot because of the emperor system and because to exercise any real citizenship capability one had to be in Rome. Many of Rome’s citizens never went anywhere near the capital. And increasingly, she points out, neither did their emperors, with many of them governing the empire from other cities. Other forms of stratification were used effectively to make sure that there were always two classes of people, regardless of citizenship, the honestiores and the humiliores.

Empress Dowager Cixi


Cixi entertaining women from the American legation in Beijing.

Chang’s interest in writing this book seems to be a reclamation of dignity for a fascinating regent who was thoroughly demonised by the western powers of the time. We don’t know Cixi’s birth name, but she came from a Manchu family and so was put into the parade to be chosen as  a concubine for the emperor (Xianfeng) when she reached the right age. The Manchus had conquered and ruled the Han Chinese for centuries by this point (1850). Cixi was chosen and immediately ranked quite low among the concubines in the Forbidden City in Beijing and it was only the birth of a son that suddenly catapulted her out of this lowly position and into higher status. Another concubine had been raised to the status of Empress (Zhen) and had a daughter (pleasing but not as important as a son) and these two women negotiated a working relationship which was to outlast the death of their husband emperor and circumvent his will.

In short, Emperor Xianfeng had fled Beijing because of war with Britain (this is opium war time), and was living with his household in a mountain lodge. He became ill and died and in his will stipulated that his son become emperor but that a group of male advisers act as the regent until his coming of age. Cixi conspired to return with her son (called Zaichun and a toddler) and Zhen to Beijing before the body of Xianfeng did (it was paraded through villages and towns on the route with his advisers accompanying it). In the time she gained she convinced Xianfeng’s brother Prince Gong that the interests of the empire and emperor would only be served if she and Zhen were the regents. By the time the advisers arrived the coup was in place and they were charged with fabricating a will and executed on her false testimony. Cixi had trawled the history of Imperial China to find a convincing precedent for a female regent and for the dual regency with Zhen. Part of her determination to dispense with the male advisers was their adherence to Xianfeng’s fierce policy of resistance to any form of accommodation with the Western imperial powers seeking a foothold in China. Cixi, Chang shows, was a forward-thinker and was determined to engage with the British, French, Germans, Italians, Swedes, etc for the purposes of modernising the army, overhauling the education system and putting in place a more functional bureaucracy. She thought she could do deals, earn a lot of income, haul China into a new era, stave off war, and put the country into a strong enough position to control its own fate. In addition to the Western powers Cixi also had to juggle the rapaciousness of Russia and Japan, its two nearest neighbours with designs on parts of China, and manage the already-existing but rapidly deteriorating relationships of tribute with independent Tibet, Vietnam, Korea, Mongolia and Taiwan.

Top row from left: Emperor Xianfeng (1850-1861), Empress Zhen, Prince Gong, Prince Chun. Second row: Emperor Zaichun (Cixi’s son, ruled 1861-1875). Third row: Emperor Zaitun (Prince Chun’s son adopted by Cixi, ruled 1875-1908) and Zaifeng (another of Prince Chun’s sons, regent and father of Puyi (bottom picture, 1906 to 1949).

As regent this is what she did: Chang shows just what a clever, creative deal maker she was, how interested in engaging with the western powers, how keen to modernise China in all respects. When her son came of age (and he’d had a very traditional and rather useless princely education involving Confucian philosophy and calligraphy) she had to step down as regent. His friends, and especially his tutor, guided his rule and it was entirely unprepared for the realities of rapacious western colonialism with its armies and resort to aggression to get what it wanted. Again Cixi engineered to make herself regent and she did this at a point when her son and the empire were weakened by war. After he died Cixi stayed in place as regent by adopting another son (Zaitan) who was the child of another of her husband’s brothers (Prince Chun). When he turned out to be fairly useless in her eyes as an emperor she had him put under house arrest and simply continued to rule. When Cixi was dying, so was Zaitan and she did not want him to outlive her, so she had him poisoned to hasten his death. She then named her great nephew Puyi the emperor and as regent his father Zaifeng. Her modernising project was however too patchwork and too late for China. Japan had invaded Manchuria and Russia was pressing down from the north. Cixi’s death was the moment for nationalists under Chiang Kai Shek and communists (funded and promoted by the USSR) to seize parts of the country (this story is taken up in Mao). Puyi is the “last emperor” who was then installed by the invading Japanese in 1932 after the occupation of  Manchuria in the state of Mandchukuo as the “chief executive”. After the People’s Republic of China was established in 1949, Puyi was imprisoned as a war criminal for 10 years.

