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Empress Dowager Cixi: The Concubine Who Launched Modern China

by Jung Chang

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9003524,261 (4.01)61
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. At the age of 16, in a nationwide selection for royal consorts, Cixi was chosen as one of the emperor's numerous concubines and sexual partners. When he died in 1861, their 5-year-old son succeeded to the throne. Cixi at once launched a palace coup against the regents appointed by her husband and made herself the real ruler of China - behind the throne, literally, with a silk screen separating her from her officials who were all male. In this ground-breaking 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, 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. Based on newly available, mostly Chinese, historical documents such as court records, official and private correspondence, diaries and eye-witness accounts, this biography will revolutionise historical thinking about a crucial period in China's - and the world's - history. Packed with drama, fast-paced and gripping, it is both a panoramic depiction of the birth of modern China and an intimate portrait of a woman: as the concubine to a monarch, as the absolute ruler of a third of the world's population, and as a unique stateswoman.… (more)
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» See also 61 mentions

English (31)  Spanish (2)  Italian (1)  Swedish (1)  All languages (35)
Showing 1-5 of 31 (next | show all)
Wanted to like it; it was dull.
  Abcdarian | May 18, 2024 |
This is a fascinating read into the life of Empress Dowager. Other than providing insights into the evolution of modern China, I find that it offers interesting leadership lessons too. Not only is Cixi forward looking and open-minded, she never totally abandoned those that she sidelined thus ensuring that she retained their loyalty. She also understood the need to cultivate relationships, like how she made friends with the wives and daughters of the foreign legion, thus ensuring they had a good word to say when they went back to their countries. ( )
  siok | Feb 12, 2024 |
This kaleidoscopic tour through 19th century China and the life of Empress Dowager Cixi (which I pronounce as Empress Suzi) once again gives us a great appreciation for what we have today compared to what peasants in medieval China — and the rest of the world — had to expect from life.

No indoor plumbing. No indoor heat. Floods. Famine. Competing empires. Little of anything we’d call an education.

It is no wonder contemporary Chinese look back on their history with not a little distain and resentment for how the West treated them during the period of denial when the “Western devils” encroached on their idyllic Confucian society.

It was a brutal existence. Bound feet for the women. Patriarchal society. Domination of the Han Chinese by the Manchu. Filthy streets. Corruption rampant.

The British injected a steady stream of poisonous opium into this society and then objected when the Chinese dumped their precious commodity into the bay of Canton. Sound familiar, you Americans out there?

When the Qing Emperor died and left his young son in command, the boy’s mother —- the concubine Empress — and the legit empress established a regency with her in control. She reigned on and off for 47 years.

Jung Chang contends that Cixi opened the trade door wide and tried to Westernize and modernize China going so far as to plant the seeds for a constitutional monarchy.

She brought in trains, modern schools, new military technology, and a modern appreciation for science.

Along with Western trade came Christian missionaries and a new religious dogma. It brought turmoil, unruly mobs, and catastrophic social unrest including the Taipeng Rebellion and later the Boxer Rebellion.

Foreign governments took over large territories in China. Foreign troops ruined national monuments.

China has lifted herself up after a century after Cixi’s regency. Hundreds of millions have moved to cities and modern conveniences. Illiteracy has declined dramatically. And there is a huge middle class.

While its streets are no longer cesspools of filth, though, today Beijing’s air is foul and toxic. The country’s biggest rivers are polluted, and mining tailings pollute large swaths of the countryside.

Its population has quadrupled, and its goverment is a Leninist clique.

