- - Monday, March 3, 2014


By Jung Chang
Alfred A. Knopf, $30, 464 pages

The Empress Dowager Cixi ruled China, mostly directly, from the death of her husband, Emperor Xianfeng, in 1861 to her own death in 1908, an era when foreign powers gnawed away at the Chinese empire. Russia, France, Britain, Germany and Japan all swallowed chunks of it. When China chose to fight, its forces were rarely effective. Internal discontent often erupted in rebellions, most catastrophically the anti-Western Boxer rebellion in 1899.

Facing such threats, China’s ruling class was riven into modernizers, who wanted to strengthen their country by adopting Western ideas and technologies, and traditionalists, who thought that safety lay in established policies of isolation and time-honored social and religious customs. Where did Cixi stand in this vital debate? During her many years of control, did she help modernize China, or did she lock it in the dead hand of tradition? In 1912, only four years after her death, the Nationalists founded the republic that ended the Qing dynasty, which had ruled for more than 250 years. Did her policies lead to this?

Many of her compatriots and some subsequent historians have described her as a despot who resisted the changes essential for defending Chinese territory and improving living standards. Jung Chang disagrees. Using newly available Chinese records as a source for her detailed biography, “Empress Dowager Cixi: The Concubine Who Launched Modern China,” Ms. Chang argues that Cixi was a reformer who helped introduce Western-style commerce, taxation and technology.

The author makes a strong case for Cixi as a strategic thinker, who knew which battles were worth fighting. She shows her as astute about people: generous to friends and often magnanimous to opponents. Her rise to power and her hold on it evidenced her remarkable talents.

In a fascinating account of Chinese customs, Jung Chang explains that as the daughter of a wealthy Manchu family, Cixi was one of hundreds of girls sent for inspection by Xianfeng as potential concubines. Though she was chosen, she won no special favor until four years later, when she gave birth to his first-born son, and then rose rapidly through the harem hierarchy until she was second only to the Empress Zhen.

In 1861, Xianfeng died, having unsuccessfully battled both the Taiping rebellion and the British and French, who wanted him to open ports to their ships. Xianfeng appointed regents for his young son, but since all were proponents of his disastrous policies, Cixi hatched a coup to replace them with herself and the empress as joint empress dowagers.

Protocol insisted that Cixi had to issue orders from behind a yellow screen to avoid being seen by men, but nonetheless she got down to business and developed commerce with the West, which generated revenues for China. When her teenage son died after ruling only briefly, she appointed a nephew as heir apparent, and once more ran the government. After he became the Emperor Guangxu, she retained an advisory role that quickly blossomed into full control.

It fell to her to cope with war with Japan and the Boxer rebellion, during which she battled against no less than eight foreign countries. The results were disastrous, as she admitted in a statement of remorse. During her last six years, she pursued reform policies, and developed friendships with Western women — association with men being impossible because technically she was still in the harem.

Jung Chang is the author of “Wild Swans,” a 1992 best-seller recording the lives of her family in Communist China. Her new book takes on the turbulence of late-19th-century China, tracing competing court interests, rival political ideas, foreign attacks and Cixi’s responses. Never short of narrative energy, she moves swiftly on from Cixi’s more unpleasant dealings — having a concubine shoved into a well, for example. Though she does not condone Cixi’s support of the Boxers, she is an apologist for it.

Ms. Chang ends with descriptions of Cixi’s final years, when she welcomed Western women into her court and issued progressive edicts, including plans for voting rights. In the epilogue, the author describes Cixi’s legacy as “towering” and says she “brought medieval China into the modern age.” Praising her as a consensus seeker, she says that “her rule was benign” — at least compared with her predecessors’ regimes.

Ms. Chang’s new broom sweeps briskly throughout her book, and she clears a lot of ground. Much of Cixi’s history remains murky — including how she engineered her initial coup — and some matters would be clearer if the spotlight moved from the court to the country more often. Nonetheless, the demon Cixi painted by other commentators fades as Ms. Chang clears the dust to reveal a fresher, more nuanced, picture. “She was a giant, but not a saint,” she writes, and that seems to have been true.

Claire Hopley is a writer and editor in Amherst, Mass.

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