The Empress Dowager -- As a Woman

The first audience given by Her Imperial Majesty to the seven ladies of the Diplomatic Corps was sought and urged by the foreign ministers. After the troubles of 1900 and the return of the court, Her Majesty assumed a different attitude, and, of her own accord, issued many invitations for audiences, and these invitations were accepted. Then followed my tiffin to the court princesses and their tiffin in return. This opened the way for other princesses and wives of high officials to call, receive calls, to entertain and be entertained. In many cases arrangements were made through our mutual friend Mrs. Headland, an accepted physician and beloved friend of many of the higher Chinese families; and through her innate tact, broad thought, and great love for the good she may do, I have been able to come into personal touch with many of these Chinese ladies.
-- Mrs. E. H. Conger in "Letters from China.

Although the great Dowager has passed away, it may be interesting to know something about her life and character as a woman as those saw her who came in contact with her in public and private audiences. In order to appreciate how quick she was to adopt foreign customs, let me give in some detail the difference in her table decorations at the earlier and later audiences as they have been related by my wife.

"At the close of the formalities of our introduction to the Empress Dowager and the Emperor at one of the first audiences, we, with the ladies of the court, repaired to the banqueting hall. After we were seated, each with a princess beside her, the great Dowager appeared. We rose and remained standing while she took her place at the head of the table, with the Emperor standing at her left a little distance behind her. As she sat down she requested us to be seated, though the princesses and the Emperor all remained standing, it being improper for them to sit in the presence of Her Majesty. Long-robed eunuchs then appeared with an elaborate Chinese banquet, and the one who served the Empress Dowager always knelt when presenting her with a dish.

"After we had eaten for some little time, the doyen asked if the princesses might not be seated. The Empress Dowager first turned to the Emperor, and said, 'Your Majesty, please be seated'; then turning to the princesses and waving her hand, she told them to sit down. They sat down in a timid, rather uncomfortable way on the edge of the chair, but did not presume to touch any of the food.

"The conversation ran upon various topics, and, among others, the Boxer troubles. One of the ladies wore a badge. The Empress Dowager noticing it, asked what it meant.

" 'Your Majesty,' was the reply, 'this was presented to me by my Emperor because I was wounded in the Boxer insurrection.'

"The Empress Dowager took the hands of this lady in both her own, and as the tears stood in her eyes, she said:

" 'I deeply regret all that occurred during those troublous times. The Boxers for a time overpowered the government, and even brought their guns in and placed them on the walls of the palace. Such a thing shall never occur again.'

"The table was covered with brilliantly coloured oilcloth, and was without tablecloth or napkins properly so called, but we used as napkins square, coloured bits of calico about the size of a large bandana handkerchief. There were no flowers, the table decorations consisting of large stands of cakes and fruit. I speak of this because it was all changed at future audiences, when the table was spread with snow-white cloths, and smiled with its load of most gorgeous flowers. Especially was this true after the luncheons given to the princesses and ladies of the court by Mrs. Conger at the American legation, showing that the eyes of these ladies were open to receive whatever suggestions might come to them even in so small a matter as the spreading and decoration of a table. The banquets thereafter were made up of alternating courses of Chinese and foreign food.

"With but one exception, the Empress Dowager thereafter never appeared at table with her guests. But at the close of the formal audiences, after descending from the throne, and speaking to those whom she had formerly met, she requested her guests to enter the banquet hall and enjoy the feast with the princesses, saying that the customs of her country forbade their being seated or partaking of food if she were present. After the banquet, however, the Empress Dowager always appeared and conversed cordially with her guests.

"Her failure to appear at table may have been influenced by the following incident: One of the leading lady guests, anxious, no doubt, to obtain a unique curio, requested the Empress Dowager to present her with the bowl from which Her Majesty was eating -- a bowl which was different from those used by her guests, as the dishes from which her food was served were never the same as those used by others at the table!

"After an instant's hesitation she turned to a eunuch and said:

" 'We cannot give her one bowl [the Chinese custom being always to give things in pairs]; go and prepare her two.'

"Then, turning to her guests, she continued apologetically:

" 'I should be glad to give bowls to each of you, but the Foreign Office has requested me not to give presents at this audience.' It had been her custom to give each of her guests some small gift with her own hands and afterwards to send presents by her eunuchs to their homes.

"On another occasion the lady referred to above took an ornament from a cabinet and was carrying it away when the person in charge of these things requested that it be restored, saying that she was responsible for everything in the room and would be punished if anything were missing.

