Earlier this month, I was pretty harsh on Anchee Min’s The Last Empress. And rightly so. Her boring, flat characterization of one of China’s most controversial leaders was hugely disappointing. Jung Chang succeeds where Min failed. Even though Empress Dowager Cixi: The Concubine Who Launched Modern China is a non-fiction account, the story of Cixi’s life is so interesting, it doesn’t need fictional embellishment.
Cixi is considered a villain in China’s history, but mainly because China’s history is written by men. Cixi was no more heavy-handed than other leaders in the past, like China’s first emperor, nor was she weak, like her husband and both sons. She was not the reason for China’s fall. China only fell into chaos after she died. There was no man in China capable to holding together what she had built. She did make mistakes; she even admitted as much during her life and apologized for them. But she did not do anything so deserving of the vitriol still spitted about her when her name is brought up today. Cixi brought China out of the Middle Ages and held it together for more than 45 years, a track record not met by any other Chinese leader before or since.
Empress Dowager Cixi is probably the most balanced view of Cixi to date. It is not a whimsical attempt by Chang to rescue Cixi from the evils of male historians, but is an accurate account that displays Cixi’s attributes and foibles. There is also a lot of interesting information about China at that time, the role foreigners played (even a surprisingly large number of female foreigners), and juicy scandals. Chang also links to all of her sources to support her claims, so you know she isn’t just making it up.
What is most interesting is the fact that people in China loved her. They really did. Contemporary subjects, bureaucrats, diplomats, and everyone else loved her. She had her enemies, and her own adopted son did try to have her assassinated, but on the whole she was good for China, and the people knew it. It was only after her death and China fell into decades of civil war that Cixi was held up as the sacrificial goat, the one to blame for all of China’s ills.
If you are interested in Qing Dynasty China, Cixi, or the Opium Wars, this is one of the books you definitely have to pick up.