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A New York Times Notable Book 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 A New York Times Notable Book 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 Based on newly available, mostly Chinese, historical documents such as court records, official and private correspondence, diaries and eyewitness accounts, this biography will revolutionize historical thinking about a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.


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A New York Times Notable Book 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 A New York Times Notable Book 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.

30 review for Empress Dowager Cixi: The Concubine Who Launched Modern China

  1. 4 out of 5

    Sean Barrs

    I’m planning on visiting China this summer (provided my university accept my application) because I find Chinese culture so fascinating. The history is so intriguing. My dissertation for my master’s degree will directly address how English writers (namely Ezra Pound) appropriated Chinese literature and created a new form of English Poetry. There’s so much I want to learn, and one day I’d even like to learn the language; Mandarin is, after all, the most commonly spoken language on Earth. This is I’m planning on visiting China this summer (provided my university accept my application) because I find Chinese culture so fascinating. The history is so intriguing. My dissertation for my master’s degree will directly address how English writers (namely Ezra Pound) appropriated Chinese literature and created a new form of English Poetry. There’s so much I want to learn, and one day I’d even like to learn the language; Mandarin is, after all, the most commonly spoken language on Earth. This is a biography of one of the most influential woman in Chinese history, so it was certainly good to revisit it. The book provides a complete life story of the woman who modernised China. We see her growth as a ruler; she begins to see the ruthlessness of court and understands that she must become equally as ruthless in order to be an effective leader. She was not a woman to be crossed. The fact that she managed to manoeuvre herself into such a position of power considering her origins is a ridiculously impressive feat. Cixi began a concubine and died as the Empress of China. How many could say the same? She ruled from the shadows for many years. First, dictating from behind the throne of her son then eventually her adopted son’s. Although she did not wear the title for many years, she was the real ruler of China. She was rumoured to have poisoned political rivals, possibly even her own adopted son in order to position herself further. Her reign was full of scandal; she fell in love with a eunuch which ended in disaster. Although the ruler of her country, and herself breaking through the gender based limitations placed on her, she was still dictated by the misogyny of her people. This biography is undeniably biased. The author attempts to be impartial; she presents the facts in a careful way, though a powerful admiration for the Empress shines through the writing. Is this necessarily a bad thing? We all have our own opinions, and it is up to us to make our own minds up regarding historical figures. Cixi was not perfect, far from it, but name me a ruler who was. I took the author's opinions for what they were, and considered the facts in order to form my own opinion.

  2. 4 out of 5

    Montzalee Wittmann

    Empress Dowager Cixi: The Concubine Who Launched Modern China by Jung Chang reads so smoothly like a novel but is strictly historical. I haven't read a history book so well done in a long time. Well done that keeps to the facts, not adding speculation, but adding what the what the surroundings/clothing/jewelry/etc would look like. So well done I felt like I knew the society of the times, dress, politics, dress, etc. Very different culture but interesting. I got this from the library and it was Empress Dowager Cixi: The Concubine Who Launched Modern China by Jung Chang reads so smoothly like a novel but is strictly historical. I haven't read a history book so well done in a long time. Well done that keeps to the facts, not adding speculation, but adding what the what the surroundings/clothing/jewelry/etc would look like. So well done I felt like I knew the society of the times, dress, politics, dress, etc. Very different culture but interesting. I got this from the library and it was the audio book.

  3. 5 out of 5

    Joely Black

    I grew up loving Wild Swans, and I was excited to start reading this. I kept seeing it in the window of book stores, enticing me. Yet the actual read of the book was often a terrible slog. The prose often felt rushed, and without any real life to it. The notation system is terrible. Chang never uses clearly marked footnotes or endnotes. They are there, but you never know where there is a reference to a source because there's never any indication in the text. For a book making a lot of assertions I grew up loving Wild Swans, and I was excited to start reading this. I kept seeing it in the window of book stores, enticing me. Yet the actual read of the book was often a terrible slog. The prose often felt rushed, and without any real life to it. The notation system is terrible. Chang never uses clearly marked footnotes or endnotes. They are there, but you never know where there is a reference to a source because there's never any indication in the text. For a book making a lot of assertions that contradict received history, this is a frustrating failing. Although it's clear that Cixi has been the victim of a long and pronounced character assassination, this felt rather biased the other way. Shocking acts, like the murder of the Emperor's favourite concubine, Pearl, by flinging her down a well, deserves something more than a paragraph, as does the eventual murder of Guangxu himself. It's very difficult to know, without being an expert on Chinese history, how to judge the accuracy of the book. Cixi's life and work needs revision and an accurate accounting, but while the book presents some fascinating insight on the working of Chinese society at the time, it still feels quite flawed.

  4. 5 out of 5

    Louise

    In total contravention to informed opinion, this author holds The Dowager Empress Cixi in awe and considers her a reformer. I was looking forward to what the author of Wild Swans: Three Daughters of China might have to say about Cixi. I was disappointed that not much of her premise holds up. The Dowager's actions, as cited in this very text, contradict the author's premise. Women's roles in history are obscured and underrated. Cixi is not obscure and takes on her shoulders the centuries of tradit In total contravention to informed opinion, this author holds The Dowager Empress Cixi in awe and considers her a reformer. I was looking forward to what the author of Wild Swans: Three Daughters of China might have to say about Cixi. I was disappointed that not much of her premise holds up. The Dowager's actions, as cited in this very text, contradict the author's premise. Women's roles in history are obscured and underrated. Cixi is not obscure and takes on her shoulders the centuries of tradition and resistance to change that put China in a weak position to deal with the modern world. Jung Chang gives no information to show that Cixi's leadership did anything to reverse this trend. What she does show is that Cixi is a consummate politician. Cixi lucked out in producing the first male child for the Emperor Xianfeng and was befriended his wife the empress. Upon the emperor's death, Cixi aligned with Empress Zhen and they plotted their way to power. Upon the death of her son, the Emperor Tongzhi, on whom her position depended, she adopted her three year old nephew who became Emperor Guangxu. She controlled him and wheedled his power away from him. When he became an adult, discredited and imprisoned him. She later murdered him, for the good of China... of course. None of her power was used to reform China. It seems to have been used to appoint people who would perpetuate her own power and kill others who (may have) threatened it. As could easily be predicted, she was against the Boxer rebels until they were effective; then she supported them; and then when they were squelched by the westerners, she cozied up to the westerners. She promised China a constitutional monarchy... after her death, of course. The text is often a paean that contradicts Cixi's life and actions. Page 344 tributes "Cixi's sense of fairness... penchant for consensus". This hardly fits the narrative to this point, the most dramatic example being Jade (the Emperor Guangxu's favorite concubine) for whom there was no room in the flight from the Boxers. Jade did not obey Cixi's orders to commit suicide, nor did Cixi notice the consensus of the eunuchs who did not step forward to push her into the well (p. 279) as she had ordered. Cixi had to order specific Eunuch to do this, who would surely not have done it had he thought he had a choice. On p. 354, after a whole book showing how Cixi excluded Han Chinese from the inner councils of running their own country, we learn that "she was not given to racial prejudice". The last section, on the "Real Revolution of Modern China" is replete with examples of how the text, itself, discredits the thesis that Cixi is a reformer. In this "reform period" Cixi is enjoying her new western friends, to whose countries China is indebted; they shower her with gifts and attention. Cixi (p.326) issued an edict banning foot-binding and "approached the implementation ... with characteristic caution ... not her style to force drastic change" and it took a generation (i.e. regime change) because "Cixi was prepared to wait". Later, on p. 371 Jung Chung calls foot-binding a practice to which Cixi "put an end." It took a boycott (p. 349) of a reception by her British friends for her to issue an edit banning "bastinado" - the beating of prisoners to death. Future eliminations use various other methods and were covered up. The book is good for its easy to follow chronology. The descriptions of the pageantry; crimson ink, seals and boxes; eunuch life; the education of young emperors; the culture of outbursts (weeping, banging heads on the floor, prostration for apology); and the mundane (what pipe attendants do and how they are trained) are excellent. The photographs, like the cover are great. Are Cixi's mistakes, for which she apologized, greater than Mao's, for which he didn't? (p.373) Jung Chang, who was on the receiving end of Mao's "mistakes" considers Cixi's minimal compared with her achievements. From this volume, I appreciate Cixi's political achievements for herself, but find achievements for China lacking.

