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Empress Dowager Cixi: The Concubine Who Launched Modern China by Jung Chang: A Book Review

Empress Dowager Cixi: The Concubine Who Launched Modern China
Author: Jung Chang
Genre: Nonfiction, History, Biography
Publisher: Knopf
Release Date: 2013
Pages: 498
Source: Personal Collection
Synopsis: Empress Dowager Cixi (1835–1908) is the most important woman in Chinese history. She ruled China for decades and brought a medieval empire into the modern age.
At the age of sixteen, in a nationwide selection for royal consorts, Cixi was chosen as one of the emperor’s numerous concubines. When he died in 1861, their five-year-old son succeeded to the throne. Cixi at once launched a palace coup against the regents appointed by her husband and made herself the real ruler of China—behind the throne, literally, with a silk screen separating her from her officials who were all male.

     In this groundbreaking biography, Jung Chang vividly describes how Cixi fought against monumental obstacles to change China. Under her the ancient country attained virtually all the attributes of a modern state: industries, railways, electricity, the telegraph and an army and navy with up-to-date weaponry. It was she who abolished gruesome punishments like “death by a thousand cuts” and put an end to foot-binding. She inaugurated women’s liberation and embarked on the path to introduce parliamentary elections to China. Chang comprehensively overturns the conventional view of Cixi as a diehard conservative and cruel despot.

     Cixi reigned during extraordinary times and had to deal with a host of major national crises: the Taiping and Boxer rebellions, wars with France and Japan—and an invasion by eight allied powers including Britain, Germany, Russia and the United States. Jung Chang not only records the Empress Dowager’s conduct of domestic and foreign affairs, but also takes the reader into the depths of her splendid Summer Palace and the harem of Beijing’s Forbidden City, where she lived surrounded by eunuchs—one of whom she fell in love, with tragic consequences. The world Chang describes here, in fascinating detail, seems almost unbelievable in its extraordinary mixture of the very old and the very new.

     Based on newly available, mostly Chinese, historical documents such as court records, official and private correspondence, diaries and eyewitness accounts, this biography will revolutionize historical thinking about a crucial period in China’s—and the world’s—history. Packed with drama, fast paced and gripping, it is both a panoramic depiction of the birth of modern China and an intimate portrait of a woman: as the concubine to a monarch, as the absolute ruler of a third of the world’s population, and as a unique stateswoman.

     My Review: Empress Dowager Cixi is the last empress of China. She has been criticized by many for ending the Chinese Imperial Dynasty. She is known to be the woman who betrayed her country, and her reign was known to be the weakest and most corrupt period of the Qing Dynasty. However, in this biography of the empress, Jung Chang portrays Cixi as a feminist who brought medieval China into the modern age. It was she who saw that the world was industrializing, and she too tried to keep China up-to-date in her times.

     Ever since childhood, Empress Dowager Cixi had been interested in politics. When she became concubine, she never meant to be important. She was a woman in the harem. Because she gave birth to a son and she had a friendship with Empress Zhen when her son became emperor, she became Empress Dowager. Together, Empress Zhen and Empress Cixi formed a partnership and began to rule China to protect the emperor from his foes. Eventually, Cixi became the ultimate power behind the throne. It was shown that Cixi was a shrewd and pragmatic woman. She was for women’s rights and put an end to foot-binding in China. She would also have been for women’s suffrage. She also believed that the government was for the people and petitioned for China to have a constitutional monarchy. Thus, Cixi was a woman of her time who believed in Western ideals. She was also a very competent ruler, and her ministers supported her because they believed that she was the only one who could rule China capably.

     Thus, this biography shows Cixi’s many accomplishments to help China. The author shows that she greatly admired and sympathized with Cixi. Cixi had her flaws. She could be ruthless and made mistakes, but it was clear that she loved China and its people. She let her people vote for the first time in her reign and made them citizens rather than subjects. If Cixi had lived a bit longer, she might have stabilized China into being a constitutional monarchy. This biography mostly focuses on the later life of Empress Dowager Cixi. I would have liked to have learned more about Cixi’s early life, for instance her relationships with Emperor Xianfeng and her son Emperor Tongzhi, and her friendship with Empress Zheng. While this biography can be dry at times, it is still very comprehensive to the general reader. Still, this book shows Empress Dowager Cixi in a different light and contradicts many of the myths that have been painted of her. This biography shows Cixi was as a shrewd woman who loved her country and was actually a female ruler who was forward-thinking and ahead of her times.

Rating: 4 out of 5 stars

Here is the author talking about her book: Empress Dowager Cixi: The Concubine Who Launched Modern China:


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