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Empress Dowager Cixi: The Concubine Who…

Empress Dowager Cixi: The Concubine Who Launched Modern China

by Jung Chang

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5722528,156 (4)42
"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 Based on newly available, mostly Chinese, historical documents such as court records, official and private correspondence, diaries and eyewitness accounts, this biography will revolutionize historical thinking about a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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Showing 1-5 of 23 (next | show all)
It is really impossible to review this book without access to the original sources (which I don't have) or the ability to read Chinese (which I don't have). This is clearly a revisionist biography, but whether the very positive reappraisal of Empress Dowager Cixi as a founder of modern China is based on a realistic or an optimistic view of the Empress is impossible to say. Its clear that Jung Chang wishes to show the Empress in the best possible light, and readers should be aware that this is close to a hagiography - but, as I say, that doesn't necessarily make it untrue. As a reader, you have to willingly suspend any disbelief that she may have been more despot than reformer, more xenophobe than xenophile, more tyrannical than kindly, as the constant flow of subjects to the execution grounds might suggest, and accept the author's word, and let her tell her story

And what a great story it is; Cixi rises from 6th rank concubine, to mother to the heir, to ruling "behind the screen" as joint regent, then the power behind the throne to the somewhat feckless Emperor. In all, close to 50 years in effective control. During this period, there are times of relative peace and harmony in the Empire; at other times the complete opposite, as China loses a disastrous war with Japan and the Boxer rebellion leads to an occupation of the Forbidden City by foreigners, and the Imperial Family has to go into internal exile

As such the tone of the book wobbles between relatively sober assessment of court life and administrative duties, and tele-novela style treason and plot. Still, its entertaining stuff, and for people such as myself, who only knew the basics of the end of the QIng Dynasty, its a good way to fill in the gaps and join the dots. Its well worth reading - but with a sceptical attitude ( )
  Opinionated | Aug 27, 2019 |
Interesting and very readable, even though I knew basically nothing about this period of history beforehand. The author often mentioned that most historians disagreed with her on any point, which made me think that her views are probably somewhat exaggerated too. Still, I feel like I learned a lot. ( )
  tronella | Jun 22, 2019 |
It's really a fun read that gives a lot of insight into that period of history and how China dealt with imperialist hunger. Looking at some of the other reviews, the question is apparently about Chang's scholarship and partisanship for Cixi. The author makes a pretty good set of "what-ifs" though. ( )
  jeninmotion | Sep 24, 2018 |
This history of Cixi is extremely well written. It reads with the excitement of a novel, yet is clearly based on extensive research. This book challenges the long held negative views of Cixi. Shortly after finishing this book I visited an Empress Dowager Cixi exhibit at the Bower's Museum in Santa Ana, CA. While there I asked a woman who was speaking in Chinese how to properly pronounce Cixi. She then went on to tell me of what a horrible, ruthless woman Cixi was. I told her there was a very different version of history in this book, which was currently for sale in the museum gift shop. She looked horrified. This book inspired me to read [Letters From China] by [[Sarah Pike Conger]], 1910, in which she describes her close relationship with Empress Dowager Cixi before and after surviving the Boxer Rebellion in Peking in 1900. These letters would have been written prior to any history of Cixi and would seem to support Jung Chang's version of events. Further investigation into original sources may be called for. ;) ( )
1 vote Just1MoreBook | Apr 14, 2018 |
Enjoyable read - except in latter chapters where the author turns apologetically feminist.
Additionally, the last Chapter had me wondering if the author had access to "alternative" facts.
Unfortunately, my personal knowledge is sufficiently weak that I need to do more homework before I complain.. ( )
  busterrll | May 5, 2017 |
Showing 1-5 of 23 (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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