Empress Dowager Cixi, The Concubine Who Launched Modern China by Jung Chang
While rearranging the biography section of my library recently, I observed (not for the first time) that women get short shelf.
While the biographies of the men (Adams through Warburg) still require half a dozen shelves, the poor women barely take up one, short, shelf.
Why are there so few histories of women? One reason is that history is mostly written by men.
A particularly egregious example of this is Empress Dowager Cixi, ruler of China for almost a half a century, whose legacy has not been well served by Chinese or Western historians.
As her biographer Jung Chang notes,
“The past hundred years have been most unfair to Cixi, who has been deemed either tyrannical and vicious or hopelessly incompetent –or both. Few of her achievements have been recognized and, when they are, the credit is invariably given to the men serving her.”
In her excellent biography, Empress Dowager Cixi, The Concubine Who Launched Modern China, Jung Change sets the record straight.
My short shelf is now up by one.
The daughter of a government worker, Empress Dowager Cixi was not an heir to the throne of China nor as a woman could she be, but despite these handicaps, she successfully ruled one third of the world’s population for almost fifty years.
In the summer of 1852, the future Empress Dowager was a low ranking concubine in the court of Emperor Xianfeng. When she gave birth to his son, she was promoted to number two consort, second only to Empress Zhen. When her son inherited the throne in 1861, Cixi launched a coup against the regents and put herself in charge. And there she remained until her death in 1908.
Her long rule was even more remarkable because traditional Confucian political culture prohibited female monarchs, so Cixi governed through her young male heirs, first her son and later an adopted son. Not that anyone was fooled by this charade, but Cixi was careful to at least keep up the appearance of womanly deference.
Early in her reign (or her more accurately her son’s reign) Cixi realized that China must modernize. The devastating opium wars brought home to Cixi the necessity of abandoning China’s long standing “closed door policy” and engage with the West.
Positioned behind the yellow screen from which she was obliged to conduct imperial audiences, the hardworking Cixi’s red inked decrees touched every aspect of Chinese life. Railroads, steam boats, telegraphs, and newspapers were introduced. The elitist educational system was overhauled. (At the time, 99% of the population was illiterate.) Commercial, civic, and criminal laws were rewritten and trade policy established. Cixi also banished the ancient custom of foot-binding for women.
As an absolute monarch, Cixi didn’t have to listen to anyone, but she was remarkably open to ideas from both domestic and foreign advisors.
As Chang points out, Cixi make some mistakes. But unlike most imperial leaders, she admitted her mistakes and strove to make amends quickly.
Cixi’s reign was never dull. She endured and triumphed over revolutions, coups, betrayals, exile, famines, and foreign invasions.
A fascinating look at a dramatic period of Chinese history and a dynamic female leader.
WHO WROTE IT
Jung Chang is the bestselling author of Wild Swans and Mao: The Unknown Story (with Jon Halliday), which was described by Time as “an atom bomb of book.” Her books have been translated into more than forty languages and sold more than fifteen million copies outside mainland China, where they are both banned. She was born in China in 1952 and moved to Britain in 1978.
WHAT OTHER REVIEWERS SAY
The Sunday Times (London) “If there is one woman who mattered in the history of modern China, it is the empress dowager Cixi…[Her] conventional image is queried in this detailed and beautifully narrated biography, which at long last restores the empress dowager to her rightful place.”
The New Yorker: “A woman whose energy, farsightedness, and ruthless pragmatism transformed a country.”