  5. 4 out of 5

    Lyn Elliott

    In telling the story of Ci Xi, who effectively ruled China for the best part of 50 years as Dowager Empress, Jung Chang has the great advantage of being able to access primary and secondary sources in Chinese as well as English. She has referenced a wide range of archival materials in European and Chinese collections, diaries, letters, books and articles. Jung Chang argues that Ci Xi recognised early that China would need to modernise to just to survive against the invasions of the western power In telling the story of Ci Xi, who effectively ruled China for the best part of 50 years as Dowager Empress, Jung Chang has the great advantage of being able to access primary and secondary sources in Chinese as well as English. She has referenced a wide range of archival materials in European and Chinese collections, diaries, letters, books and articles. Jung Chang argues that Ci Xi recognised early that China would need to modernise to just to survive against the invasions of the western powers, especially after the second Opium Wars in the 1850s. Although Ci Xi had little formal education, she was highly intelligent and usually fair and politically astute and drove many of the changes towards modernisation in China through the second half o the nineteenth century up till 190, when she died. Her ability to exercise the level of power that she did was extraordinary, particularly given that, as a woman, she could have only restricted contact with men and seems to have left the imperial palaces in Beijing only in times of war or revolution. Despite this she was intensely interested in the outside world, sent ambassadors to Europe and the United States and keenly read their reports. She introduced the beginnings of an accessible education system, encouraged opening of China to foreign trade, and eventually accepted the introduction of railways - resisted for many years because of the damage they would do to family graves along the train routes. In the early years of the twentieth century she sent out a mission to research electoral systems in democratic countries and took first steps to introduce democracy to China, though she didn't live long enough to steer it into any meaningful existence. For as long as she held power, she was opposed by conservative members of the governing elites in China, including members of the Manchu ruling families. And through all this time, foreign powers (mostly European, but also Japan and America) were pushing hard for concessions for trade, for territory and for special concessions for their residents. War was inflicted on China several times during this period, weakening the Chinese state further each time. One of the things that appalled me was that after having invaded China, the western powers and Japan all demanded that the invaded country - the victim, if you like, had to pay massive 'reparations' to the invaders. Here you can see the ugliness of nineteenth century imperialism well and truly on display. Anger against the foreign invaders was what drove the Boxer Rebellion (1899-1900), and Ci Xi's anger at the foreigners ruthless behaviour led her to support the Boxers until she realised they were too destructive that they were a threat to general order, not just to the foreigners. The poorly organised and armed Chinese were inevitably defeated, the foreign allied forces occupied Beijing, from which Ci Xi and court fled to Xian, where she stayed until the court returned to Beijing in early 1902. She acknowledged quite soon that her initial support of the Boxers was possibly the greatest mistake of her rule. I found this book easy to read, and could readily slot it into place in what I already know of Chinese history, culture and politics, where it helps to give another side to the mostly American or English histories of China that I have read up till now. It is based on wide-ranging research, and part of what makes the reading easy is that the author has a long notes section after the main text, in which sources are given for paragraphs and pages where they are needed, so that the reader is not confronted with continual referencing from within the text itself I was the only one at the book club meeting for which I read this who has much of a background in history, and most of them found it hard going, with too much detail for their liking. I would have liked more of the wider social and political context within which Ci Xi operated. Another friend who has just read it thought it was far too easy on the ruthless imperialist behaviours of the western powers and Japan. The main focus is on the woman herself, her lifestyle and her life as a female ruler cleverly manoeuvring her way through a male dominated, mostly conservative society, and with pressures for change building up before the revolutionary explosions of the twentieth century.

  6. 5 out of 5

    Rebecca

    How can such an incredible life story be...just...so...boring?! Chinese empress Cixi led a fascinating life: she wielded behind-the-scenes power over a third of the world’s population for nearly the whole length of Queen Victoria’s reign; she fell in love with a eunuch, survived multiple assassination plots, and was rumored to have poisoned several rivals, including her adopted son. And yet this biography renders her life story utterly dull; like Kirsten Ellis did in Star of the Morning : The Lif How can such an incredible life story be...just...so...boring?! Chinese empress Cixi led a fascinating life: she wielded behind-the-scenes power over a third of the world’s population for nearly the whole length of Queen Victoria’s reign; she fell in love with a eunuch, survived multiple assassination plots, and was rumored to have poisoned several rivals, including her adopted son. And yet this biography renders her life story utterly dull; like Kirsten Ellis did in Star of the Morning : The Life and Times of Lady Hester Stanhope, Chang takes an absurdly adventurous life and spoils it with dry, tedious prose. I had hoped for so much better from the celebrated author of Wild Swans: Three Daughters of China. The best parts are where Chang uses her personal knowledge of China to add depth to natural descriptions, such as “Autumn is Beijing’s best season, when the sun is no longer scorching, the biting cold has yet to descend, and no sandstorms from the northwestern desert are whipping the city, as they do habitually in spring.” Unfortunately, most of the language is not nearly so memorable. As a result of her ruthless methods, Cixi is often remembered as a tyrant, but Chang clearly finds her inspirational: “She was a giant, but not a saint.” Or, “As Pearl Buck observed, those who hated her were simply ‘more articulate than those who loved her.’” Her life certainly makes for a tale worth reading, but with so many biographies to choose from (including Dragon Lady: The Life and Legend of the Last Empress of China and Marina Warner’s The Dragon Empress: Life and Times of Tz'u-Hsi, Empress Dowager of China, 1835-1908), you’ll surely find a better teller.

  7. 4 out of 5

    Amanda Bannister

    3.5/5 rounded up to 4!

  8. 4 out of 5

    Christine PNW

    This was way outside of my usual reading fare - I don't read a lot of non-fiction and I read very few books set in China. I am involved in a GR group, and we selected the Dowager Empress Cixi as an area of focus for the first part of the year, so I ended up reading this. It was, unfortunately, the only book I managed to read on the topic, but it was fascinating. Dowager Empress Cixi was the last ruler from the Qing dynasty in China, and had been a concubine. Imperial China seemed very strange to This was way outside of my usual reading fare - I don't read a lot of non-fiction and I read very few books set in China. I am involved in a GR group, and we selected the Dowager Empress Cixi as an area of focus for the first part of the year, so I ended up reading this. It was, unfortunately, the only book I managed to read on the topic, but it was fascinating. Dowager Empress Cixi was the last ruler from the Qing dynasty in China, and had been a concubine. Imperial China seemed very strange to me, with its rigorous and occasionally nonsensical rules for everyone based upon their birth, sex and status. The conflict with Japan is illuminated, and the scramble of the colonial powers for China was also handled through this very interesting biography. I'd also heard of the Boxer Rebellion, but knew very little about it, so reading the sections about Cixi's ill-advised and ultimately devastating efforts to use the rebellion against western attempts to seize control of China was really interesting. The most interesting part of the book, however, was Cixi herself. Mostly uneducated and excluded from power by her sex, Cixi managed to consolidate authority and rule China for decades from behind the throne. As a woman, she wasn't even allowed to meet directly with men. The fact that she was able to gain and retain power, and in so doing begin to modernize China much against its will is a testament to her determination and fortitude. She was utterly ruthless. If you are interested in biographies, interested in imperial China, or if you just like to read non-fiction this is a fascinating choice.

  9. 5 out of 5

    BAM Endlessly Booked

    For close to forty years the Dowager Empress Cixi ruled the empire of China beginning in 1860. She is alternatively described as either pragmatic, shrewd, sensible, just and gracious or meddlesome, cunning, underhanded and selfish. She is documented throughout Chinese history as a scapegoat for the turmoil inflicted from the beginning of her rule to the beginning of the Republic. Research by Jung Chang has proven that is not the case. Throughout her reign in the name of her adopted son, the empe For close to forty years the Dowager Empress Cixi ruled the empire of China beginning in 1860. She is alternatively described as either pragmatic, shrewd, sensible, just and gracious or meddlesome, cunning, underhanded and selfish. She is documented throughout Chinese history as a scapegoat for the turmoil inflicted from the beginning of her rule to the beginning of the Republic. Research by Jung Chang has proven that is not the case. Throughout her reign in the name of her adopted son, the emperor, there was constant internal upheaval and rioting as well as wars with various western powers and Japan, earning China the world's contempt for a country once highly respected for its size and kindheartedness. Cixi was known for both her decisive action and sagacious moves in governing as well as her ability to wait years to strike vengeance. Western society viewed her as " a Catherine of Russia, an Elizabeth of England, and a Cleopatra, as one of the great woman rulers in history." She had no problems battling the misogynistic society in which she dwelled, where most of her decisions were ignored by incompetent men on her council. She was a champion of women's rights as early as 1903. This review could be many paragraphs long detailing all of her accomplishments and risk taking behavior, but that would spoil most of the book. Cixi deserves the admiration of her country. History should be rewritten.

  10. 5 out of 5

    Siria

    Jung Chang's biography of the Empress Cixi is a fascinating look at a period of history about which I know very little. As I'm not familiar with the existing historiography, I don't know to what extent exactly this is a revisionist biography—certainly, if Chang's characterisation of previous historical works on Cixi is true, then this is a swing of the pendulum in the other direction. Chang presents a picture of a woman who was not without her faults, who could be ruthless if necessary, and who Jung Chang's biography of the Empress Cixi is a fascinating look at a period of history about which I know very little. As I'm not familiar with the existing historiography, I don't know to what extent exactly this is a revisionist biography—certainly, if Chang's characterisation of previous historical works on Cixi is true, then this is a swing of the pendulum in the other direction. Chang presents a picture of a woman who was not without her faults, who could be ruthless if necessary, and who was firmly rooted in a traditionalist and monarchist worldview, but who was also a reformer and a moderniser. Chang bases this, she claims, in large part on Chinese-language sources which have been largely disregarded by Chinese scholars and inaccessible to Anglophone ones. I think there's much to consider here, and Chang is good at unpicking the ways in which gender shaped both how Cixi had to present herself and the ways in which both her contemporaries and later scholars have viewed her. However even I could see that there was special pleading in operation here. Telling me that Cixi rarely used torture or execution as a political tool when diplomacy and tact would do instead is one thing—but you cannot then gloss over in a couple of lines the fact that Cixi ordered that her adoptive son be poisoned when she was on her own deathbed, or his favourite concubine thrown down a well because there wasn't enough room for her in their entourage when fleeing Beijing! Empress Dowager Cixi really reads like the first salvo in a broader reassessment of Cixi's life—Chang has probably been too laudatory here, but I think this biography should lead to further study and reassessment. (To nitpick as a historian, I really disliked the citation style—why do publishers seem to think that a popular audience will faint away if footnotes are used? I also really, really wish that people would stop using the word 'medieval' as a synonym for 'barbaric.')

