Rating: 4 Stars ★★★★☆
In spring 1852, in one of the periodic nationwide selections for imperial consorts, a sixteen-year-old girl caught the eye of the emperor and was chosen as a concubine.
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.
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. 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.
Empress Dowager Cixi has been maligned in history. In her comprehensive biography, Jung Chang delivers a completely different picture of this impressive woman.
From the beginning, the odds were against Cixi. Sure, she became an imperial concubine, but she was not the empress. She was one among many and not even the favourite. She lived in a court were women had few rights and were kept away from every political influence.
She grew up in a China that was forced by Western powers to open itself and, despite the vast territory it occupied and the huge amount of people living there, lived firmly in the past and had little technology to match the war machines of other countries.
She defied the odds and in a palace coup, became regent in her son’s name.
The two women did more than resolve a major problem, they went on to form a political alliance and launch a coup. Cixi was twenty-five years old and Empress Zhen a year younger. Facing them were eight powerful men in control of the state machine.
What she achieved during her reign was impressive. Cixi modernized China. She opened the country to the West, without forgetting its cultural roots.
She was no saint. Some of the things she did were terrible. She had people murdered, among them her adopted son and his concubine.
With transport at a premium, Cixi did not want to make room for her, but neither did she want to leave Emperor Guangxu’s favourite concubine and accomplice behind. She decided to use her prerogative, and ordered Pearl to commit suicide. Pearl declined to obey, and, kneeling in front of Cixi, tearfully begged the empress dowager to spare her life. Cixi was in a hurry and told the eunuchs to push her into a well.
She also made political mistakes. Despite all that, she was no despot. She was a woman of her time and culture. She showed impressive foresight and willpower.
In her biography, Jung Chang paints a very positive portrait of the empress, without omitting the darker points of her biography. She also has a knack for bringing turn-of-the-century China to life.
Empress Dowager Cixi’s legacy was manifold and towering. Most importantly, she brought medieval China into the modern age. Under her leadership the country began to acquire virtually all the attributes of a modern state: railways, electricity, telegraph, telephones, Western medicine, a modern-style army and navy, and modern ways of conducting trade and diplomacy.
Cixi was an impressive woman living in troubled times. In this fascinating, extremely well-written biography, Jung Chang brings the China of the 19th century to life.