"The above incidents do not stand alone. It was not uncommon for some of the Continental guests, in the presence of the court ladies, to make uncomplimentary remarks about the food, which was Chinese, and often not very palatable to the foreigner. These remarks, of course, were not supposed to be understood, though the Empress Dowager always had her own interpreter at table. One often felt that some of these ladies, in their efforts to see all and get all, forgot what was due their own country as well as their imperial hostess.

"One can understand the enormity of such an offense in a court the etiquette of which is so exacting that none of her own subjects ever dared appear in her presence until they had been properly instructed in court etiquette in the 'Board of Rites,' a course of instruction which may extend over a period of from a week to six months. These breaches of politeness on the part of these foreign ladies may have been overlooked by Her Majesty and the princesses, but, if so, it was on the old belief that all outside of China were barbarians.

"All the ladies who attended these audiences, however, were not of this character. There were those who realized the importance of those occasions in the opening up of China, and were scrupulous in their efforts to conform to the most exacting customs of the court. And who can doubt that the warm friendship which the Empress Dowager conceived for Mrs. Conger, the wife of our American minister, who did more than any other person ever did, or ever can do, towards the opening up of the Chinese court to the people of the West, was because of her appreciation of the fact that Mrs. Conger was anxious to show the Empress Dowager the honour due to her position.

"It was in her private audiences that this great woman's tact, womanliness, fascination and charm as a hostess appeared. Taking her guest by the hand, she would ask in the most solicitous way whether we were not tired with our journey to the palace; she would deplore the heat in summer or the cold in winter; she would express her anxiety lest the refreshments might not have been to our taste; she would tell us in the sincerest accents that it was a propitious fate that had made our paths meet; and she would charm each of her guests, even though they had been formerly prejudiced against her, with little separate attentions, which exhibited her complete power as a hostess.

"When opportunity offered, she was always anxious to learn of foreign ways and institutions. On one occasion while in the theatre, she called me to her side, and, giving me a chair, inquired at length into the system of female education in America.

" 'I have heard,' she said, 'that in your honourable country all the girls are taught to read.'

" 'Quite so, Your Majesty.'

" 'And are they taught the same branches of study as the boys?'

" 'In the public schools they are.'

" 'I wish very much that the girls in China might also be taught, but the people have great difficulty in educating their boys.'

"I then explained in a few words our public-school system, to which she replied:

" 'The taxes in China are so heavy at present that it would be impossible to add another expense such as this would be.'

"It was not long thereafter, however, before an edict was issued commending female education, and at the present time hundreds of girls' schools have been established by private persons both in Peking and throughout the empire.

"On another occasion, while the ladies were having refreshments, the Empress Dowager requested me to come to her private apartments, and while we two were alone together, with only a eunuch standing by fanning with a large peacock-feather fan, she asked me to tell her about the church. It was apparent from the beginning of her conversation that she made no distinction between Roman Catholics and Protestants, calling them all the Chiao. I explained to her that the object of the church was the intellectual, moral, and spiritual development of the people, making them both better sons and better subjects.

"Few women are more superstitious than the Empress Dowager. Her whole life was influenced by her belief in fate, charms, good and evil spirits, gods and demons.

"When it was first proposed that she have her portrait painted for the St. Louis Exposition, she was dumfounded. After a long conversation, however, in which Mrs. Conger explained that portraits of many of the rulers of Europe would be there, including a portrait of Queen Victoria, and that such a painting would in a way counteract the false pictures of her that had gone abroad, she said that she would consult with Prince Ching about the matter. This looked very much as though it had been tabled. Not long thereafter, however, she sent word to Mrs. Conger, asking that Miss Carl be invited to come to Peking and paint her portrait.

"We all know how this portrait had to be begun on an auspicious day; how a railroad had to be built to the Foreign Office rather than have the portrait carried out on men's shoulders, as though she were dead; how she celebrated her seventieth birthday when she was sixty-nine, to defeat the gods and prevent their bringing such a calamity during the celebration as had occurred when she was sixty, when the Japanese war disturbed her festivities. On her clothes she wore the ideographs for 'Long Life and 'Happiness,' and most of the presents she gave were emblematic of some good fortune. Her palace was decorated with great plates of apples, which by a play on words mean 'Peace,' and with plates of peaches, which mean 'Longevity.' On her person she wore charms, one of which she took from her neck and placed on the neck of Mrs. Conger when she was about to leave China, saying that she hoped it might protect her during her journey across the ocean, as it had protected herself during her wanderings in 1900, and she would not allow any one to appear in her presence who had any semblance of mourning about her clothing.