  11. 4 out of 5

    Lisa

    I received an Advanced Copy of “Empress Dowager Cixi” through goodreads. It’s always a good thing to inspired by real women from history. Unfortunately our history books hold few accounts of women who have impacted history or politics. If you ask me, Empress Dowager Cixi ranks up there along with Queen Elizabeth I. Jung Chang makes Cixi’s story accessible through her no nonsense prose and seemingly thorough research. One cannot help but be truly impressed with Cixi’s intellect and brilliant usage I received an Advanced Copy of “Empress Dowager Cixi” through goodreads. It’s always a good thing to inspired by real women from history. Unfortunately our history books hold few accounts of women who have impacted history or politics. If you ask me, Empress Dowager Cixi ranks up there along with Queen Elizabeth I. Jung Chang makes Cixi’s story accessible through her no nonsense prose and seemingly thorough research. One cannot help but be truly impressed with Cixi’s intellect and brilliant usage of her “station” in life a secure leverage for securing political success. I will be recommending “Empress Dowager Cixi” as a read for my book club because it offers a plethora of issues for discussion.

  12. 4 out of 5

    Oisín

    I started this book, carrying with me all standard anecdotal baggage one hears about the cruel old crone who loomed behind the imperial throne in the final decades of Qing dynasty China. Very quickly, the author thoroughly dispelled each and every one of these clichéd images. Rather than acting as a bulwark against modernisation and progress, Cixi actually spent nearly every waking day in her role as Empress Dowager drawing the Chinese state into a new age whilst still maintaining its independen I started this book, carrying with me all standard anecdotal baggage one hears about the cruel old crone who loomed behind the imperial throne in the final decades of Qing dynasty China. Very quickly, the author thoroughly dispelled each and every one of these clichéd images. Rather than acting as a bulwark against modernisation and progress, Cixi actually spent nearly every waking day in her role as Empress Dowager drawing the Chinese state into a new age whilst still maintaining its independence from European dominance. The fact that this truth has for so long been obscured from the general public is owed as much to the inherent sexism of her times as to the modern Chinese Communist Party’s eagerness to denigrate everything associated with the old empire in order to increase their own historical standing. As I find myself reading more and more biographies as the years go by, I have begun to grow more capable of noticing when a writer is being too kind to their subject matter. Fawning over figures from the past serves about as much good as damning them for all eternity, in my opinion. That is why I was more than happy at Chang’s willingness to highlight Cixi’s flaws, both on a political and personal level, as it served to help me understand just why the Qing Empire struggled to adapt to an ever-changing world it was so woefully unprepared to face. In addition to the titular star of the book, the author took time to showcase the many other figures who served under the “Old Buddha” (as the Dowager Empress was affectionately known in the provinces), working diligently to reform China’s administration. Many of these figures were not even native Chinese, as it turns out! One of the most prominent individuals Chang brought up was one Sir Robert Hart, born in County Armagh, Ireland, who served as Inspector General for the Imperial Customs Service for over five decades, helping to reform an antiquated and thoroughly-corrupt system of trade. I appreciated the time spent giving due credit to people such as these because it helped to enhance Cixi’s stature as a leader of talented individuals, rather than as some mythic heroine who saved a nation all by herself. I would absolutely recommend this book to anyone with even a passing interest in Chinese history. The author’s style of writing is easily accessible to anyone who is curious as to how China entered the twentieth century, a century that it would later come to dominate when men and women followed from Cixi’s example of slow but inevitable progress concerned with the benefit of all.

  13. 5 out of 5

    Josh Brett

    Where to begin with Cixi? Undoubtedly, Cixi has been unfairly maligned by the historical record, always (especially in Chinese historiography?) biased against women wielding political power, and she has too often appeared as the archetypal "Dragon Lady" (actually the title of an earlier biography). Her opponents have certainly had a better talent for cultivating a public image, both in defaming her and promoting themselves (but do we really need to call him "Wild Fox" Kang EVERY time??). As I se Where to begin with Cixi? Undoubtedly, Cixi has been unfairly maligned by the historical record, always (especially in Chinese historiography?) biased against women wielding political power, and she has too often appeared as the archetypal "Dragon Lady" (actually the title of an earlier biography). Her opponents have certainly had a better talent for cultivating a public image, both in defaming her and promoting themselves (but do we really need to call him "Wild Fox" Kang EVERY time??). As I see it, there are two main problems in Chang's interpretation of events. First is her uncritical adoption of modernization theory, discussing events in starkly diametrical opposition between "Medieval China" and the modern world. Her allegiance to this vision of historical diffusion trumps even her Chinese patriotism, such as when she praises the post-Boxer occupying forces for bringing modern hygiene and policing (see Ruth Rogaski's hygienic modernity for a very different take on this!) to Tianjin. The second is her devotion to Cixi. Chang's book is very much in the great (wo)man approach to history, with every positive (i.e. moving along the road to modernity) development in China from 1861 to 1908 attributed directly to Cixi, while every misstep is due to the incompetence or opposition of the dithering idiots surrounding her. This can lead Chang into some narrative contortions to maintain her overwhelmingly positive view of Cixi, such as praising both Cixi's unbiased welcoming of foreigners and her patriotic sponsoring of the xenophobic Boxer movement. In my opinion the worst instance of this is the long set up of posing Kang Youwei as a Bond villainesque figure, in the pay of the Japanese and bent on killing Cixi and ruling through the Guangxu emperor. The end result of which is to portray her deathbed assassination of her nephew as not a last spiteful lashing out, but almost euthanasia, a last effort to "set right the affairs of the Empire." Which worked out so well, given that the Qing dynasty lasted a full three more years. Nevertheless, it was an interesting and entertaining listen (though the narrators voice for Cixi was cringe inducing "I will considah this vewy impohtant mattah"), I feel like I need to examine the sources that Chang is using to get a better picture that lies somewhere between the demonization and the hagiography.

  14. 5 out of 5

    Caidyn (he/him/his)

    This summer, I took a course on eastern civilizations. India, Japan, and, of course, China. However, when we were touching on the final dynasty, we never talked about Cixi. The most I remember discussing was that a three year old was put on the throne and then it all sort of tumbled to a terrible close for the monarchy. Enter Mao Zedong. But, she was absolutely fascinating to me. Sure, the book could get a bit dry, but she literally ruled the throne without being crowned. That's happened so many This summer, I took a course on eastern civilizations. India, Japan, and, of course, China. However, when we were touching on the final dynasty, we never talked about Cixi. The most I remember discussing was that a three year old was put on the throne and then it all sort of tumbled to a terrible close for the monarchy. Enter Mao Zedong. But, she was absolutely fascinating to me. Sure, the book could get a bit dry, but she literally ruled the throne without being crowned. That's happened so many times over the years, sure, but rarely with a woman. The only monarch that comes to mind is Catherine the Great, but she was the Empress, not ruling as a regent. Cixi went from being one of the poor Manchus to married to an emperor to being the lead woman because she had a boy by the luck of the dice. Not only that, but she commanded great amounts of respect from her people, even those who didn't agree with her. They still respected her while disagreeing. If you were to look at the current presidential race, there's none of that. Trump shits on Hillary, Hillary shits back on Trump. No respect whatsoever. (Although, I don't respect Trump that much and I respect Hillary a touch more than I do Trump.) Not even Bernie was that way completely, and I love Bernie. Even more than that, but she got along with her husband's other wife. They were friends until that Empress Dowager's last days alive. They worked together, a proper womanly team that so rarely happens even today. Today, there would be a whole calamity about who wins the man and they would sabotage each other. Also, she tried to cut down the class system. A few more rights for the Han Chinese. Be friends with the eunuchs. Start a democracy or at least try to. Like... this woman did all of that. And, unlike my experience with Massie's Catherine the Great: Portrait of a Woman, there was really no focus on possible lovers and rumors. It focused on Cixi and the amazing woman she was. I've seen this book so many times at my local Half Price Books and refrained from buying it, but next time I go this is in my arms to come home with me. One of my best historical nonfiction reads this summer.

  15. 4 out of 5

    Kay

    I enjoyed reading this book though I had strong reservations about the author's impartiality. What I came to think of as "women's boosterism" seemed to motivate much of her commentary on Cixi, whom she hails as a modernizer who has never been given her due. Since I'm not well versed in the history of China during this period, I can't say how valid Chang's views are, but there's little doubt that she got carried away in her role of chief Cixi apologist and defender. The book also suffered from sw I enjoyed reading this book though I had strong reservations about the author's impartiality. What I came to think of as "women's boosterism" seemed to motivate much of her commentary on Cixi, whom she hails as a modernizer who has never been given her due. Since I'm not well versed in the history of China during this period, I can't say how valid Chang's views are, but there's little doubt that she got carried away in her role of chief Cixi apologist and defender. The book also suffered from swings from the elevated (e.g., discussions of world geopolitics and political philosophy) to the prosaic (long passages describing what the empress ate, how she dressed, what pastimes she enjoyed, and so on). While these descriptions may have been intended to make the empress seem more real and sympathetic, sometimes they simply trivialized the subject. But, on the whole, the book did succeed holding my attention, as it is far from dry and is written with some verve. Most importantly, it motivated me to read more about the subject -- at which point, no doubt, I'll be better able to assess the book's faults and merits.

  16. 4 out of 5

    Ashley Marie

    I think GR booted this off my TBR because I've had the book for years and would've sworn I'd listed it here on GR as well... whatevers.

