Review Blog

Nov 07 2013

Empress Dowager Cixi: the concubine who launched modern China by Jung Chang

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Jonathan Cape, 2013, ISBN 9780224087445.
(Age: 15+) Non fiction. After one hundred years and access to China's archives, this revised and highly favourable biography of Empress Dowager Cixi, attempts to alter existing perceptions of the Manchu ruler of China. Jung Chang's scholarship brings to life the story of a young sixteen year old concubine who was chosen as one of the Emperor's numerous partners. When he died in 1861, their five year old son succeeded to the throne. Cixi plotted a takeover against the regents appointed by her husband and made herself the real ruler of China, till she died in 1908. She made mistakes such as supporting the Boxer Rebellion and was ruthless at times eg. she committed a number of murders. According to the author, and contrary to her existing reputation, she always acted with courage and stateswoman like sincerity. During the time of her control Cixi fostered the modern development of China, encouraged press freedom and abolished feudal traditions such as foot-binding and death by a thousand cuts. Her accomplishments are worth considering when set against the forces she had to deal with including an entrenched bureaucracy, invasion by foreign powers, court intrigue, and rebellions.
Students of modern Chinese history will find this book to be a useful introduction to the period. It covers the opening of seaports, the Taiping and Boxer Rebellions, the rising Japanese influence in the region and the period immediately before the birth of the Chinese Republic.The biography is accompanied by a large number of fascinating photographs and vivid descriptions of life inside Beijing's Forbidden City and the Summer Palace.
Paul Pledger

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