Empress Dowager Cixi by Jung Chang
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|Empress Dowager Cixi by Jung Chang|
|Reviewer: Rachael Shanks|
|Summary: Jung Chang presents an extensively researched account of the life and times of Dowager Empress Cixi, a monumental figure in both Chinese and world history, responsible for instigating China's transition from medievalism to the modern age.|
|Buy? Yes||Borrow? Yes|
|Pages: 464||Date: September 2013|
|Publisher: Jonathan Cape|
|External links: Author's website|
It’s easy to see why Jung Chang selected Cixi as the focal point for her study of China’s tumultuous modern history. Cixi is a truly fascinating woman, one of few human beings whose existence can be honestly said to have shaped the course of history. Cixi’s biography is not only a fascinating read due to her own political machinations, but also because of the immense transformations that occurred in China during her lifetime. Jung Chang offers a detailed exploration of the period from Cixi’s entrance to court in 1852 to her death in 1908, during which time the ancient dynastic customs of China gave way to the advent of the industrial age.
Jung Chang’s engaging writing breathes new life into nineteenth-century China, capturing the sights and smells of Beijing. To understand the importance of Cixi’s life, it’s first necessary for Chang to explain the world she occupies, and Chang does this with aplomb. Although strictly a biography, Empress Dowager Cixi offers a more accessible and informative account of major events during this period, such as the Boxer Rebellions, than the vast majority of history books. Jung Chang’s biographical approach is so successful in engaging the reader’s interest because of its human focus. The court is peopled with a diverse range of personalities, and Chang gives a voice to these renowned names, fleshing them out fully as human beings.
Empress Dowager Cixi challenges the prevailing perception of Cixi as a politically incompetent despot. Instead, Chang’s biography outlines the widespread economic and social reforms pioneered by the Empress Dowager, including lifting the ban between Han-Manchu intermarriage, outlawing the practice of foot-binding, constructing Western-style schools, and sending envoys to Europe to learn about Western culture. Cixi managed to implement these reforms despite the crippling disadvantage of being a female, and therefore illegitimate, ruler. She entered the court as a politically-powerless concubine, and giving birth to the Emperor’s only son did not give her any mandate to govern. Cixi, however, soon emerged as a formidable political force. With the help of the late Emperor’s wife, she staged a coup to seize power and rule in the name of her infant son. Although Cixi would certainly have been dissatisfied with the placid life of a widow, this was not her only motivation for seizing the throne: she wanted to overthrow the outdated policies that were isolating China from the outside world and causing the country’s development to stagnate.
Although many of Cixi’s reforms created positive changes, she does not emerge from Chang’s biography with an entirely clean slate. Her cruelty is astounding to modern eyes: while Chang alleges that Cixi is one of the more benign Chinese rulers, it’s also true that Cixi ordered the execution of many of her enemies, which included having her adopted son’s favourite concubine and accomplice thrown into a well. On her deathbed, she feared her adopted son would give into the demands of Japan and in an act of true Machiavellian cunning, had him poisoned with arsenic.
Jung Chang’s impressively detailed biography presents Cixi as a complex woman, living in a vastly complex period of history; it is this complexity that makes Empress Dowager Cixi such a necessary read.
For further reading on Chinese history, I would recommend Return to the Middle Kingdom by Yuan-Tsung Chen, which provides another personal perspective on the momentous changes incurred during China's transition to modernity.
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