  17. 5 out of 5

    Orinoco Womble (tidy bag and all)

    Thanks to Mike Chen of Youtube's "Chen Dynasty" for waking me up to the obvious fact that I knew nothing about China's rulers except for Mao and thereafter. He talks rather quickly to keep his videos short, but if you want a good overview of the lives of rulers, concubines, gods and heroes, it's an excellent place to start. An amazing book. I'm so glad I picked it up. Chang writes very well, making what could be hard-slog history lessons accesible to the average reader. She grabbed me by the lape Thanks to Mike Chen of Youtube's "Chen Dynasty" for waking me up to the obvious fact that I knew nothing about China's rulers except for Mao and thereafter. He talks rather quickly to keep his videos short, but if you want a good overview of the lives of rulers, concubines, gods and heroes, it's an excellent place to start. An amazing book. I'm so glad I picked it up. Chang writes very well, making what could be hard-slog history lessons accesible to the average reader. She grabbed me by the lapel and drew me in. Like many modern history writers, Chapter 2 was a bit full of necessary data, but after that it got fascinating again. I learned a great deal without feeling like I was "studying", and spent a lot of time saying things like, "Oh! Now I see", as many past references in my reading from about age 12 on clicked into place in a wider context that actually made sense! Back in the 60s I remember those around me speaking of Sun Yat Sen as some kind of progressive saint. Well, it depends which side of the debate you were on, I guess. She doesn't slate him, but does find her facts from contemporary, trustworthy Chinese sources. I finally got a handle on who the Boxers were and what that particular movement was about. I discovered that China's "most favoured nation" status vis a vis the US dates from about 1865. I had had no idea that thousands of Chinese were basically sold as slaves to Cuba and Peru in the 19th century, and I finally found out that it was Kaiser Wilhelm who coined the term "Yellow Peril." I was a bit surprised at how often members of the court lose consciousness and/or go into convulsions, even bleeding from the mouth and nose "from anguish." Chang manages to avoid the more obvious feminist tropes; not once does she use the word "patriarchy", and yet she gets her meaning across as well or better without it. Just in passing: yesterday I read a newspaper article that purported to be about the Japanese princess stepping down from her royal status in order to marry a commoner; curiously enough--or perhaps not--the article gave her only the lead paragraph; the rest (and it was not short) was all about her father, uncles, brothers and male ancestors.) Her proofreaders did let her down slightly, which is an unfortunate and growing trend in serious nonfiction. Far too many sentences were fragments beginning with the word "And", which would have made more sense if attached to the preceding sentence. Many prepositions are misused, as when Cixi "quietly extracts a treaty out of the regents" as if it were a tooth! At another point she speaks of some minister wearing a "manicured" goatee, and the text is plagued with misspellings that can't be blamed on the US/UK divide, such as "shrewed" for shrewd. A shrew is a tiny animal, so if she were "shrewed" she'd be covered with shrews! Be not afraid, there aren't 400 plus pages of actual text; about a quarter of the book is bibliography etc. I look forward to reading more of her books if I can find them.

  18. 5 out of 5

    Linda Lpp

    I can tell this book will take me some time to read. But so far it is quite interesting. I wish I knew how to pronounce CIXI. Am just reading about advancement for China to commence travelling to Western countries. Not quite to modernization as such yet, but recognizing the need to open up to China trading more with other countries. They needed better transportation (rails, and ships), military and development of higher levels of education to train their own to work in profesional roles. I chuckl I can tell this book will take me some time to read. But so far it is quite interesting. I wish I knew how to pronounce CIXI. Am just reading about advancement for China to commence travelling to Western countries. Not quite to modernization as such yet, but recognizing the need to open up to China trading more with other countries. They needed better transportation (rails, and ships), military and development of higher levels of education to train their own to work in profesional roles. I chuckled when a section spoke of immigration/emigration policies between countries. Might be of interest for some in the US political world to glance at this. That may have happened-CIXI's goal in building a modern fleet was to "Make China Strong". Does that sound familiar?

  19. 5 out of 5

    Steven Z.

