Empress Dowager Cixi: The Concubine Who Launched Modern China
by Jung Chang
Selected as an imperial concubine as a teenager, Cixi was initially just another beautiful woman at the court of the Chinese emperor. But when she gave birth to a son, the future heir to the throne, she quickly grew in power and influence. When the Emperor died, and her son was just five years old, Cixi shared the title of Dowager Empress with the wife of her former lord. The two women, Dowager Empress Cixi and Dowager Empress Ci’an, ousted the regents appointed to rule for their son, and in a remarkable partnership the two empresses ruled through the Tongzhi and Guangxu Emperors’ regencies.
Dowager Empress Cixi became the dominant political power, and through her new role she confronted the problems posed to China by the increasing political influence of Western powers. Through compromise and careful diplomacy, Cixi worked with diplomats and her vast Chinese bureaucracy to modernize China. During her remarkable forty-seven year reign, Cixi worked tirelessly to bring her army and navy up to date with current technology, outlawed foot-binding, and tried to pave the way toward a constitutional monarchy.
I have previously enjoyed a fictional account of the life of Empress Cixi in Pearl Buck’s Imperial Woman. The story introduced me to this extremely unusual, intriguing woman, and I wanted to know how much of the story was true. It seemed impossible that a woman could have really managed the affairs of China for nearly fifty years.
This biography is fascinating. Jung Chang seeks to rehabilitate the Empress past her Western reputation as an aged dragon upon the throne. I mean, she doesn’t transform Cixi into a benevolent, enlightened, democratic ruler – nothing crazy like that! – Chang simply provides much of the context that explains how Cixi’s worldview was formed and why she made many of the choices that she did. In the process, the book enlightens a great deal about a woman’s world in China during the second half of the 19th century, and while it’s obvious that Cixi had a very exceptional life she was still very much a part of that mindset, and the limitations it set upon her reign makes me wonder what she could have accomplished had she been active just fifteen or twenty years later.
At times, Chang seems to be rooting just a little too enthusiastically about her subject. She’s so excited to overturn the idea that Cixi was a merciless tyrant that she glosses over some of the unpleasant things that Cixi did during her reign, and the mistakes made in her name. Likewise, she grants Cixi some extraordinarily progressive ideals towards the end of her reign, positing that if she had lived a few more years China would have had a radically different future under a constitutional monarchy.
As a woman restricted to the Forbidden City, Cixi sent Chinese men all over the world to be her eyes and ears, to learn about the Western ways that so threatened China. Reading these men’s impressions of European courts or American cities provide some of the most intriguing and entertaining passages of the book – talk about culture clash! Meanwhile, in China the wives of foreign diplomats occasionally met with Cixi – as a woman she was unable to meet the diplomats face-to-face, but she could interact with their families – and their accounts of her life and personality provide the most intimate looks into her world.
Cixi was a remarkable woman and it’s well worth taking the time to read about her. I find her inspiring – not because she ruled China, but because she was a woman who worked really hard and truly maximized the potential of the opportunities that came her way. To rise from a low-ranking concubine to the power behind the throne and to maintain that control shows that in every way, she was a truly imperial woman.
– review by Suzi