Manchu underwear

So, I was reading the 1911 edition of Encyclopedia Britannica, specifically the entry on China. For those of you who don’t know it, the 1911 edition is considered to be a classic because it had a higher level of really well-known contributors than any before or since. Given the date it was published, it also give you a a great picture of the late-Victorian Anglo-American mindset. And it’s on-line.

The China entry is remarkably physical and geographic. There is a bit of history, but as late as this they were not prepared to say much about the history of China.1 They do have some stuff on more contemporary history, including this little bit on the Dowager Empress Cixi, who should have been handing power over to the Guangxu emperor as he attained his majority just before the 1898 reforms.

The dowager-empress, who, in spite of the emperor Kwang-su having nominally attained his majority, had retained practical control of the supreme power until the conflict with Japan, had been held, not unjustly, to blame for the disasters of the war, and even before its conclusion the young emperor was adjured by some of the most responsible among his own subjects to shake himself free from the baneful restraint of “petticoat government,” and himself take the helm.

I was struck by the phrase “petticoat government” (in quotes no less) Although the study of Manchu undergarments is still in swaddling clothes, I am pretty sure that Cixi did not wear petticoats. I have actually seen that phrase before, used in early 20th century anti woman’s suffrage  rhetoric, as here.

It seems to have been a pretty standard phrase in the West at the time, referring to the baleful influence of women in politics. From Wikipedia it seems that the phrase goes back to at least the 1750’s, and thus long before votes for women was any sort of issue. That actually ties it in better with the Chinese case, where there was also a long tradition of fearing the influence of women on government, but for the most part not because women were likely to get access to the formal mechanisms of power (the ballot in this case) but because they could attain power outside of the official “Confucian” stream. There is a lot of stuff about this in Keith McMahon’s new Women Shall Not Rule: Imperial Wives and Concubines in China from Han to Liao

While the book has a short analysis of the issues involved with women and political power in the Chinese tradition, the heart of it are McMahon’s accounts of pretty much every story of women with court power in China down to the Liao. There were a number of ways for women to get power, from getting the emperor to fall in love with you, being the Empress Dowager, coming from a major aristocratic clan that the emperor had to respect, and just being smart and ruthless. Pretty much all of these women were condemned by those who wrote histories, in part out of unadulterated sexism, and in part because all of these methods of gaining power were not the formal one of getting an education and becoming a bureaucrat. Women were often lumped in with eunuchs, who were both not-male and represented a separate power stream.

Cixi would seem to not fit many of these models. The theme of emperors becoming infatuated with personal pleasure, in the form of concubines, rather than state duties is not really relevant, as she only became really powerful after her husband died. The old aristocratic politics was long dead by that point. She is one of the few really powerful court women of the Ming-Qing. She does have the ‘mother of the current emperor’ thing, but I would almost say she has more in common with Mao’s wife, Jiang Qing, more of a successful freelance political entrepreneur that part of a standard system that often made it possible for women to get political power, as in the earlier dynasties. It will be interesting to see what MacMahon does with her in his second volume.


  1. I have seen at least one timeline from this period that marks all Chinese history down to the Tang as ‘legendary’ 

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