    Last week the Peabody Essex Museum located in Salem, MA concluded its wonderful exhibit, Empresses of China’s Forbidden City. It was “the first major international exhibition to explore the role of empresses in China’s grand imperial era — the Qing dynasty, from 1644 to 1912. Nearly 200 works, including imperial portraits, jewelry, garments, Buddhist sculptures and decorative art objects from the Palace Museum, Beijing (known as the Forbidden City), tell the little-known stories of how these wom Last week the Peabody Essex Museum located in Salem, MA concluded its wonderful exhibit, Empresses of China’s Forbidden City. It was “the first major international exhibition to explore the role of empresses in China’s grand imperial era — the Qing dynasty, from 1644 to 1912. Nearly 200 works, including imperial portraits, jewelry, garments, Buddhist sculptures and decorative art objects from the Palace Museum, Beijing (known as the Forbidden City), tell the little-known stories of how these women influenced art, religion, court politics and international diplomacy.” (https://www.pem.org/blog/stories-of-o...) The exhibit peaked my interest in Cixi (Tzu His), the last Empress of China who was a concubine to the Emperor Xianfeng, and produced a son in 1856. In doing so Cixi guaranteed a place for herself at court and would pave the way for her to obtain power in the 1850s when the Emperor died . The Empress Dowager Cixi lived a remarkable life that is fully captured in Jung Chang’s 2013 biography EMPRESS DOWAGER CIXI: THE CONCUBINE WHO LAUNCHED MODERN CHINA. Formally, Cixi had no power, but she succeeded in mounting a coup against the regents with Empress Zhen, the late emperor's principal wife, before he was buried. Cixi falsely accused the regents of forging the emperor's will, and in the first of what would be a substantial list of Cixi ordered murders, she ordered the suicide of the two most important regents. Her son was crowned Emperor Tongzhi, and Cixi's extraordinary political career was launched. (The Guardian, 25 October 2013) Chang has done an exceptional job unearthing new Chinese sources and fills in the gap in the historiography that lacks major studies of Cixi in English. In her absorbing new book, Chang laments that Cixi has for so long been “deemed either tyrannical and vicious, or hopelessly incompetent — or both.” I agree with Chinese historian Orville Schell that “far from depicting her subject as a sinister conservative who obstructed reforms, Chang portrays Cixi as smart, patriotic and open-minded. In her view, the empress was a proto-feminist who, despite the narrow-minded, misogynistic male elite that made up the imperial bureaucracy, “brought medieval China into the modern age.” Chang concludes that Cixi was an “amazing stateswoman,” a “towering” figure to whom “the last hundred years have been most unfair.” (New York Times, October 25, 2013) One of the strengths of Chang’s narrative is her blend of major historical events in China during Cixi’s lifetime (1835-1908), how it affected her elevation to a powerful position, and how she wielded that power. Events such as the First and Second Opium Wars are discussed in this context resulting in the first treaty ports in 1842 with the Treaty of Nanking that effectively opened China to further English and European trade and Catholic missionaries that struck at the heart of the Middle Kingdom’s insularization. The Taiping Rebellion that lasted from 1850 to 1864 was in effect a Chinese Civil War that in the end produced further western encroachment on China and the death of over 20 million people. For Cixi, the events surrounding her taught her many lessons that would influence her own use of power. In discussing Cixi’s rise and attempts to modernize China through industrialization several watershed dates emerge. In 1861 Emperor Xianfeng died resulting in her five-year-old son being elevated to replace him, with eight regents overseeing the decision-making process. These eight men had proven to be a disaster with their anti-foreign, xenophobic policies that resulted in increasing western encroachment. Cixi and the Empress Zhen became allies and were able launch a successful coup against the traditional Confucian regents and Cixi was able to become the defacto ruler of China through the cooperation of the Empress. Chang provides intimate details how Cixi was able to maneuver against the regents, reflecting her deviousness and developing realpolitik that would serve her well in the future. The second watershed focuses on 1875 with the death of her son, Emperor Tongzhi who had reached the throne two years earlier. Since the Emperor left no written will, Cixi once again could manipulate the situation to her benefit as she and Empress Zhen chose the next emperor. Under the new Emperor Tongzhi China stood still as reform and industrialization were neglected. Once in full control, Cixi resumed her policy of modernization through copying certain aspects of western industry, calling her policies one of “self-strengthening.” She appointed ambassadors and sent study groups abroad. Further, she pushed for factories, road building, opening trade, a naval fleet, and introducing certain aspects of western education that would benefit China. Railroad building was a priority, but as Chang describes in all subject matter, Chinese culture and tradition were always paramount and railroad building had to wait until the late 1880s to begin construction. Chang introduces several historical characters that Cixi relied upon to institute her policies. Prince Gong, a reformer was a key player, as was Li Hongzhang who was respected by western nations, and was a very able and successful trade negotiator. Viceroy Zhidong Zhang, a proponent of modernization, in the end he would stand by Cixi after the disastrous Boxer Rebellion. Of course, there was conservative opposition who looked down upon Cixi led by Prince Chun, her brother-in-law who sought revenge against her pro-western policies. Grand Tutor Weng despised westernization and his views rubbed off on the new Emperor whom he tutored resulting in a downward spiral for China in the 1890s. In the end, Cixi was able to defeat Prince Chun and turn him into an ally. Chang also describes several westerners that Cixi appointed to important positions. W.A.P. Martin became a force in developing Chinese education. US Minister to Beijing, Anson Burlingame was appointed China’s ambassador extraordinaire to represent the Middle Kingdom throughout Europe. Lastly, Robert Hart would create an efficient customs service that as trade increased dramatically, import and export revenues rose to help finance many of Cixi’s projects. Chang’s Cixi is a very pragmatic woman who employed a blend of thoughtful contemplation in evaluating the course China should take, but also used violence and threats to achieve her goals if the situation called for it. Cixi reached the height of her power in by 1889 when her adopted son, assumed power as the Emperor Guangxu. To that point her legacy was secure. The American Minister to Beijing, Charles Denby praised her accomplishments from the creation of a “fine” navy, building an electric telegraph system, shipyards, railroads, steamers, factories, and a strong army. He praised her religious tolerance and her diplomacy that resulted in treaties with France, England, Russia, and the United States. Even her former enemy, Prince Chun, now an ally marveled at her prowess in standing up to the French and the resulting treaty in 1885 that protected Chinese borders from western encroachment. One wonders, had Cixi’s reign ended in 1889 perhaps history would view her differently as her “Make China Strong” campaign appeared to be a success. China’s domestic political problems would emerge after Cixi’s retirement, as the new Emperor Guangxu resented Cixi, her reform ministers, and the fact she had forced him to marry someone he detested. Educated in the Classics and Confucian texts, Guangxu turned the clock back under the influence of his arch-conservative Grand Tutor Weng whereby all forms of reform and modernization came to a halt. This would have grave implications as at the same time Japan, following the restoration of the Meji Emperor in 1867 began a period of westernization and modernization. It would build a large and powerful navy, while the Chinese did not continue their own program. By 1894, Japan’s expansionist policy against China’s vassal states, Taiwan and Korea led to a war that China could not win. The result was a disaster due in large part to Chinese incompetence and lack of preparation as the navy deteriorated once Cixi was out of power. The Emperor was soon convinced to bring about Cixi return to the kingdom after four months of fighting, but by this time it was too late, and China’s defeat was inevitable. The Treaty of Shimonoseki that ended the Sino-Japanese War of 1894-95 included the cession of Taiwan, the Pescadores, the eastern tip of the bay of the Liaodong peninsula (which would be returned) , autonomy for Korea, most favored nation trading status, opened a series of Chinese cities to Japanese trade, and an indemnity of 200 million taels (roughly $148,400,000).* Chang has gone a long way in trying to resurrect Cixi’s historical reputation by exposing many of the myths associated with her. An interesting example involves the supposed reformer Kang Youwei, whose nickname was the Wild Fox. When I was in graduate school in the 1970s, I was taught that Kang was the leading force for reform in China. According to Chang, who basis her interpretation on the discovery made by Chinese historians in the 1980s, Kang was a plotter who sought to assassinate Cixi, and eventually seize the throne. He even co-opted the Emperor into his plot couching everything in terms of reform and spreading lies about the Empress Dowager. Chang points out after the plot was discovered Kang escaped to Japan and continued to spread his version of events blaming Cixi for China’s defeat against Japan, and many other false claims. Kang would continue to organize assassination attempts against Cixi from Japan after the Boxer Rebellion and sought to bring back the Emperor to replace the Dowager Empress. Cixi would cancel trials against Kang’s co-conspirators and have them executed because she did not want it known that her adopted son, the Emperor was involved in the assassination plot, information had it been made public would have split China in half due to Kang’s popularity, and would have created a situation for Japan and others to take advantage. Cixi’s greatest mistake during her reign was how she treated events leading up to the Boxer Rebellion in 1900, and decisions she made while the fighting and slaughter unfolded. Cixi grew tired of years of foreign encroachment and disrespect and Chang is correct as she describes how she faced down Italy’s demands for treaty ports. The Dowager Empress developed a false confidence that she could stand up to foreigners as she had with Italy and when the western nations began to make demands after the xenophobic Boxers killed a German diplomat and numerous missionaries, Cixi decided, going against the advice of several counselors, to try and take advantage of the Boxers who were deemed to be, by like-minded princes and aristocrats as “loyal, fearless, and disciplined.” The Boxers would be organized into military units, but their beliefs which included being impervious to bullets would not stand them in good stead against western technology resulting in extreme violence and slaughter throughout northern China, and the surrounding of the Foreign Legation in Beijing. Cixi’s decisions were questionable as she went back and forth from withdrawing support for the Boxers to reaffirming it throughout the rebellion. Cixi was forced to escape the Forbidden City and move westward as the western invasion proved successful. As a result, Cixi’s leadership was demeaned, even though she maintained a degree of support. The western powers realized that the removal of Cixi could only be brought about through military action that would evolve into a civil war. Thus, they decided to allow her to return to Beijing to prevent fighting that would result in the loss of trade, default of loans, and the reemergence of the Boxers. However, what is clear is that the (Qing) Manchu Dynasty under Cixi, would begin its last chapter as the western countries imposed an indemnity of over 450 million taels (roughly $333,900,000)* thus punishing the entire population of China. According to Chang, after imposing the peace the Western powers recognized Cixi as the undisputed leader of China allowing her to embark on a massive program to change her country that can be considered the “real revolution in modern China.” Cixi would spend her last few years pushing to make China a constitutional monarchy, and at the same time surviving numerous assassinations attempts against her, most of which were planned by Japan. Chang has written a superb biography that encompasses her life as well as the traditions and culture of China’s ruling and peasant classes while in and out of power. As China’s current “President for Life,” Xi Jinping deals with the problems of reform and change today, he like Cixi must achieve a balance between fostering change too slowly, and bringing about change too quickly, as each approach has its own pitfalls. Perhaps he should study Cixi’s role in Chinese history and learn to deal with similar issues that confronted her. *One tael is calculated at 3 English Shillings or 0.742 American dollars. ( See footnote p. 297)

  20. 4 out of 5

    Paola

    This book has a remarkable flow - it took me a while to read it for the simple reason that these days I have very little time. The other side of the "readability coin" is that this book lacks proper probing of the issues: Chang seems too much in love with her project (offering a portrait of Cixi which is very different from conventional wisdom - at least as far as China's assessment of her goes) to remember to educate her readers on so many other aspects of that long reign that just a modest amo This book has a remarkable flow - it took me a while to read it for the simple reason that these days I have very little time. The other side of the "readability coin" is that this book lacks proper probing of the issues: Chang seems too much in love with her project (offering a portrait of Cixi which is very different from conventional wisdom - at least as far as China's assessment of her goes) to remember to educate her readers on so many other aspects of that long reign that just a modest amount of curiosity makes any reader wonder about. In this sense, then, it is a lost opportunity: we get a lot of the facts, and this is remarkable given that the official Chinese position on Cixi is very different - but a lot is left unexplained. We know that there are the Manchu minority and the Han minority, but beside different dress codes, what else is there to distinguish these two cultures? How did this environment affect Cixi? How did the Manchu manage to achieve and retain power? What was the general situation of China at the time? On these themes it seems that Pearl Buck is more instructive than Jung Chan, which is a pity. Sure, this is not intended to be scholarly work, which is fine of course, but I felt shortchanged nonetheless. All the narration points towards showing how great a ruler Cixi was - with some flaws, for which however plenty of justifications. Yet there are some sudden changes, both of Cixi's attitude and in the attitudes towards her, that are left unexplained and which are difficult to make sense of: for instance, after the Boxer troubles, first she flees Bejing to escape not just the invaders but the resentful population, then all of a sudden it seems that her people love her again: what happened to bring this change about? Jung glosses over what are very obviously serious shortcomings in Cixi's personality: in places the facts we are presented with show a woman of many contradictions, and great passions (from allowing almost any licence to her son, to some chilling displays of callousness, e.g. Pearl's murder). But in other places she mellows down (e.g. after returning to Bejing: why?). It is a real pity that there is no real exploration of Cixi's character - this is a good book, but it could have been much better. EDIT: I found this review by Patricia Crossley in the London Review of Books illuminating, HT to SteveEisenberg on MobileRead.

  21. 5 out of 5

    Susan

    This is an absolutely fascinating biography. Subtitled, “the Concubine who launched modern China” it takes you from 1835 to 1908 and tells the story of a young woman who first entered the Forbidden City at the age of 16. Chosen as a concubine to the Emperor Xianfeng, she was entered in the court register as, “the woman of the Nala family” – too lowly to even be given a name of her own. However, she had already helped her family raise funds, when her grandfather was imprisoned and her help in the This is an absolutely fascinating biography. Subtitled, “the Concubine who launched modern China” it takes you from 1835 to 1908 and tells the story of a young woman who first entered the Forbidden City at the age of 16. Chosen as a concubine to the Emperor Xianfeng, she was entered in the court register as, “the woman of the Nala family” – too lowly to even be given a name of her own. However, she had already helped her family raise funds, when her grandfather was imprisoned and her help in the crisis had become a family legend. Her father said, “this daughter of mine is really more like a son!” which was praise indeed, and she was certainly intelligent and capable. However, her willingness to voice her opinion was not appreciation by the Emperor; who resented her suggestions and she was not favoured. Luckily, the Empress Zhen, head of the harem, protected her and, even more in her favour was the fact that she gave birth to the Emperor’s only living son, Zaichun. When the Emperor died, Cixi and Zhen organised a coup to control power through Cixi’s son. This then is the story of how a woman effectively ruled China. Cixi was eager to create amicable relations with the West and asked whether foreign trade and an open door policy was a bad thing for her country, as her husband has always asserted? She took the first steps towards modernisation and was eager to find out about other ways of life and methods of government. However, things were never easy. Cixi was to face opposition, tragedy, wars, and the loss of power when her son (and later adopted son) came of age. She was never able to fully rule, certainly not in her own name, or even to receive men without a screen between her and them and resented these restrictions. This biography takes us all the way through her life; with its amazing ups and downs, successes and tragedies, her ambitions and desire to push China from medieval times into the modern age. I have to admit that I know nothing about this period of history, so, if there are mistakes I would be unable to spot them. However, simply as a fascinating biography, it is an informative and enjoyable read.

