Women’s March Week: (Archives) How a Woman Modernized China: A Review of Empress Dowager Cixi

NOTE: Periodically, we will be reintroducing relevant book reviews from our previous blog, The Discarded Image. To celebrate the Women’s March of 2018, we are bringing in some of our favorite books on women from history.

Pearl Buck once observed that those who hated the Empress Dowager Cixi were “more articulate than those who loved her.” Jung Chang’s recent biography, Empress Dowager Cixi: The Concubine Who Launched Modern China, argues that Cixi has long been misunderstood, and her monumental reforms falsely credited to the men who served her or ruled after her. Chang presents evidence that it was Cixi who brought prosperity to China and opened to door to modernization as she built a navy and a railroad, installed electricity, and founded Western-style schools and universities.

Empress Dowager Cixi: The Concubine Who Launched Modern China
by Jung Chang
Knopf, 2013
436 pages (hardcover)
Source: public library Available: Amazon

Cixi’s rise to power is far from rags to riches. The daughter of a prominent Manchu family, it wasn’t impossible that she would be selected as an imperial concubine. But she wasn’t the favorite even after she produced the emperor’s first son. What she had to her advantage was a sharp intellect, raw ambition, and a vast vision for China that took the court literally by surprise. When the emperor died while his heir was underage, she formed an alliance with his widow (the boy’s official mother) in a coup against the regents. She was 25 when she seized power, and she would rule outright or through her puppet sons for the next 45 years.

Like any proud, powerful ruler on the leading edge of reform, she demonstrated inherent contradictions. She was both shrewd and sheltered, monitoring the shifting balance of international politics while naively ignoring that it was her palace eunuchs who arranged for her to have magical garden visits from birds. She banned foot-binding but was famously vain about her appearance. She decreed that women should be formally educated and eventually removed the screen that had traditionally separated the ladies of the court from the men; her adopted son and temporary emperor called her “Papa Dearest” and “my Royal Father.” She embraced traditional religion, but survived by torturing and executing her political enemies (including her daughter-in-law and possibly her adopted son) and endorsed brutal generals and their methods. In her final years, she outlawed “death by a thousand cuts” and other ancient tortures but continued the practice of castrating impoverished boys to ensure the court a steady supply of eunuchs.

Chang generally takes a nuanced approach. She situates the Boxer rebellion in context, for example, fairly representing the drought, poverty and border politics that set the Chinese against each other and their foreign guests, as well as the Christian missionaries who did much good but also flexed their muscles as gunboats arrived to back their interests.

And it’s a broad cast of characters. A singular woman so obsessed with both her own survival and the advancement of her country can expect a variety of colorful foils, and Cixi had these in spades, as Chang tells it. Among them was a general known as Wild Fox Kang who eventually fled to Japan, where he plotted more than one assassination attempt against Cixi. One of his partners in crime was a Welsh missionary who believed he was called by God to take control of China, and who proposed that, being a pagan woman, the empress should be overseen by two foreign governesses.

The details of Cixi’s personal life and national accomplishments are fascinating enough to persuade the reader to forgive a few awkward stylistic choices. In an otherwise detached commentary, Chang makes the occasional oddly-judgmental comment, such as her introduction of a woman named Isabella Bird as “the beady-eyed traveler.” The narrative approach is more thematic than chronological (despite chapter headings that suggest otherwise), which makes the flow of events somewhat hard to follow. And she follows the older British style of using asterisks instead of footnotes.

But the well-curated photographs are a treasure. And the first-rate scholarship reveals a portrait both formal and intimate, powerful and insecure. Jung Chang has delivered a riveting account of a most remarkable woman who played a significant role in the globalization of the modern world.