Empress Dowager Cixi: The Concubine Who Launched Modern China. Jung Chang. Random House, LLC. October 2013. 480 pp. pbk. ISBN #: 9780307271600.
Cixi appears in this story as a low-grade concubine who has been chosen by the Emperor to satisfy his pleasures, be they sexual or artistic. A woman who has no say in political discourse, Cixi demonstrates an unusual intelligence and eventually influence in those family and ministerial members of the imperial family. Thus, it is no surprise that Cixi sees China going downhill when Western powers begin to flex their military muscles in threats if they are not given more trade rights in previously forbidden Chinese cities. While these “foreign devils” are posing war, Cixi is wise enough to discover China’s shrinking economy and knows that growth for China lies in modernizing in order to improve her financial status.
Westerners perhaps, in this present time of revolutions and coups, fail to appreciate how dramatic it was for Cixi to have a son by Emperor Xianfang and take over as co-Regent with the Emperor’s wife, Empress Zhen, after the Emperor’s death. Xianfang had made numerous decrees leading to the Opium War that infuriated foreign traders. Most unusual was the bond between Empress Zhen and Cixi, who shared precise opinions about foreign and domestic matters; the Empress, on the other hand, was more than willing to take a backseat and let Cixi rule the country. Her rule continues with carefully calculated plans that wind their way around the opposition ministers of the Court. Eventually foreigners get more trading rights, places to explore in China, and implementation of industrial inventions, such as the telegraph, electricity and the railroad that benefit all countries involved, including China herself. The largest fights over these many years is over the trade of opium, a drug that was destroying China; permission for foreign missionaries to minister in interior China, the burning of the Summer Palace by angry foreigners, the increasing incursion of Japan and other nations, and many other debacles that Cixi manages with aplomb and great diplomatic skill.
Cixi toward the end of her life recognizes that her son’s rule, like his father’s, was a total disaster and fears what will occur when she has gone. She has retired twice but still “managed” or “ruled” China for most of her life; the opposite poles of thinking in the Court almost mandate a Parliamentarian style government for the future in which checks and balances will allow no extremist thinking to destroy the progress. To her credit this was implemented after her death.
Every page of this biography, which is also truly a history of China between 1835 and 1912, is fascinating, accurate because of obvious precise research, and exciting. Many ministers are characterized as well, with their strengths and weaknesses exposed for analysis as they make beneficial and deleterious decisions that Cixi must expand or annul. It’s a perilous but thrilling journey the reader shares with Cixi and Jung Chang has again written a brilliant story about the violence, weak personal characters, tragedies, joys of China in its drive to become a well-respected, modern nation. Superb in all ways and a great read!