  22. 5 out of 5

    Elizabeth Heritage

    I found this book fascinating and compulsively readable. It opens a window onto a time and society about which I know very little: nineteenth-century imperial China. Jung Chang has used extensive research into previously untapped sources to illuminate the life and reign of Empress Dowager Cixi, the woman Chang credits with ushering in the age of modernity in China. Cixi (who I had never heard of) has apparently been reviled for decades, and it is Chang's stated aim to rehabilitate her in the eye I found this book fascinating and compulsively readable. It opens a window onto a time and society about which I know very little: nineteenth-century imperial China. Jung Chang has used extensive research into previously untapped sources to illuminate the life and reign of Empress Dowager Cixi, the woman Chang credits with ushering in the age of modernity in China. Cixi (who I had never heard of) has apparently been reviled for decades, and it is Chang's stated aim to rehabilitate her in the eyes of history. This raises a very interesting dynamic within the book. Although it is a history, with all the claims to non-fiction truthfulness that entails, Chang's anger at the marginalisation of Cixi seeps through, and her plea to metaphorically return the Empress Dowager to the throne is passionate and eloquent. As a feminist, I sympathise. As an historian, I do wonder about the other sides of the stories. Chang is quick to clear Cixi of charges for which she finds no evidence (without addressing the question of the patchy nature of the historical record), yet when her guilt is clear (for example, it seems Cixi definitely did have the Emperor murdered), Chang glosses quickly over it. Nonetheless, the picture that emerges of Cixi is that of a highly intelligent and gifted leader, whose influence on the course of Chinese history was both profound and unequalled by any other woman. In an age and culture that largely silenced women (and, horrifically, condemned them to lives of hobbling pain), Cixi played the Chinese imperial system with strength and finesse. She opened up China to the world stage, overseeing the introduction of modern technologies and ideas. She outlawed footbinding, established an educational system that included girls, and was committed to the establishment of democracy. What a pity that her contemporary, Queen Victoria, never met her. I can only imagine what these two extraordinary women would have made of each other. Chang's prose and gift for storytelling are exceptional. I highly recommend this as a great summer read.

  23. 5 out of 5

    Robin Webster

    Empress Dowager Cixi born 29 November 1835 and died 15 November 1908 was a powerful and charismatic woman who unofficially but effectively controlled the Manchu Qing dynasty in China for 47 years, from 1861 to her death in 1908. She was selected as an imperial concubine for the Xianfeng Emperor as a young teenager and gave birth to a son, in 1856. With the Emperor’s death in 1861 the child became the Tongzhi Emperor and she became Empress Dowager. Cixi was the real power behind the throne throug Empress Dowager Cixi born 29 November 1835 and died 15 November 1908 was a powerful and charismatic woman who unofficially but effectively controlled the Manchu Qing dynasty in China for 47 years, from 1861 to her death in 1908. She was selected as an imperial concubine for the Xianfeng Emperor as a young teenager and gave birth to a son, in 1856. With the Emperor’s death in 1861 the child became the Tongzhi Emperor and she became Empress Dowager. Cixi was the real power behind the throne throughout her son’s short reign and the reign of her adopted son after her son’s death. The author ‘Jung Chang’ argues and I quote: ‘The past hundred years have been most unfair to Cixi, who has been deemed either tyrannical and vicious or hopelessly incompetent or both. Few of her achievements have been recognized and, when they are, the credit is invariably given to the men serving her.’ Jung Chang’s wish is to paint a more positive picture of Cixi using fact based evidence from historical records as well as interview and written testaments from those who knew her. Jung Chang does not deny or excuse Citi’s flaws or mistakes: especially in relation to the Boxer rebellion at the turn of the century and her ruthlessness in dealing with some who opposed her. However, Jung Chang puts forward a powerful argument that Cixi was responsible for bringing China into the modern age. She passed laws against foot-binding, gave women many more rights than they had had in the past, transformed the education system and opened up trade and gave China its first free press. Cixi also had the difficult job of holding off practically all the world powers from exploiting China for their own ends: this was something she was only partly successful at achieving.

