Jung Chang’s methodically researched and well written biography, Empress Dowager Cixi: The concubine who launched modern China is packed with freshly unearthed facts, literary hoaxes are revealed and lies are exposed.
Jung Chang is the acclaimed author of Wild Swans (1992), a stellar biographical tribute to three generations of her family, and co-author of the critically received best seller Mao: The Unknown Story (2005). She tackles the story of Cixi through diligent research and a desire to portray Cixi in a new light as a woman who was patriotic, politically aware, open to embracing change, and interested in advancing China on national and international scales. This presents a fresh view as opposed to the long projected image of Cixi as a usurper of the throne who was cruel and imperious. Despite being heavy on facts the Empress Dowager Cixi is no stuffy, dry historical text, but rather an engaging story presented in a light conversational style that flows easily from one section of Cixi’s life to the next. Jung Chang reveals how from behind the screen and in front of it, Cixi directed medieval China into the modern age.
Cixi came from “one of the oldest and most illustrious Manchu families” and started her life in the royal palace, at age sixteen, as a low-ranking concubine – out of the eight rungs, Cixi was ranked on the sixth rung. She was not a favoured concubine and it was only her genuine friendship with Empress Zhen and then several years later giving birth to a son, the Emperor’s first born male, that elevated Cixi’s status within the court to that of the No. 2 consort. After the death of Emperor Xianfeng in August 1861, Empress Zhen and Cixi collaborated together and successfully launched a coup to overthrow the Regents and it was proclaimed that
“all state matters will be personally decided by the Two Dowager Empresses, who will give orders to the Grand Advisor and the Grand Councillors for them to carry out … in the name of the [new] emperor”.
Jung Chang makes use of diaries, historical documents, imperial decrees, court records, official communications and private correspondence, all written in Chinese, that have previously not been access by scholars in English, making them valuable resources in offering a fresh perspective on the Dowager Empress. There are numerous new facts that have come to light, thanks to Jung Chang’s research, such as the literary hoax that Sir Edmund Backhouse wrote, a biography titled China Under the Empress Dowager (1910), in which he faked a diary in which he claimed that she urged Emperor Xianfeng to ignore peace talks with foreigners and kill their messengers. Other falsehoods include claims that Cixi bankrupted the navy in order to build the Summer Palace, and that she was so obsessed with celebrating her sixtieth birthday that she neglected the war against Japan. Jung Chang refutes this saying that it was Cixi who “founded China’s modern navy; the building of the Summer Palace did not deprive it of cash, even though she did take a small portion of funds. She did not actively participate in the war for a long time, not because she was indulging in her birthday preparations, but because Emperor Guangxi bared her”.
Jung Chang credits the Empress Dowager Cixi as leaving behind a legacy that moulded and guided China into the modern age through the development of railways, electricity, telephones, Western medicine, modernised army and navy forces, the implementation of a new education system based on Western models, and securing of foreign trade deals. She allowed and encouraged freedom of expression in the press and was a driving force behind the concept of political participation and advocated giving all Chinese people the right to vote. Cixi is portrayed as being a champion for women’s rights with her banning the centuries old custom of foot-binding. But, she was not without her faults, and Jung Chang acknowledges that Cixi was flawed; she does not try to hide this.
“She was a giant but not a saint. Being the absolute ruler of one-third of the world’s population and the product of medieval China, she was capable of immense ruthlessness. For all her faults she was no despot. Compared to that of her predecessors, or successors, Cixi’s rule was benign. In some four decades of absolute power, her political killings -whether just or unjust – which are recorded in this book, were no more than a few dozen, many of them in response to plots to kill her. She was not cruel by nature.”
For me this biography provides a refreshing and original look at the woman who was demonised in China for many years. It goes beyond hating Cixi for her Manchurian background, beyond the male dominated rhetoric to discredit her and explores the Dowager in more detail, backed by meticulous research. Reading this book was a gripping affair, one that peeled back layers and insights into Chinese culture as well as the Dowager herself. I found her to be an admirable, intelligent woman who faced incredible odds, endless difficulties, all compounded by the fact that she was a woman. Despite her power, she never once entered the Forbidden City through the front gates, a privilege reserved for the emperor only, and alway entered the harem via the back gate. Her successes deserve acknowledgement, and I found this to be a very convincing interpretation of the life of the Empress Dowager Cixi.
Empress Dowager Cixi: The concubine who launched modern China by Jung Chang (Jonathan Cape 2013)