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Empress Dowager Cixi, by Jung Chang.

October 11, 2013

Empress Dowager Cixi: The Concubine who Launched Modern China, by Jung Chang.  Knopf, 2013.


An enjoyable and informative biography of the woman who, as regent, was the virtual ruler of China for over 30 years.

 Jung Chang grew up in China and left there in 1978 to earn a Ph.D. in linguistics in England.  She is best known for her popular Wild Swans, the stories of three women from different generations in Communist China.  In that book as in her new one, she writes for a wide general audience whom she wants to inform about her country’s past.  Although I knew almost nothing about Chinese history, I found her new book to be very accessible and engaging.  I learned not only about the Empress Dowager, but also about key events in China in the late nineteenth and early twentieth centuries as China became engaged in the aggressive modern world.

 Cixi was born into a Manchu family which valued education and political involvement.  She was chosen as a concubine for the emperor at one of the periodical events where he brought more women into his harem.  Giving birth to the emperor’s only son, she rose in the court hierarchy.  When he died, she engineered a coup which named her as regent for the new emperor, her young son.  Being a woman hampered her opportunities to govern.  For example, she could not enter parts of the palace or enter by its front gate, and she communicated with the men in government from behind a silk screen.   Yet with the help of another concubine, and male allies, she became the real power behind the throne and remained so.

 When her son became an adult in 1875, Cixi was relegated into retirement.  He died after a few years on the throne, and she regained her power and began to modernize China.  She adopted a nephew to be the next heir apparent while she ruled again as regent.  When her adopted son grew old enough to rule in 1888, he rejected her and her ideas about what the country should do.  A war with Japan in 1894 destroyed the country’s finances. Then the Boxer Rebellion in 1900 brought English and French troops into Beijing, and sent both the emperor and empress dowager into exile in western China.  In the chaos, Cixi again took over power.  When she returned to the capital, she enacted a host of modernizing projects, establishing schools and even trying to set up a constitutional monarchy in which men elected representatives.  But she faced ongoing difficulties from Japan and from those who sought to end the Manchu dynasty.

 While the empress dowager remained traditional in some ways, she believed that China needed to modernize to survive the increasing attention of European powers.  As regent, she made major changes in the country, changes that included everything from strengthening the army and navy to ending women’s foot binding.  When she returned to Beijing after her exile, she sped up her reform efforts.  She also made a point of fostering friendships with Europeans serving in the capital.  She hosted gatherings for ambassador’s wives and became close to several European women.  When Cixi died in 1908, she tried to prevent the Japanese from setting up a puppet ruler to replace her.

Not only does Chang present readers with major changes occurring in China, she also provides fascinating details about daily life in the palaces of the rulers.  We learn about how Cixi and other Manchu women dressed and fixed their hair and the rigid rules about bowing and standing in the presence of the emperor or the empress dowager.  We are told about Cixi’s interest in music and opera and the plants in her garden.  We even learn that she drank human breast milk in her tea, and wet nurses were kept to provide it.  Such details reveal how far the Chinese royalty were from the people they ruled and the need for Cixi’s reforms,

Chang writes about Cixi with obvious admiration.  In her book, she explicitly set out to correct negative stories about her which she claims were initiated by a man who actually tried to get her assassinated.  Both in China and without, detractors have derided her as an ignorant woman and used her as a scapegoat for China’s troubles.  She disproves such accusations.  While Chang sees some of Cixi’s actions as mistakes and admits that she was sometimes cruel, she presents a positive image of her as a strong woman facing difficult circumstances,

I enjoyed Cixi’s biography and have no reason to suspect Chang’s facts or her depiction of the empress dowager.  A few informational footnotes are scattered through the text.  The sources that Chang used to establish her stories are listed by page in extensive sections of notes at the end of the book and a lengthy bibliography.  These references are not in the standard form for academic history and are somewhat difficult to use, especially in an ebook version of the book which I read.  None the less, Chang does give us the sources on which she depended on when writing about Cixi.

 As an historian, however, I understand that there is always more than one way to tell a story.  I don’t question Chang’s account of the empress dowager, but I would like to be able to compare it that of others.   In the intrigues within the palace, other participants must have had their own versions of events.  In addition, I am sure that other historians have different accounts of the causes and conduct of the Taipei Rebellion, the war with Japan, and China’s first waves of modernization.  Chang assumes that Cixi’s modernization was good and uses the account of Europeans and Americans in China as evidence for her story, the same individuals that shared and nurtured Cixi’s view of modernization.  I, however, simply cannot believe that European lifestyles and economic interests were as good for China as Chang claims, or that Cixi had as much a role in China’s changes as she believes.  I look forward to reading a more scholarly account of these years in China’s past to expand my understanding of events there.  And to reread her Wild Swans.

 I strongly recommend Empress Dowager Cixi to all readers interested in China or in how strong women exercised power a century ago.  And those who simply like well-written history.

I am grateful for the publisher for sending me an ebook edition of this biography.

7 Comments leave one →
  1. October 11, 2013 6:55 pm

    I read Wild Swans a while ago and was impressed with Jung Chang’s writing. Good to know she has a new book out!

    • October 13, 2013 11:37 am

      Yes. That’s how I felt. I think you would enjoy this one.

  2. Christina Houen permalink
    October 11, 2013 7:14 pm

    What an interesting account of a woman who, in many ways, seems to have been enlightened, although, as you say, this is to see her from a western perspective. I’m not a historian, but I do find your review in itself informative and interesting.

  3. October 13, 2013 11:40 am

    Yes, “enlightened” in some ways, but shockingly cruel and unconcerned about human lives in others. The mix is part of what I appreciated in the book. And you certainly don’t need to be an historian to appreciate her story or the book.

  4. December 12, 2013 4:57 am

    It seems to me that for a woman to achieve so much in power, politics and in the development and or progress of a nation, a combination of passion, force, cruelty, single mindedness of purpose among others must be basic ingredients in her make up. History is replete with such women, Cleopatra and Nefertiti of Egypt, among others. Ambition is made of sterner stuff and from your powerful review, it seems Cixi was made of more than sterner stuff. A great book I should say! 🙂


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