Modernization has come at a steep price. And not just China’s modernization. ( )
  MylesKesten | Jan 23, 2024 |
I have to say I don't normally read purely historical nonfiction books because typically they are too dry for me but this was the exception. I knew absolutely nothing about Empress Cixi, picked up this book purely on the recommendation of a podcaster and I am so glad I did. Empress Cixi was such a dynamic person and there were multiple times where I just went "Woah, she is a bada** motherf**ker". This woman was unbelievable! She did such much for China and it was disheartening to learn how she was mispresented by her enemies for such a long time. She truly deserves a lot of credit for being the driving force in modernizing China. This was a great educational read and I highly recommend it. ( )
1 vote awesomejen2 | Jun 21, 2022 |
This is a well researched biography by the author better known for Wild Swans. Cixi was the most powerful woman in Chinese history effectively exercising executive power over the largest state in the world for most of the period between 1861, when her young son became Emperor Tongzhi, and 1908 when she died. The role of the concubine in the Chinese imperial hierarchy could be very powerful if she was the mother of the emperor, and she exercised power in the early years of this period with her husband's Empress, Zhen, a much weaker figure personally and politically, though apparently they got on well. Tongzhi assumed power for himself for just a couple of years before he died, possibly of syphilis, in 1875. The next Emperor was Cixi's adopted son (actually nephew) Guangxu, another boy over whom she could exert influence and rule herself (though there no real other candidates for the imperial role). She struggled to bring China into the modern age through bringing in trains, telegraphs and industry through more positive relations with foreign countries. There were several foreign invasions with nearly all the Western powers, plus Japan, invading and obtaining chunks of Chinese territory in the name of trade and economic expansion. So the difficult balance for Cixi was to learn from the west to bring China into the modern age, while patriotically fighting their imperial pretensions against Chinese territory. This contradiction was most clearly demonstrated in the nationalist Boxer uprising in 1900. After nearly being dethroned, she managed to draw on deep wells of support and come back to power, instituting what by Chinese standards, a fairly radical programme of reform, including abolishing footbinding and torture, a wider curriculum for mandarins beyond the Confucian classics and including travel abroad, promoting education for women, legal reform and even an outline for a form of parliamentary democracy, albeit still with imperial executive power ultimately still intact. Historians differ over the interpretation of these events, with the author challenging the traditional view that Guangxu was behind these reforms and Cixi conservatively opposing them. Jung Chang's interpretation seems more likely given the thrust of her life and policies over the decades of her rule and Chang considers that "Few of her achievements have been recognised and, when they are, the credit is invariably given to the men serving her. This is largely due to a basic handicap: that she was a woman and could only rule in the name of her sons – so her precise role has been little known." Cixi seems a fascinating and contradictory figure, a mixture of the Medieval and modern, a cautious reformer but with a capacity for ruthlessness that shocks on occasion. ( )
1 vote john257hopper | Jul 31, 2021 |
Showing 1-5 of 31 (next | show all)
Chinese biography tends to render even its most colorful subjects in monochrome. Once the Communist Party has determined whether an individual worth writing about is hero or villain the biographer's task is to burnish or darken an image until its true outline is lost. Information that contradicts the chosen narrative is casually dismissed or simply omitted. There's no nuance, no debate, no shades of gray.

So there's particular excitement whenever fresh material on a key figure escapes China and obtains uncensored publication overseas, such as is promised by Chinese émigré Jung Chang's new biography "Empress Dowager Cixi: The Concubine Who Launched Modern China." New access is claimed to "court records, official and private correspondence, diaries and eye-witness accounts."

But despite 35 years in England, Ms. Chang has not thrown off the habits of the regime from which she fled. There's a courtroom-style approach to her biographies; once she chooses a position every possible fact or argument, however spurious, is marshalled in support of that side.

...

During her lengthy unofficial reign, Cixi stands accused of usurping power, suppressing development and executing reformers who would have strengthened the empire against foreign encroachments. She is also supposed to have spent vital naval funds on the refurbishment of the Summer Palace and connived with the Boxer rebels to kill or drive out every foreigner in China.

Ms. Chang's Cixi is largely a mirror image of this figure: a campaigner for women's rights, an ardent supporter of modernization, a friend to foreigners and a victim of unfounded accusations. But her account is thin on references to reliable primary sources. It frequently quotes clueless foreigners (notably the British attaché Algernon Freeman-Mitford ) when their remarks happen to suit, as well as works by Chinese historians prevented by politics from publishing frank and accurate accounts. Rumors that appeal are passed on uncritically, while those that do not are dismissed as "just a story."

Professional historians are unlikely to take the book seriously, not least because we are frequently told what Cixi was thinking or feeling. And despite ample material, Ms. Chang doesn't possess the narrative skills to turn her story into a ripping yarn. The only suspense comes as the reader waits to discover how each of Cixi's crimes will be explained away.

added by peternh | editWall Street Journal, Peter Neville-Hadley (pay site) (Jan 20, 2014)
 
While Chang’s admiration can approach hagiography, her extensive use of new Chinese sources makes a strong case for a reappraisal.
 
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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.
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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. At the age of 16, in a nationwide selection for royal consorts, Cixi was chosen as one of the emperor's numerous concubines and sexual partners. When he died in 1861, their 5-year-old son succeeded to the throne. Cixi at once launched a palace coup against the regents appointed by her husband and made herself the real ruler of China - behind the throne, literally, with a silk screen separating her from her officials who were all male. In this ground-breaking 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, 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. Based on newly available, mostly Chinese, historical documents such as court records, official and private correspondence, diaries and eye-witness accounts, this biography will revolutionise historical thinking about a crucial period in China's - and the world's - history. Packed with drama, fast-paced and gripping, it is both a panoramic depiction of the birth of modern China and an intimate portrait of a woman: as the concubine to a monarch, as the absolute ruler of a third of the world's population, and as a unique stateswoman.

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