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Empress Dowager Cixi: The Concubine Who Launched Modern China

by Jung Chang

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7093025,841 (4.03)45
"In this groundbreaking 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, the 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. Chang comprehensively overturns the conventional view of Cixi as a diehard 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 an invasion by eight 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--one of whom she fell in love, with tragic consequences. The world 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 Based on newly available, mostly Chinese, historical documents such as court records, official and private correspondence, diaries and eyewitness accounts, this biography will revolutionize historical thinking about a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." -- Publisher's description.… (more)
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Puoi trovare questa recensione anche sul mio blog, La siepe di more

Sono in difficoltà a scrivere la recensione di questo libro perché, non avendo conoscenze pregresse alla lettura di questo libro di Cixi, non so quanta verità ci sia nell’accusa che ho visto rivolgere più di frequente all’autrice: Chang avrebbe fornito un ritratto troppo lusinghiero dell’imperatrice vedova, mostrandosi indulgente nei confronti delle sue colpe e dei suoi errori.

Il mio fiuto di lettrice mi suggerisce che il tono apologetico è giustificato dal fatto che Chang ha scritto questo libro anche per riabilitare una figura storica che, in quanto donna di potere, ha subito giudizi poco lusinghieri: anche quando racconta degli errori di Cixi, l’autrice cerca di addolcire il biasimo con una serie di giustificazioni che non sono campate per aria (l’apparato di fonti consultate è notevole), ma finiscono probabilmente per restituirci un’immagine più positiva del necessario.

Detto questo, L’imperatrice Cixi mi è piaciuto tanto, me lo sono letto a colpi di cento pagine al giorno e mi ha fatto venire una gran voglia di leggere gli altri lavori di Chang. Cixi è stata una politica abile e capace, a differenza del marito e dei figli, che avrebbero dovuto ereditare il regno, ma che non avevano le capacità di guidare la Cina in quel particolare momento storico, vuoi per disinteresse (è dura fare l’imperatore quando le tue inclinazioni sono lontane dalla politica), vuoi per una mentalità che aveva ormai fatto il suo corso.

La vita di Cixi – e i suoi diversi periodi di regno – hanno coinciso con grandi cambiamenti per la Cina – inclusa la cessione dell’isola di Hong Kong alla Gran Bretagna – e quindi è un momento storico interessante del quale sapere di più, visto che ha messo in moto eventi cruciali per arrivare alla Cina di oggi. ( )
  Baylee_Lasiepedimore | May 13, 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. ( )
  john257hopper | Jul 31, 2021 |
I loved this book - i love history of China, I love the history of England, I love the history of colonialism. My favorite way to read history is through biographies because it tells the story in a way that is compelling. This book informs of the main events, the opium wars, Japan's rise, transition from old to new systems, rebellions, the reigns of power, the rise of the han and the end of the manchu, in the best way. So good - this is one of my favorite books.

As a tangent years after i finished this I found myself in Beijing on a work trip (trying to fix a machine I'm not like an important business person), and found myself at the summer palace where much of this takes place. Took me a few hours to figure out it was the same place from the book but what a thrill! They unfortunately did not have the well that the empress had that one princess drowned in on any of the tourist maps, at least not the English language one I had. ( )
  Giganticon | Dec 8, 2020 |
This book is SO GOOD. (The audio was also great.) I feel like I actually got to know the empress intimately, as well as getting a sweeping look at Chinese history and its role in the geopolitical landscape. I found the ways she had to work within the dynastic system fascinating, and I can't imagine the intelligence and unwavering will she had to have to get things done and see them through. I looooooved this. ( )
  bookbrig | Aug 5, 2020 |
Read 2015 ( )
  sasameyuki | May 8, 2020 |
Showing 1-5 of 28 (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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"In this groundbreaking 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, the 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. Chang comprehensively overturns the conventional view of Cixi as a diehard 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 an invasion by eight 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--one of whom she fell in love, with tragic consequences. The world 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 eyewitness accounts, this biography will revolutionize 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." -- Publisher's description.

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