It seemed like the end of the world. In rapid succession after 1898, northern China was assailed by catastrophic flooding, then drought, then by a millenarian peasant uprising, closely followed in the summer of 1900 by a punitive foreign invasion. Russian forces were rampaging across Manchuria, the ancestral heartlands of the Qing rulers of China; European, Japanese and American troops had stormed across the plains and entered Beijing, the heart of the empire of the Manchus. Foreign soldiers looted and raped their way through the capital. On 21 June the Qing court issued a decree recognising a state of war against the world.
Where they could, Beijing’s residents fled. One of the most prominent of the refugees was the Empress Dowager Cixi (Tz’u-hsi is an easier approximation of the sound of her name), the ‘Dragon Empress’, ‘Dragon Lady’, ‘Old Buddha’, the ‘Last Great Empress of China’ (all of these titles or subtitles of