"It is a well-known fact that no Manchu woman ever binds her feet, and the Empress Dowager was as much opposed to foot-binding as any other living woman. Nevertheless, she would not allow a subject to presume to suggest to her ways in which she should interfere in the social customs of the Chinese, as one of her subjects did. This lady was the wife of a Chinese minister to a foreign country, and had adopted both for herself and her daughters the most ultra style of European dress. She one day said to Her Majesty, 'The bound feet of the Chinese woman make us the laughing-stock of the world.'

" 'I have heard,' said the Empress Dowager, 'that the foreigners have a custom which is not above reproach, and now since there are no outsiders here, I should like to see what the foreign ladies use in binding their waist.'

"The lady was very stout, and had the appearance of an hour-glass, and turning to her daughter, a tall and slender maiden, she said:

" 'Daughter, you show Her Majesty.'

"The young lady demurred until finally the Empress Dowager said:

" 'Do you not realize that a request coming from me is the same as a command?'

"After having had her curiosity satisfied, she sent for the Grand Secretary and ordered that proper Manchu outfits be secured for the lady's daughters, saying:

" 'It is truly pathetic what foreign women have to endure. They are bound up with steel bars until they can scarcely breathe. Pitiable! Pitiable!'

"The following day this young lady did not appear at court, and the Empress Dowager asked her mother the reason of her absence.

" 'She is ill to-day,' the mother replied.

" 'I am not surprised,' replied Her Majesty, 'for it must require some time after the bandages have been removed before she can again compress herself into the same proportions,' indicating that the Empress Dowager supposed that foreign women slept with their waists bound, just as the Chinese women do with their feet."

The first winter I spent in China, twenty years ago, was one of great excitement in Peking. The time of the regency of the Empress Dowager for the boy-emperor had ended. I have explained how a prince is not allowed to marry a princess because she is his relative, or even a commoner his cousin for the same reason. That is the rule. But rules were made to be broken, and when the time came for Kuang Hsu's betrothal the Empress Dowager decided to marry this son of her sister to the daughter of her brother. It mattered not that the young man was opposed to the match and wanted another for his wife. The Empress Dowager had set her heart upon this union, and she would not allow her plans to be frustrated, so an edict was issued that all people should remain within their homes on a certain night, for the bride was to be taken in her red chair from her father's home to the palace. So that in this as in all other things her will was law for all those about her.

She was a bit below the average height, but she wore shoes, in the centre of whose soles there were -- heels, shall we call them? -- six inches high. These, together with her Manchu garments, which hang from the shoulders, gave her a tall and stately appearance and made her seem, as she was, every inch an empress. Her figure was perfect, her carriage quick and graceful, and she lacked nothing physically to make her a splendid type of womanhood and ruler. Her features were more vivacious and pleasing than they were really beautiful; her complexion was of an olive tint, and her face illumined by orbs of jet half hidden by dark lashes, behind which lurked the smiles of favour or the lightning flashes of anger.

When seated upon the throne she was majesty itself, but the moment she stepped down from the august seat, and took ones hand in both of hers, saying with the most amiable of smiles: "What a kind fate it is that has allowed you to come and see me again. I hope you are not over-weary with the long journey," one felt that she was, above all, a woman, a companion, a friend -- yet for all that the mistress of every situation, whether diplomatic, business, or social.

I wish her mental characteristics could be described as completely as Japanese and other photographers have given us pictures of her person. But perhaps if this were possible she would seem less interesting. And it may be that in the relation of these few incidents of her career there may have been revealed something of the patriotism, the statesmanship, the imperious will, and the ambitions that brought about the reeestablishment and the continuation of the dynasty of her people. We have seen how the enemies of her country fell before her sword. Dangerous statesmen fell before her pen, and if they were fortunate enough to rise again with all their honour it was to be divested of all their former power. Every obstacle in her path was overcome either by diplomacy or by force.

The Empress Dowager has no double in Chinese history, if indeed in the history of the world. She not only guided the ship of state during the last half century, but she guided it well, and put into operation all the greatest reforms that have ever been thought of by Chinese statesmen. Compared with her own people, she stands head and shoulders above any other woman of the Mongol race. And what shall we say of her compared with the great women of other races? In strength of character and ability she will certainly not suffer in any comparison that can be made. We cannot, therefore, help admiring that young girl, who formerly ran errands for her mother who, being made the concubine of an emperor, became the mother of an emperor, the wife of an emperor, the maker of an emperor, the dethroner of an emperor, and the ruler of China for nearly half a century -- all this in a land where woman has no standing or power. Is it too much to say that she was the greatest woman of the last half century?