  24. 4 out of 5

    Tim Evanson

    The history of the last 60 years of the Qing dynasty in China (from the concubinage of Cixi 1851 to the abdication of Puyi in 1913) is not well studied. These were the years in which China collapsed, and the Dowager Empress Cixi ruled (in fact, if not in title) during most of this time. But why did China collapse? The opening of trade with Europe, which began in the 1500s but really soared in the 1700s, was one cause. China believed itself to be the most advanced country in the world. It had no mo The history of the last 60 years of the Qing dynasty in China (from the concubinage of Cixi 1851 to the abdication of Puyi in 1913) is not well studied. These were the years in which China collapsed, and the Dowager Empress Cixi ruled (in fact, if not in title) during most of this time. But why did China collapse? The opening of trade with Europe, which began in the 1500s but really soared in the 1700s, was one cause. China believed itself to be the most advanced country in the world. It had no money; all exchange was done in silver bars (the tael). China was willing to sell silk, porcelain (which no one in Europe yet knew how to make), tea, and jade to the West, but it wanted nothing but silver taels in return. This created a huge trade imbalance, and threatened to create a liquidity crisis -- especially in Britain. Britain determined that many Chinese would take drugs, like opium. So Britain began selling illegal narcotics in China, to essentially get its money back. China tried to stop it, and Britain went to war. The First Opium War of 1839-1842 led to China opening up even more to the West, and being forced to legalize the opium trade. In 1851, Cixi (her original name is lost to history) became a low-level concubine to the 20-year-old Xianfeng Emperor. His three predecessors had not been strong rulers, and China was mired in Dark Age autocracy, monarchial absolutism, rigid and brittle Confucianism, and a barter economy. Xianfeng was so ill-prepared to handle contact with the outside world (he refused to receive ambassadors, and had no foreign diplomatic corps) that he could not cope with the changes forced on his prostrate country by the British. The Second Opium War, begun in 1856 and ending in 1860, was sparked when Chinese officials arrested opium smugglers again. Xianfeng fled the capital, which was invested by five foreign armies, and died at the imperial summer resort in Jehol. Cixi and theother dowager empress, Cian, then essentially engineered a coup. They were determined not to allow the ultra-conservative princes and councillors around the infant emperor (Cixi's son, the Tongzhi Emperor) continue to try to wage war against the West and thus ensure China's destruction. Cixi and Cian essentially ruled together in a male-dominated, tradition-bound culture until 1873. Little happened during this period, as there were deep reservations about female rule (or regency), and Cixi and Cian had to play the conservatives off against their own supporters at court. The Tongzhi Emperor's reign lasted just two years: A opium smoker, a patron of whores, an alcoholic, and completely disinterested in education, Tongzhi died (probably of smallpox, but perhaps of untreated syphillis) just two years after reaching maturity. As Tongzhi had no children, Cixi and Cian picked Cixi's nephew (via Cixi's sister) to be the new Guangxu Emperor. He was four years old, and again a regency was declared. Cian died in 1881, and Cixi ruled alone as regent for eight more years. In 1894, war broke out between China and Japan over control of Korea (then a Chinese vassal-state). Japan easily defeated China, and imposed a huge war indemnity. In 1897, Germany used the murder of two missionaries to seize the port of Jiaozhou. "The Hundred Days' Reform" occurred in June 1898. Were they instituted by Guangxu, a traditionalist who saw that China needed swift modernization to survive? Or were they forced on Guangxu by Cixi, who had already shown over the past 40 years that she believed in modernization? History has long treated Cixi as a power-hungry, sex-mad, ultra-conservative who overthrew her nephew by declaring him insane and seizing the throne. Much of this assessment came from two British men (one a diplomat, another a trader) who left behind diaries and books and newspaper articles condemning Cixi as a bitch and whore. In the past 20 years, however, historians have come to deeply doubt the veracity of these accounts -- and in fact have realized that they are almost uniformly false, created by men who had axes to grind after losing lots of money due to Cixi's reforms. It is true that the Guangxu Emperor was desposed and another regency by Cixi (now in her 60s) imposed. But why? Extensive new evidence has emerged that the Guangxu Emperor saw reform as a way of emerging from Cixi's shadow (he hated her), and that he was not committed to reform per se. There is good reason to believe that Guangxu had begun to conspire with Kang Youwei, a Chinese scam artist who was in choots with the Japanese. Kang's goal was to ingratiate himself with the emperor, dominate him, kill Cixi, and become the de facto ruler of China. Afterward, Japanese influence would rapidly expand in China and China would be nothing more than a vassal-state to Japan. This may be the real reason why Cixi had Guangxu removed from power. The reforms continued, oddly. And this time Cixi ruled directly. Many of the rigid, destructive court traditions which so impeded her and Cian's rule in the past were swept away, and with the assistance of several princes and viceroys Cixi was able to begin the rapid modernization of the Chinese economy. Guangxu wasn't imprisoned; in fact, he sat by Cixi's side during imperial audiences. But his mental health, never solid, weakened and he showed disinterest in state affairs. In 1900, a group of xenophobic religious fanatics known as the Boxers (for their practice of martial arts) rose up in China. Cixi, desperate to avoid further loss of sovereignty, tried to use the Boxers in place of a Chinese army to resist Japanese and European encroachment. They failed, and she fled to Xianjiang in the far northwest when the Euro-Japanese army seized Beijing. Worried that Guangxu's concubine, Pearl (a known conspirator with Kang), could cause trouble for her, Cixi had her drowned in a well rather than risk taking her along in the flight to Xianjiang. Cixi stayed there for two years, and returned to Beijing. She continued to press hard for modernization, and turned her attention to political modernization as well. Newspapers were permitted, censorship removed, and a plan for a constitutional monarchy put in place that would lead to the creation of a citizenry (rather than peasants), massive educational reform (to teach the average Chinese to read and write), a parliament, and elections within nine years. Cixi never got the chance. In 1908, her health rapidly declined. Guangxu was also ill, but rather than risk his outliving her (or, god forbid, recovering), Cixi had him poisoned with arsenic. Cixi died two days later, after having appointed the four-year-old infant Puyi as Guangxu's successor. So................... Those are pretty much the facts. If you are journalist Sterling Seagrave, your 1992 book Dragon Lady makes Cixi out to be an illiterate, terrified country bumpkin who is manipulated by the powerful men around her. Seagrave doesn't believe anything about Cixi's mad orgies with eunuchs or the stories about her stealing tens of millions of taels from the Navy budget (causing the diastrous loss to Japan in 1894). Traditionalist or not, Seagrave doesn't care, since his theory is that Cixi was a powerless naif who rubber-stamped whatever was put in front of her. Or is this as much a myth as "Cixi the Power-Hungry Whore"? In fact there is little written about Cixi that is of a scholarly nature. Sean Stewart Price's 2009 Cixi: Evil Empress of China?, X. L. Woo's 2007 Empress Dowager Cixi: China's Last Dynasty and the Long Reign of a Formidable Concubine, Keith Laidler's 2003 The Last Empress: The She-Dragon of China, and others are non-scholarly works which rely heavily on second-hand, English-language sources Admittedly, there's a good reason for this: After the Communists seized power in China in 1948, the study of China's royal past was banned. Many archives were simply burned, while others were closed. The focus in China was the Great Leap Forward -- a period of massive industrialization and farm collectivization. Almost eased out of power due to the failures of the Great Leap Forward (45 million Chinese died of starvation), Mao then in 1966 initiated the Cultural Revolution. He claimed capitalists were seeking to infiltrate the country, and should be rooted out. Youth formed paramilitary "Red Guards" to denounce anyone who wasn't sufficiently committed to communism, and the movement spread into the military and among Communist Party members. Millions of urban dwellers were forced to work on farms in the countryside (where they died by the hundreds of thousands) as part of a "peasant re-education" program. The study of cultural and religious artifacts and sites was considered "bourgeois" and many places ransacked or destroyed. The study of history (and education in general) was criticized. It wasn't until Mao died in 1976 that the Cultural Revolution ended. China did not emerge from the horrors of the Cultural Revolution until about 1989. Since 1990, a gigantic amount of scholarship within China has focused on Cixi and the government that followed the collapse of the Qing dynasty, the Republic of China (1908 to 1948). Archives have been opened, documents once thought lost have been uncovered, an immense amount of physical evidence (clothing, artwork, daily utensils and tools, books, transportation, etc.) has been put on display, and the Forbidden City and the Summer Palace opened to the public. Jung Chang is a Chinese-born professor of linguistics. Her parents were deeply involved in the Communist Party, but denounced during the Cultural Revolution. Chang joined the Red Guards, but left after a few years feeling they were too violent. As the child of denounced political leaders, she was forced to work on farms in the late 1960s, and over time became an untrained electrician and "barefoot doctor". In the early 1970s, Mao re-opened the universities, and Chang studied English. After Mao died, the Chinese government permitted students to study abroad, and Change went to the Great Britain to study at the University of York. She earned a Ph.D. in linguistics in 1982, the first person from the People's Republic of China to be awarded a doctorate from a British university. In 1986, she and her husband Jon Halliday published a biography of Sun Yat-sen's wife, Soong Ching-ling. In 1992, Chang published a biography of her great-grandmother, grandmother, and mother titled Wild Swans. It was a runaway best-seller. Chang and Halliday's 2005 book, Mao: The Unknown Story has been widely praised for being accessible and for utilizing first-time interviews with hundreds of people who knew Mao (like Henry Kissinger). Chang and Halliday claimed they plowed new ground with the book, although much of what they reported (Mao's bad personal hygiene, his cruelty toward women, his hatred of the peasantry, his many mistresses, the millions dead during the Great Leap Forward) was already well-known. Chang and Halliday popularized it, however. The book came under intense criticism, however, for taking quotes out of context and for ignoring much of the good the Chinese Communist Party achieved. In some 20 key instances, Chang and Halliday claimed that some of the achievements of Mao -- like the famous May 29, 1935, crossing of the Luding Bridge on the Dadu River -- were complete fabrications. But some scholars have challenged the sources used by Chang and Halliday, and point out that far more sources confirm the traditional history. In a few cases, Chang and Halliday just get dates wrong. (They claim a man's execution was intended to put fear into people in 1942, even though he didn't die until 1947.) SO NOW COMES ANOTHER CHANG REVISIONIST HISTORY, this one about "the Last Empress", Cixi. Chang completely upends in almost every way the traditional narrative about Cixi. She was minimally well-educated (unlike nearly all other noblewomen of her day), and could read and write Chinese, Chang says. Cixi engineered a coup in Jehol to protect her infant son (she suspected the conservatives around her of plotting to kill him), and was not the rubber-stamp she is usually portrayed as. Cixi and Cian were close friends, but it was the educated Cixi who did most of the ruling (Cian was merely someone to consult with), Chang says. Cixi desperately wanted to rule China, Cixi was a major liberalizer and proponent of reform, Cixi overthrew her nephew only because he would have betrayed China to Japan, and so on. The book has a whoppingly huge number of footnotes, most of them to sources in Chinese. But do you believe it? Chang admits that Cixi wasn't the nicest person. She had Pearl drowned. She poisoned her own son. She supported the Boxers, a horrible mistake. She embezzled more than 10 million taels of silver from the Naval budget to rebuild her beloved Summer Palace. (Chang says this was interest on unspent funds, not the budget itself. She had hundreds of people beheaded, tortured, killed via "death by a thousand cuts" (just as it sounds) and "bastinado" (beating with bats), all while clamining to abhor torture and execution. It would be impossible to go through the book and try to research each and every incident, or check facts. I'm no China history expert, and simply can't do that. To a suspicious mind, Chang's life-long support for "strong women" might make her too biased to produced a reliable narrative of Cixi's life. And yet........ gosh, it does all hang together! It makes sense! There is enough supporting evidence, supporting quotes from other people, and footnoting to make the book sound right. Sure, it comes off as hagiography -- a too-positive interpretation of events. Yes, Chang engages in that old chestnut: "Cixi surely must have felt..." Uh, sorry. Any time someone engages in "must have" feelings or thoughts, we're talking fiction rather than history. It's okay to say "Cixi most likely felt", but not "must have". And far too often, Chang engages in the "must haves". I can't say if the book is believable or not. But it is a great read, full of fantastic stories about Chinese history and chock a block with accessible, fun-to-read facts about Chinese religion, traditions, society, economics, and morals. I can say that I've read Sterling Seagrave's book, and it is a complete hot mess. He name-drops repeatedly, he provides no background or contextual insight, he consistently drives home his "Cixi was a naif" theory until you want to poke your eyes out. While Jung Chang's book is repetitive about its pro-Cixi theory, too, it isn't nearly as offensive about it as Seagrave's book. And so much of Chang's book seems to fit with the other (admittedly few) books I've read about China's history in the last 70 years before the Republic, that I'm very tempted to say Chang gets everything right. Anyone reading this book is going to have to judge that for themselves, and wait for the scholars to write about where the book gets things wrong. (That'll come, give it six months to a year.) But as a great read, I'm all for this book.

  25. 4 out of 5

    Inderjit Sanghera

    Chang's skilful weaving of Empress Dowager Cixi life resembles the traditional robes she wore; her life as decorated as the intricate emblems which reflect her heritage, her past as colourful as the harlequin colours woven into the fabric, her will as indomitable as the symbols which demonstrated her power and wisdom and her ability to rise phoenix-like from the ashes of Chinese history, in a society which, despite its best efforts to deny her power because she was a woman, she was able to bend Chang's skilful weaving of Empress Dowager Cixi life resembles the traditional robes she wore; her life as decorated as the intricate emblems which reflect her heritage, her past as colourful as the harlequin colours woven into the fabric, her will as indomitable as the symbols which demonstrated her power and wisdom and her ability to rise phoenix-like from the ashes of Chinese history, in a society which, despite its best efforts to deny her power because she was a woman, she was able to bend to her will via her inner potency, her sense of diplomacy and innate intelligence.  Unsurprisingly Cixi has been unfairly represented in history. All of the qualities which, if she were a man, would have been praised, from her commanding nature to her wilfulness in going to any length to ensure the prosperity of China and its royal family and court, are things she has been reviled for, for what is worse than a woman who demonstrates strength and purpose in the face of so many obstacles. Indeed Cixi's rise, from an imperial concubine to empress is nothing short of remarkable. She was able to rule a court where, on the account of her being a woman, she was unable to set a foot in certain areas, where she had to issue commands via proxies, where she was often left in the dark and the subject of Machiavellian plots and yet still triumphed. Not only that but Cixi's conciliatory approach, her ability to bring disparate groups or individuals round to her way of thinking and her desire for managed change and reform stood her out to be ahead of her time as a leader in a country where the emperor was considered a deity. Cixi's greatest strength is, however, was her ability to not bear grudges. Although, at times she could be vengeful and ruthless, her ability to turn enemies into friends helped ensure her seat at the table was maintainedIndeed, the list of Cixi's accomplishments is significant; from her ending of cruel practices such as female foot binding and death by a thousand cuts, to her spearheading of China's modernisation, from opening up its borders to the world, democratising its archaic education system which kept 99% of the population illiterate and modernising its tax and customs system.  China prospered and changed under her reign, and although there were a number of missteps along the way, Cixi was able to revolutionise China via little bloodshed, was able to constantly rescue China from the drudgery the parochial, obstinate and mediocre men around her were hell-bent on dragging it to. Cixi was the catalyst which drove China into the modern age.    

