177. Empress Dowager Cixi: The Concubine Who Launched Modern China (Jung Chang)

Tuesday, February 18, 2014

Sadly, I know next to nothing about Chinese history.  I've heard of the Boxer Rebellion and the Opium Wars but I couldn't tell you anything about them.  China has never really lit a fire in me the way other parts of the world have its history could never be as interesting as ancient Egypt or the Mayans, right?  Imagine my surprise when I added Empress Dowager Cixi to my eReader.  I was even MORE surprised at how easily I became swept up in the palace intrigue and political machinations that dominated her life during the 19th and early 20thcenturies.

Ruling China for most of her life from behind a golden curtain, the Empress Dowager Cixi was a fascinating woman.  Rising from lowly concubine (and not even the Emperor’s favourite), she masterminded a coup that saw her rise to become the most powerful person in China.  She was strong, intelligent and confident; everything an Emperor was expected to be… except she was a woman.  In power at the same time as Queen Victoria half a world away, she moved and moulded Imperial China into what she thought it should (and needed to) be in order to survive amongst the world’s major players, most of whom were constantly threatening her borders and attempting to impose their own plans on the country.  At the same time, Cixi comes across as vulnerable and lonely, with a desire for friendship in any form; all but impossible for an Empress.


In this ground-breaking biography, Jung Chang vividly describes how Empress Dowager 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, 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. Jung Chang comprehensively overturns the conventional view of Cixi as a die-hard 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 the invasion by 8 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 – with one of whom she fell in love, with tragic consequences. The world Jung Chang describes here, in fascinating detail, seems almost unbelievable in its extraordinary mixture of the very old and the very new.

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