Empress Dowager Cixi: The Concubine Who Launched Modern China by Jung Chang (Review)

There was no place in mid nineteenth century China’s political hierarchy for the sixteen year old concubine chosen by Emperor Xianfeng in 1852. The young woman, renamed Lan or “Orchid” by the Emperor belonged to the low ranking sixth level of the eight tier hierarchy of the Imperial harem. Although she had the poise and bearing expected of a member of the Imperial household, Lan soon irritated the Emperor with her suggestions about how he should address the peasant revolts and financial crises that followed the First Opium War. Xianfeng pronounced Lan “crafty and cunning” and ordered Empress Consort Zhen to discipline her. It seemed that Lan was condemned to a monotonous life in the Forbidden City with little influence beyond her household of maids and eunuchs.

Instead, Lan formed a political alliance with Empress Zhen. When Xianfeng died, leaving the throne to his young son with Lan, Tongzhi, the two women staged a coup, overthrowing the regency council and ruling China in the name of the boy Emperor.  Lan, concubine of the sixth rank, became Dowager Empress Cixi, the most powerful person in her son’s kingdom. Over the course of the late nineteenth and early twentieth centuries, Cixi would rule on behalf of three Emperors, introducing a sweeping series of reforms that bridged the divide between medieval and modern China. In Empress Dowager Cixi: The Concubine Who Launched Modern China, Jung Chang, author of Wild Swans: Three Daughters of China and Mao: The Unknown Story restores the controversial Dowager Empress to her rightful place in Chinese history.

Since her death in 1908, Cixi has suffered from bad press. Her ill judged support for the violent, anti-foreigner Boxer Rebellion of 1899-1901 and conflicts with prominent figures such as “Wild Fox” Kang Youwei resulted in the circulation of anecdotes that depicted Cixi as a ruthless despot. The Dowager Empress became known as a figure who did not hesitate to poison her nephew, Emperor Guangxu or order his favourite concubine, Pearl, to be thrown down a well by her eunuchs. Since she ruled from the seclusion of the Imperial harem in the Forbidden City, Sea Palace and Summer Palace, it was easy for her opponents to give her ministers credit for her engagement with the west and reforms to Chinese society.

Portrayals of Cixi in popular culture outside China have been mixed. At the beginning of Bernardo Bertolucci’s 1987 film The Last Emperor, the elderly Cixi personifies the crumbling Chinese monarchy as she chooses the toddler Pu Yi to be last Emperor. In contrast, Anchee Min presented a sympathetic account of Cixi’s rise in power and rule in her two novels Empress Orchid and The Last Empress, showing the Empress an intelligent woman constrained by the archaic conventions of the Imperial court.

Chang draws upon sources previously unknown to both Cixi’s admirers and detractors to paint a complex portrait of the Empress and her reforms. While Xianfeng deplored any contact with the west, Cixi was interested in adopting Western practices and technologies that would contribute to a stronger China. She sent the first Chinese envoys abroad and was willing to work with Europeans and Americans who respected China’s sovereignty. In the last decade of her life, Cixi introduced reforms that improved the lives of women such as the abolition of foot binding, allowed the development of a free press and laid the groundwork for a constitutional monarchy that might have succeeded if she had lived further into Pu Yi’s reign.

In Empress Dowager Cixi: The Concubine Who Launched Modern China, Cixi emerges as a figure with boundless curiosity, interested in learning from other cultures while preserving her own. Chang also reveals the Empress’s considerable political acumen and flexibility, especially compared to Tongzhi and Guangxu who were both ineffective Emperors for different reasons. At the same time, Chang does not absolve Cixi of political murders including the deaths of Guangxu and his concubine, Pearl but instead places these events within the larger political context of the time.

While Cixi was interested in modernizing the rest of China, her court remained as it had been for centuries with eunuchs addressing the Dowager Empress on their knees. The conflict and contrast between the insular world of the court and rapidly changing China beyond the Forbidden City during Cixi’s time in power is fascinating reading. Chang’s groundbreaking biography reveals the life and times of one of the most influential figures in Chinese history who attempted to strike a balance between tradition and modernity.

 

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