Book Review: “Empress Dowager Cixi” by Jung Chang.
The other reason why I didn’t write a book review everyday for the last couple of weeks, is because I really wanted to write my next review on this book. I only finished reading it last night.
Before I get to the book review, I must first tell you when my fascination with this extraordinary woman started.
Turn back the clock to when I was still in school I used to receive “The Horrible Histories Collection” through the mail. It is a collection of comic books by Terry Deary that chronicles everything that happened in history – well mostly just the horrible, gory and daft things and people. Check out the website: http://www.horrible-histories.co.uk to learn more about that.
In Issue 54 “The Cheeky Chinese” on page 9 I first laid eyes on Cixi ( say tsoo-shee) for the first time. “Dirtiest deed no.1: She grew her fingernails especially long and sharp so she could scratch the cheeks of servant girls if they displeased her.” This instantly grabbed my fascination of her.
Actually, there is no mention of that in Chang’s book but I have learned a lot about her. Imagine my delight when I found this book in an Exclusive Books store. I just knew I had to have it. And what an interesting read:
1) She was never supposed to be the ruler of China – she first started out as a concubine in the Emperor’s harem. It is only after befriending the current Empress Dowager then (Empress Zhen) that she was able to get a higher rank in the harem.
2) She was the first woman to produce a male heir for the Emperor, which also counted in her favour.
3) When Emperor Xianfeng grew ill and died, she and Empress Zhen made a political coup so that she could rule through her son – Emperor Tongzhi. After he died she adopted her four year old nephew (Emperor Guangxu) and ruled through him.
4) She ruled until her dying deathbed: her last acts were to poison her nephew because she was afraid that after she was gone – the Japanese would use him to take control of China. She then left all the decisions to his wife (Empress Longyu) – a pitiable creature – because she knew that his wife would rather surrender than go to war against Japan. And that was the end of the Qing dynasty.
5) She abolished foot-binding (awful tradition of the Han Chinese that broke their daughter’s feet at a very young age) and “death by a thousand cuts”.
In this groundbreaking biography, Jung Chang vividly describes how Empress Dowager Cixi – the most important woman in Chinese history – brought a medieval empire into the modern age. Under her, the ancient country attained virtually all the attributes of a modern state and it was she who abolished gruesome punishments like “death by a thousand cuts” and put an end to foot-binding. Jung Chang comprehensively overturns the conventional view of Cixi as a diehard conservative and cruel despot and also takes the reader into the depths of her splendid Summer Palace and the harem of Beijing’s Forbidden City, where she lived surrounded by eunuchs – with one of whom she fell in love, with tragic consequences.
Packed with drama, fast-paced and gripping, it is both a panoramic depiction of the birth of modern China and an intimate portrait of a woman: as the concubine to a monarch, as the absolute ruler of a third of the world’s population, and as a unique stateswoman.
Cixi was responsible for the following things in her country:
railways, electricity, telegraph, telephones, Western medicine, modern-style army and navy and modern ways of conducting foreign trade and diplomacy. Western-style schools and universities, freedom of press, political participation: for the first time in China’s long history people were to become “citizens”. Women liberation: no more foot-binding and education.