I have written and spoken many times about how wonderful her book is, but I am often met with skepticism. Cixi has a reputation, in the East and the West, of being a controlling, manipulative, traditionalist who held China back and is blamed for many of China’s problems during the 19th century. Yet in Empress Dowager Cixi, Jung Chang paints a much more complicated picture of Cixi, one that gives her far more credit for China’s sudden leap into the modern age during her reign.
She credited Cixi with everything modern that China has today, from the electricity to the railroad, to the iron used to build the buildings. She also talked about Cixi was, in many ways, a feminist. She set up China’s first schools for girls and outlawed footbinding (even though the practice stayed in vogue until the communist era). She was not perfect, but Cixi would be the first person to admit to that. Her role in the Boxer Rebellion is something that she cannot escape, but she never tried to. She apologized, formally, for her role in the rebellion, and did her best to learn from her mistakes. Her reign post-Boxer Rebellion were some of China’s most prosperous and peaceful years. In fact, the foreign powers welcomed her back to the Forbidden City after the Boxer Rebellion. Even though the Boxer Rebellion was specifically a rebellion against foreign influence, the Western powers wanted Cixi back on the throne.
Many have called Jung Chang’s book about Cixi “revisionist,” as if that is a bad thing, so I asked her, “What do you say to critics who call into doubt the version of Cixi that you present in the book?”
“What wrong with revisionism?” she asked. Indeed, if the history we have been fed is wrong, why should it just be accepted because it is old? Why shouldn’t it be revised? She went on to say that, “People who doubt what I have written here should keep an open mind.”
It was truly a joy to meet Jung Chang and get to hear what she personally thought about the empress and her book. She also hinted that her next book will be about China’s first elections, which were also arranged by Empress Cixi before her death, so I can’t wait to read that.