The Dragon Empress: Life and Times of Tz'u-Hsi, 1835-1908, Empress Dowager of China by Marina Warner: A Book Review

The Dragon Empress: Life and Times of Tz'u-Hsi, 1835-1908, Empress Dowager of China
Author: Marina Warner
Genre: Nonfiction, History, Biography
Publisher: George Weidenfeld & Nicholso
Release Date: 1972
Pages: 271
Source: My State Public Library
Synopsis: From 1861 to 1908 a woman - the Empress Dowager Tz'u-hsi, born the daughter of a minor mandarin - held the supreme power in China. Opportunist, ruthless, malicious, she ruled over 400 million people. This biography explores her complex personality - her extreme conventionalism, her hatred of foreigners, her passion for power and intrigue, her vanity and her delight in ritual, her extravagance and corruption, and her love of gardens, painting and the theatre. The book also portrays a China in rapid decline, as poverty, civil war and foreign exploitation and invasion brought about the fall of the Ch'ing dynasty. 

      My Review: Empress Dowager Cixi is one of history’s most controversial empresses. It was during Cixi’s rule that the rule of imperial China ended. Empress Dowager Cixi ruled for nearly fifty years. In this biography of the Empress Dowager, Cixi is portrayed as ruthless, power-hungry, and malicious.  Despite her negative qualities, the author shows how she was a strong and politically-adept woman.

     Marina Warner largely portrays Empress Dowager Cixi in a bad light. Unlike Sterling Seagrave’s biography that describes Cixi as an illiterate woman, who had no experience in politics, Marina Warner portrays her as an intelligent woman who knew how to rule. When she was the favored concubine of Emperor Xianfeng, she mostly ruled during his reign and criticized him for being a coward. During her reign as regent, she was shown to be morally corrupt, indulging in earthly pleasures such as picnics, boat rides, and theater. She was portrayed as so evil that sometimes it almost seemed very cartoonish, and at times I found it utterly comical and unbelievable.

    Overall, there is not much new in this biography. It portrayed Empress Dowager Cixi in the traditional light. There was so much negativity about her that I honestly questioned its validity in some aspects. When I looked at the sources that the author mentioned, I found that some of them were questionable. However, it was very easy to read. I also loved the illustrations and thought it enhanced the reading experience. Therefore, it was an entertaining read. However, I suggest that you should read it with caution. The best and most balanced biography of Cixi to date that I have read is Empress Dowager Cixi: The Concubine Who Launched Modern China by Jung Chang. After you finish reading the biographies by Marina Warner and Sterling Seagrave, immediately read the biography by Jung Chang in order to form a well-rounded portrait of the Empress Dowager.

Rating: 3 out of 5 stars


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