Empress Dowager Cixi: The Concubine Who Launched Modern China by Jung Chang

Empress Dowager Cixi: The Concubine Who Launched Modern China

After I finished reading Empress Dowager Cixi: The Concubine Who Launched Modern China, I started scouring the Internet for more about her. I wasn’t at all surprised that most of the articles I read had a wildly different take on the woman. Cixi clawed her way up from nothing to become one of the most important woman in Chinese history. And yet, her life and legacy are so shrouded in controversy her detractors and supporters are barely even able to agree on facts.

What everyone agrees on is this-born to a family that had fallen on tough times, Cixi became one of the emperor’s lower-tiered concubines when she was just 16. She gained a hold in the Imperial Court when she gave birth to the emperor’s first and only son. When the Emperor died, he appointed regents to rule until his 5 year-old son was of age. Rather than retiring to the harem for the rest of her days, Cixi orchestrated a coup and seized power. She remained the true force behind the throne for the next 50 years, acting as regent for her own and her adopted sons. As a woman, she was compelled to sit behind a screen as she made orders in the name of the Emperor. And she remained in control, carefully moving the chess pieces until only a few hours before her death.

She held onto power through a combination of intelligence and ruthlessness. Unlike her late husband, she understood in the disastrous aftermath of the Opium Wars with Britain, that the only way to survive this in this new world was to modernize. Under her rule China built its first railroads, introduced electricity and newspapers and reformed its archaic bureaucratic system.

Many historical accounts of Cixi have not been kind, fueled by unreliable commentary and plain old sexism. She was surely a competent ruler, capable of seeing further than her late husband or many of her advisors who were stuck in the “old ways” of doing things. But Jung Chang’s book falls in the opposite spectrum, wildly overcorrecting the narrative, trying to paint Cixi as a damn close to perfect ruler. Even her disastrous support of the anti-Western Boxer rebellion, is neatly explained away before Chang waxes poetically about how well Cixi recovered.

Near the end of the book, Chang makes the argument “In some four decades of absolute power, her political killings, whether just or unjust … were no more than a few dozen, many of them in response to plots to kill her.” Well, okay sure. Maybe she did kill fewer people than her predecessors. But a couple dozen murders isn’t nothing. Her victim’s included her adopted son’s favorite concubine-as they were fleeing the palace (the British were about to take Beijing) Cixi ordered a eunuch throw her in a well. Her adopted son didn’t fare much better. In the hours before Cixi’s death, worried he might stage a comeback, she had him poisoned. For sure, history has a tendency to avoid giving women their due, but Chang’s adoration for the Empress still comes off as weird and biased. Her accomplishments are trumpeted, her failures muted. There’s no nuance to this book.

Jung Chang made a name for herself with her spectacular memoir, Wild Swans. However, she’s followed up with these historical biographies that keep missing the mark. Her biography of Mao was essentially a manifesto about what a jerk Mao was (and he was a total dick to be sure. But you’re trying to be a historian. Act like it). Like her book on Mao, Chang seems to have made up her mind on her subject before the book was finished. It’s possible to respect a subject while also condemning some of her actions. But Chang doesn’t seem interested in doing so.

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