Harem wallsChang does an extraordinary job of rescuing this woman from the layers of dusty history but also of refuting the western powers opinions of her which have become the dominant truths about her and China of the time. I’m very pleased to have made the acquaintance of Cixi, an imperial ruler with all the tools of power at her command and with the blindnesses of her age, upbringing and education. She banned the foot binding of women and she elbowed her way out of the stifling, isolated life she was intended for in the harem of the Forbidden City behind very high walls. She’s complex and fascinating in Chung’s hands and through her eyes. She was obviously ruthless and believed she knew what was best for China at the time but Chang gives her both humanity and context.

So what’s to learn about empire as a form and its insiduous methods?

In one of the end chapters in SPQR Mary Beard turns her attention to living under the Roman empire. She shows that the sprawl of the empire was very difficult to manage without the collaboration of local elites and she says that when rebellions broke out against Rome it was because Romans insulted or disrespected these fragile agreements. Beard says: “The rebellions we know about were not the work of high-principled, or narrow-minded, nationalists. Getting rid of Romans was never the same as an independence movement in the modern sense. Nor were they driven by an excluded underclass or religious zealotry. Religion often confirmed the aspirations of the rebels and provided unifying rituals and symbols… but rebellions were not specifically religious uprisings. They were usually led by the provincial aristocracy and were a sign that the relationship of collusion between local elites and the Roman authorities had broken down. To put it another way, they were the price the Romans paid for their dependence on collaboration.” (page 512-3).

Beard uses the British Boudicca’s situation as an example: Boudicca was the widow of Prasaturgus, leader of the Britons in Eastern England, who, when he died left half his kingdom to his daughters and half to Rome with the intention of ensuring peace. Some Romans then moved in to take all of his bequest, they raped the daughters and flogged the widow. This then led to a rebellion which resulted in the Romans destroying three towns and killing inhabitants indiscriminately.


The Boudicca statue in London on the bank of the Thames.

“As usual in these rebellions, short-term success on the part of the insurgents and terror on the part of the Romans was followed sooner or later by a resounding Roman victory.” (page 513-4). Sounds very familiar of events today.

Beard also briefly touches on the rise of Christianity and the deep puzzlement this caused among the polytheist Romans who were used to taking on gods as they spread their empire. Beard says in Roman understandings gods always came from somewhere (Isis from Egypt, etc) so the monotheism of the Christians was a serious challenge as this god had no fixed place, but also this god upset the universal understanding that the poor and the subhuman (the “humiliores”) were not destined to be that forever. Beard claims that the very shape and size of the empire was exactly the vehicle that allowed Christianity to spread, to imbed itself and finally to assert itself as the religion of empire. “The irony is that the only religion the Romans ever attempted to eradicate was the one whose success their empire made possible and which grew up entirely within the Roman world.” (page 520).

Cixi’s China

I have a few thoughts about Chang’s book and empire. The one is the great irony that Cixi worked hard to bring China into conversation with the modernising world (and she even put in place schools that taught technical and practical learning), but all three of the emperors she put in power were still closeted within the Forbidden city doing calligraphy during these extremely tumultuous times. Their total unpreparedness for the world outside is quite startling. When her son took over as ruler and the Japanese were threatening to invade, his response was not to think of armies and weapons or even some preparations but to do nothing because the Japanese were simply an inferior culture according to his schema of humans and so would not prevail.

The second very interesting detail is the baying at the gates of the British, French, Germans, Italians, Swedes etc who were determined to force China to open up trading ports and lands for them to mine, extract and conduct business. The outrage with which they insisted that this was their right is extraordinary. Then on the occasions they went to war for these desires, they levied reparations off China for losing, all upheld by the ‘international community’. What they used to justify these wars and demands was that China was backward, needed to be modernised, and that its people needed to be hauled into a new century — by them. Lack of ‘civilisation’, lack of ‘education’, lack of capitalism, were all sins that damned China to interference and exploitation. Again, sounds eerily familiar in recent debates about why Iraq, Libya, Syria, Iran need to be invaded and set to rights.