Chinese Enlightenment (What it Really was and how it Started)
Just a few days ago, on May 4th 2019, China celebrated its 100 years of enlightenment. At the end of World War I, in 1919, the coalition powers were gathered in France in order to negotiate upon a peaceful agreement. But what it actually happened, was that following to a secret agreement that France, the United Kingdom and the United States had done with Japan, who had also given support to the allies, they conceded chinese land to them. An american diplomat Edward T. Williams wrote: "The Chinese people got betrayed in the house of their allies".
As soon as the bad news riched China, people came in despair. This was pure disrespect. So, on May 4th 1919, a huge student's protest took place, and marked the beggining of a new era in China, and the birth of the May 4th movement of China, which is a benchmark of the political and cultural arousement of modern China.
A storm of new ideas, contradictive opinions which for the first time were being outspoken and expressed publicly, a writers' generation, and a generation of educated people who were trying to capture the significant intellectual stream of their times, appeared.
The main concept behind all opinions, was how to plan and structure social life and politics by leaving behind old practices used thousands of years ago, which led nowhere, or were no more useful.
But this storm of new ideas was it really new? or was there a springboard which led to this change? Years before World War I, in 1861, the chinese throne was given to the 5 year old son of an extremely powerful and insightful woman of the chinese history, for whom very little have been written about, named Cixi. In her book Empress Dowager Cixi, Young Chang illustratesa long period in chinese history, during which, China acquiered a useful basis, that led the country to modern age.
Cixi was a Manchu, she belonged to an ethnic majority which kept her feet from being bound, a practise that was largely applied by the Han, the ethnic majority in China. Cixi was one of the emperors mistresses, and soon climbed the career ladder, by making a strong relationship with another mistress of the emperor and by keeping their friendship and their plans secret.
Cixi was really smart and her intellect helped her visualize the future and create a strategic plan. She ruled China for decades, and led a medieval empire into modern age. She believed in a more extrovert policy and adopted an extrovert doctrine.
Most of the chinese documents that prove the long rule of China under this great even though controversial personality, were not accessible for a long period of time. Due to the fact that Cixi maintains such a powerful position to the chinese history, a patriarchical society like the chinese one, could not easily accept her as a symbol!
During her leadership she had to face the Taiping and the Boxer revolutions, wars with France and Japan, and the invasions of England, Germany, Russia and the United States to China.
In spite of the criticism she had for opening up to the west, Cixi managed to bring peace to the country, improve the country's finances.
Cixi gained power (through her son's leadership at first) at a chronical period, when the second opium war was over. According to many analysts the end of this war, symbolized the beggining of a new era, with China entering the modern history.
It is indisputable that Cixi created a whole new era, a wave of new thinking considering her opening to the west, the contradictive opinions (which existed during her leadership) about cooperating with the west, and by imposing herself as a leader even when this was happening behind the scenes, in a society which wasn't yet ready to permit to a woman such a decisive role. She died on 1908, after poisoning Guanxu who was her sister's son whom she adopted. Of course she had already named a new heir, as she believed that Guangxu was too weak to continue China's leadership.
It may have been difficult to accept the fact that Cixi, stands as a springboard leading to the chinese enlightenment, but it is true that the fermentation caused during her reign, appears to have many similarities to the one that started after the end of world war I, in 1919. And it may have been difficult to accept that a woman stood so strong and played such a decisive role in chinese history, so as to set the basis for a chinese enlightenment, but by gathering all the data concerning that period of time, there is no point denying it.
written by Themis Panagiotopoulou, PhD in Political Science