Review: Empress Dowager Cixi by Jung Chang

I thought this was such a marvelous book. I'd recommend it wholeheartedly, except that I recognize two things: Empress Dowager Cixi was clearly written for an audience as clueless about 19th century Chinese history as myself, and was just as clearly attempting to counter a common narrative about Cixi, about which I was entirely ignorant. My feeling is that Empress Dowager Cixi is a great book; my worry is that I've been drafted as an unknowing foot-soldier in an academic battle I'm unable to evaluate properly. But first, oh man. I had no idea that China had been ruled by a woman for the latter half of the 19th century, and the story of her rise--even more, of her rule--is incredible. Surprising, inspiring, impressive...also sad, at times.

If I'd thought for very long before requesting the book I might have put two and two together, but this is not a cheerful period in Chinese history. If Cixi accomplished anything, it was a form of emergency triage--she arrived at the Forbidden City in 1852, during a period when China's isolationism had left it vulnerable to European powers with imperial ambitions. China, and Cixi when she held power, struggled to catch up, struggled to remain independent, struggled against the erosion of her borders as foreigners nibbled away at ports and peninsulas.

But China didn't fall. It never became a puppet. Despite military incursions by Britain, Germany, France and Japan, despite the fact that China lost most of the wars it fought during this time, the country survived. And, the author of Empress Dowager Cixi argues, much of the credit for China's survival, and for the positive changes made in the country during this time, should be credited to Cixi.

Of course, those changes are themselves depressing. Cixi's triumphs include things like building railroads and telegraph lines, founding Western-style universities, fostering a free press, sending ambassadors abroad. A lot of these changes amount to: admitting that the old ways are wrong and aping the West. It's hard to argue against the necessity of modernization, but equally hard to deny the loss of pride and identity that went along with it.

So this was a rough period for a great empire. And Cixi's greatness--the book convinced me of it; she was clever, determined, far-sighted, reasonable, hard-working, fierce--has been stuck under the shadow of hard times. But she executed some truly astonishing political maneuvers, and if you appreciate savagely intricate court politics, this book is worth reading on that count alone.

For example--this is my favorite, it made me gasp aloud as I read--Cixi had a nemesis. A man, Prince Chun, who opposed her policies, particularly her interest in the West, and expressed his displeasure at one point by arranging to have Cixi's dearest friend executed. A pretty strong warning, you might say.

But Cixi won the day.

How? After her own son, the Emperor, died, Cixi had to name a new heir. She picked Chun's only son. The three-year-old boy was taken from his home to be raised by Cixi. Neither Chun nor the boy's mother had further access to the boy. What's more, Chun couldn't protest--Cixi had paid him a great compliment, hadn't she? And he also had to withdraw from politics (a son must be obedient to a father, but an Emperor cannot be obedient to anyone, so the father couldn't disrupt the court with his presence), thus clearing the way for Cixi to rule unimpeded.

Vicious, right? Vicious, bloodless, brilliant. This woman could scheme.

But Cixi's loyalty and friendship was just as remarkable. For example--Cixi had been a concubine of fairly low standing before she bore her husband his first and only son. She wasn't very popular with the Emperor, and she wasn't officially the mother of her own child. The Emperor's wife, Zhen, was.

You'd think that Cixi and Zhen would be at one another's throats, wouldn't you? I expected a rivalry, a catfight, maybe some poison. No. Not at all. Cixi and Zhen were friends and allies. They executed the coup that first brought Cixi to power, as Regent until her son came of age, together, and ruled in tandem until Zhen's death. They made a great team, stronger together than apart.

If there's one thing I love more than the story of a woman triumphing over all the odds and gaining power, it's the story of a pair of good friends who triumph over all the odds and gain power.

There were other aspects of Cixi's biography that surprised me. How willingly and completely she withdrew from the throne when her son came of age. The second time around--after her son died, and the little heir she'd stolen from Chun came of age--things didn't go nearly so well. But that first time, after ruling for ten years, after discovering that she liked having power and had even grown popular, she gave it all up.

Empress Dowager Cixi is beautifully written. I started the book with no background knowledge at all, but I followed along easily. Chang fills in details and supplies background as needed, and has the gift of being comprehensive without becoming condescending. She paints a vivid picture of everything from the dust in the roads to the jeweled finger-protectors that Cixi wore.

That being said, it became increasingly clear as I read that Chang was attempting a rehabilitation. Apparently Cixi has been either dismissed or vilified by most historians, her accomplishments attributed to her male courtiers, her cruelties highlighted and exaggerated. Chang struck me as careful and thorough, but also very partial. And I'm in no position to judge.

Except that it was such a good, satisfying read. That I'm sure about.

Note: I received this book from Amazon Vine in exchange for an honest review.