A blog by the staff of the Thomas Ford Memorial Library
China’s Empress Dowager Cixi, who reigned at the turn of the last century, has long been portrayed as a reactionary tyrant who usurped the power of youthful emperors and spent China’s money on herself. Jung Chang’s well-researched and very readable biography of the Empress Dowager, however, sets out to correct this view and give credit to this much-maligned monarch for some of her remarkable achievements, long overlooked due to her gender and to politics. Chang was able to take advantage of primary Chinese resources that have never been seen outside the Chinese-speaking world (many inaccessible until after Mao’s death), as well as diaries and letters left by Cixi’s Western contemporaries, to shine new light on Cixi’s reign. The Empress Dowager she portrays, although far from perfect, is a mostly benevolent, popular and skilled ruler who brought China out of its medieval past and into the modern era.
Cixi was born in 1835 to a prominent Manchu family. (The ruling Qing dynasty was Manchurian.) In accordance with the custom for daughters of nobility, she was in the pool of teenaged girls offered as concubines to the new young emperor Xianfeng in 1852, soon after his reign began. She gave birth in 1856 to the emperor’s first (and only) son, who was named emperor in 1861 when his father died in exile, after fleeing foreign forces in the capital.
This was a time of turmoil in China, when famine brought peasant rebellions, the British forces were forcing the opium trade on China through the Opium Wars, and other nations were trying to seize slices of the ancient country during the chaos. Cixi first gained power when she and the head concubine, Empress Zhen, cleverly staged a coup to overthrow the Board of Regents, who had made decisions disastrous to China and were now set to rule until the child emperor came of age. Since women were technically not allowed to reign, the two Empresses ruled together hidden behind a silk screen that was set behind their young son’s throne.
Cixi continued to hold power through wars and rebellions until her death in 1908 (except for a few years when her sons took charge), ultimately coming out from behind the screen as ancient ways were gradually left behind. Among other things, she allowed the first telegraphs and railroads into the country, and did away with the ancient custom of foot binding. At her death, she was trying to move China towards a constitutional monarchy.
Chang‘s portrayal perhaps over-compensates for the negative view traditionally held of the Empress, glossing over her cruelty and mistakes to emphasize her many accomplishments. But there is no question that Cixi was a talented, remarkable woman who led an eventful life. I found Cixi’s story to be very engrossing. Chang keeps it interesting with ample details about the workings of the Forbidden City, the difficulties in bringing an ancient country out of isolation, the conniving foreigners and henchmen continuously scheming to grab power, and Cixi’s decisions about what reforms were in China’s best interest. The book also includes fascinating photographs of the Empress Dowager and those around her, which I found myself referring to again and again while reading. I really enjoyed this book.
Review by Nancy