The Empress Dowager Cixi

Screen Shot 2014-03-18 at 2.22.10 PM

This new book, by Jung Chang, is one of the most interesting I have read in quite some time. It is the story of a young woman (1835-1908) who entered the Forbidden City as concubine (in the sixth of eight levels) to Emperor Xianfeng. The daughter of a respected Manchu family that later fell onto hard times, she was not well educated but had exceptional intuitive intelligence, political judgment and fearlessness. These qualities later helped her to co-opt the reigning Empress and stage a coup to overthrow the Regents who came into power after the Emperor’s early death.

As the mother of the Emperor’s only son and heir, Prince Tongzi, she consolidated her power and ultimately wielded it for over 50 years. Like Deng Xiaoping years later, she understood that to bring China into the modern age she had to open it up to the knowledge and technology from foreign counties. She was responsible for introducing electricity, trains, sanitation and a modern army and navy, among other significant improvements. While welcoming this interchange with foreign powers, she nevertheless stood her ground against incursions when they attempted to gain control of Chinese land or harbors.

Jung Chang, known to many for her excellent book “Wild Swans,” has pored through massive amounts of information about Cixi that has just become available and has presented an entirely new look at the woman who previously had at best been dismissed and at worst reviled in the Chinese history books. While Jung Chang presents a very positive view of Cixi, the jury is still out, particularly in her handling of the Boxer Rebellion.

The book is interesting on many levels. Not only is the story of Cixi’s reign absorbing, but other gems of information — Cixi drank only mothers’ milk throughout her life, eunuchs wore nappies — make for a fascinating read.

Barbara Vogelstein

Leave a Comment

You must be logged in to post a comment.