  26. 5 out of 5

    Judith

    This is an amazing book for so many reasons, but it is not a page-turner. It is a vivid and detailed historical account of a woman who changed Chinese history. I never heard of her before this book and now that I've read the book, I'm shocked that so much could have happened without my awareness. For one thing, it is so amazing to me that Britain was so insistent on importing opium to China that they actually forced the Chinese to allow them to bring it in, despite the horrible damage it was cau This is an amazing book for so many reasons, but it is not a page-turner. It is a vivid and detailed historical account of a woman who changed Chinese history. I never heard of her before this book and now that I've read the book, I'm shocked that so much could have happened without my awareness. For one thing, it is so amazing to me that Britain was so insistent on importing opium to China that they actually forced the Chinese to allow them to bring it in, despite the horrible damage it was causing. Furthermore, when China tried to close its doors to foreign trade and missionaries, the powers of the West carved up ports and parts of China amongst themselves, which is why until 1999, Britain basically leased Hong Kong. But the Brits were not alone: France laid claim to Vietnam and other countries claimed other pieces of China, causing all kinds of problems for years to come. There are some fascinating photographs in this book, too. Cixi was a concubine who by luck and political savvy, became the power behind the throne for about 50 years during a crucial time period. (1860-1908). She brought about the modernization of the country from behind a screen, directing first her son, then a nephew she assigned to the position, and finally, on her own. Despite all the wonderful modern changes she instituted, (including the cessation of women binding their feet) she was still a product of her times. Late in her life she was given a car as a gift, but she was never able to ride in it because everyone around her had to kneel in her presence and they couldn't figure out how a chauffeur could kneel and still drive the car.

  27. 4 out of 5

    catechism

    Okay, so the annotation system is very, very terrible but Cixi is awesome.... I think?? I mean, her reign started with a coup and ended with a murder so I'm in, but because the annotation is so bad, it's incredibly difficult to evaluate the author's Cixi Is Awesome thesis. Cixi was maligned for decades as a corrupt and power-hungry despot, but in recent(ish) years historians have started to reevaluate that view. But this book felt especially hagiographic and like -- what evidence is there? Some! Okay, so the annotation system is very, very terrible but Cixi is awesome.... I think?? I mean, her reign started with a coup and ended with a murder so I'm in, but because the annotation is so bad, it's incredibly difficult to evaluate the author's Cixi Is Awesome thesis. Cixi was maligned for decades as a corrupt and power-hungry despot, but in recent(ish) years historians have started to reevaluate that view. But this book felt especially hagiographic and like -- what evidence is there? Some! Maybe! Probably! But good luck finding any of it in the notes. That all said, women in history are generally mistreated and I enjoyed reading this book and the pictures are very nice, so I guess I'm in for Cixi Is Awesome. ETA: glad my instincts for bad history have been borne out!

  28. 5 out of 5

    Anna

    Jung Chang’s Wild Swans: Three Daughters of China is one of my favourite books of all time. Here, she again tells the story of transformational change in China through the life of a woman. Her biography of Empress Dowager Cixi greatly increased my knowledge of late 19th and early 20th Chinese history. The titular Cixi emerges as a fascinating figure, the strong leader behind a series of weak and inept emperors. Her life story demonstrates repeatedly the quixotic implications of treating women as Jung Chang’s Wild Swans: Three Daughters of China is one of my favourite books of all time. Here, she again tells the story of transformational change in China through the life of a woman. Her biography of Empress Dowager Cixi greatly increased my knowledge of late 19th and early 20th Chinese history. The titular Cixi emerges as a fascinating figure, the strong leader behind a series of weak and inept emperors. Her life story demonstrates repeatedly the quixotic implications of treating women as lesser. Cixi was able to end up ruling China due to the oddly meritocratic method of choosing concubines for the emperor, whereas no man of equivalent status could have risen so. Cixi’s success began in part due to her luck in having a son with the emperor, which greatly increased her status, but this merely enabled her to make use of her undoubtedly great gifts as a statesperson. Nonetheless, for several periods she was pushed aside, as her status was not formally recognised as emperor-equivalent. Also interesting to me is how convention obliged her to form relationships with the wives and children of foreign dignitaries rather than the male dignitaries themselves, which in turn gave those women greater status. An anecdote exemplifies the situation: The American minister, Edwin H. Conger was as impressed as his wife. When an American admiral asked Mrs. Conger [a friend of Cixi’s], “What do you ladies talk about - dress and jewels?”, he replied, “Quite the contrary. They talk about the Manchurian troubles, political questions, and many things pertaining to their Government.” Jung Chang presents Cixi as someone who made serious mistakes (the Boxer Rebellion, notably) and could undoubtedly be ruthless, but also had an incredible positive impact on China. In the first eight years of the twentieth century, she presided over transformational changes, which were apparently very popular. Electricity, trains, and telephones were introduced. Foot binding was abolished and died out within a generation, freeing women from agony. (Although, I was amused to discover, court women sometimes commented that the wearing of corsets by their Western counterparts was ‘pitiable!’) Economic reforms were enacted, the army and navy were modernised (albeit not sufficiently to repel repeated aggression from Europe and Japan), and initial steps towards democracy taken. Jung Chang points out that the press freedom allowed by Cixi in China between 1902 and 1908 ‘was unprecedented and arguably unsurpassed since’. The amount of research that went into this book is quite staggering and it provides a convincing picture of a woman poised between tradition and modernity. I was especially struck by Cixi’s final actions, mere hours before her death. She had the emperor, her adopted son, fatally poisoned and placed ultimate authority over ‘exceptionally critical matters’ in the hands of his widow, the new empress dowager. This poor woman had had little political involvement previously and was largely overlooked. However, the book argues that Cixi foresaw the need for someone with humility to surrender the Manchu dynasty’s power once holding onto it become untenable. On her deathbed, the dowager empress seemingly understood that her democratic reforms were incompatible with continued rule by a Manchu minority. This again demonstrates the power that women can end up wielding from a lesser position. The poisoning meanwhile shows her ruthlessness. What an extraordinary woman, whose achievements have apparently been ascribed to men by popular history. I’m very glad that I read this biography.

  29. 5 out of 5

    Domhnall

    To enjoy this book one must suspend disbelief: then the tale is a decent read. It is certainly a strident and welcome recognition of a woman's achievements against all the odds in a male dominated world. It also has the special merit of being an acccount of Chinese history through Chinese eyes, albeit the perspective is restricted to the imperial court. It depicts the Chinese state as an active agent, responsible for its own destiny, making both good and bad decisions. That must be better than p To enjoy this book one must suspend disbelief: then the tale is a decent read. It is certainly a strident and welcome recognition of a woman's achievements against all the odds in a male dominated world. It also has the special merit of being an acccount of Chinese history through Chinese eyes, albeit the perspective is restricted to the imperial court. It depicts the Chinese state as an active agent, responsible for its own destiny, making both good and bad decisions. That must be better than presenting China as a giant "oriental" mystery, a passive backdrop to the great events of Western and Japanese history. I can tolerate the evidence that Cixi is given more credit and less blame than she deserves, perhaps justified because she was a very clever person taking responsibility within a decaying institution and imposing a degree of strategic direction under very tough conditions. I am less impressed that the foreign powers get so much less blame and more credit than they deserve and the constant adulation of the USA, free trade and capitalist development is so excessive it distorts the book. I assume this reflects the author's understandable hatred of Mao and Chinese communism (of course, long after Cixi passed on) but she claims to be correcting the inaccuracies of other historians regarding this period and this claim would be more credible if the book was less blatantly ideological.

  30. 4 out of 5

    Eleanor

    I enjoyed this book. It is a very different take on a fascinating woman, compared with the usual portrayal of her. At the same time, I feel that Jung Chang's admiration for her tended to make her excuse some of Cixi's more ruthless actions, not least of which were to poison her adopted son to ensure he did not outlive her, and to have his favourite concubine killed by throwing her down a well. This despot was enlightened, but only some of the time! Jung Chang's writing style is straightforward an I enjoyed this book. It is a very different take on a fascinating woman, compared with the usual portrayal of her. At the same time, I feel that Jung Chang's admiration for her tended to make her excuse some of Cixi's more ruthless actions, not least of which were to poison her adopted son to ensure he did not outlive her, and to have his favourite concubine killed by throwing her down a well. This despot was enlightened, but only some of the time! Jung Chang's writing style is straightforward and easy to read. She is not a writer of the calibre of Han Suyin for example, but she has clearly done a great deal of research in order to bring Cixi's story back to life. If nothing else, a book like this serves as a reminder never to believe everything you are told in history books!

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