September 05, 2013
Empress Dowager Cixi: The Concubine Who Launched Modern China by Jung Chang
I'm ashamed to say I'd never heard of Cixi before picking up this book. China's early history (at least before Mao) is not something I've delved into quite a bit. But having read the author's "Wild Swans" I decided to give this book a try. And I'm very glad I did.
Plucked out among many other girls as one of the royal concubines to the then emperor, Cixi was a normal Chinese girl. Well, normal insomuch as royal concubines are. Not even the Empress, she had to use force of will to climb up the ladder and become one of the most powerful figures in China's history. Ruling for the better part of a half century, a woman, in a land that oppressed the female gender, she had to be intelligent and cunning. According to this book, she was progressive and brought in a lot of modern improvements to China despite being wracked by rebellions, hostile foreign policies, and other hazards. And since she couldn't rule in outright name because she was female, she had to maneuver politics and emperors around to best direct her needs.
Cixi is a strong person, and that comes through in this book. Few women (or even men) can claim to do half of what she did in a lifetime. And she had to overcome a myriad of obstacles just because of her gender to rule. This book paints a pretty optimistic picture of her, but refers to the notion that she is not always portrayed this way. Having experienced this book about Cixi before anything else, I of course am disposed to lean towards the fact that she did the best she could in leading China, and when she made mistakes, she admitted them. So I admire her. And the author does mention several other people in this book as well, but to be honest, there's so many of them it's hard to keep track. It's obvious that Cixi is the main focus in this book, and that's just fine.
I learned a lot about China's history from this book. And about Cixi. It's amazing how many things can happen over the course of a few decades. There's even a good bit written about the Boxer Rebellion since it happened during Cixi's rule. But it wasn't dry as some historical books can be. It kept me riveted the whole time and even though it lagged a bit in parts in the latter half, I still found it hard to put the book down. It's the kind where you can probably go back, read it again, and discover new facts you may not have noticed the first time around. Really, the parts that made it lag were some of the politics, but the book can't be faulted for that as it's a book about a country's leader and politics go hand in hand with that. And from what I can tell it is well researched. Wild Swans was also well done and both books have had a lot of care put into them.
An excellent book and one I'd recommend to anyone interested in history or China. It's a powerful biography on a very interesting woman.
Empress Dowager Cixi