Book Review – Empress Dowager Cixi: The Concubine who Launched Modern China by Jung Chang

Many women rulers have often been unfairly represented or demonised in history. In a patriarchal society, it is always easy to blame the woman, but hey: we’ve had two World Wars, genocides, countless atrocities, and I’m sure we all know who the leaders behind those were lol. In fact, my friends and I used to joke that if women ruled the world, we’d just have cold wars and not talk to each other for some time instead of sending armies to kill the shit out of each other.

Examples of such unfair representation: Cleopatra is made out to be a harlot who used sex to control powerful men in order to rule, while Mary I is remembered as Bloody Mary for her Protestant-killing campaign, even though many of her reforms paved the way for her half sister Elizabeth I to usher in England’s ‘Golden Age’.


It’s only recently, thanks to the ‘feminist’ movement (I use brackets here because people are so sensitive about that word, it’s almost like an F-bomb lol) that the history of some of these women rulers  are being revisited, putting them in a whole new light.

One such figure is the Empress Dowager Cixi: a concubine who entered the palace at just 16 and rose to become a prominent figure in Chinese history. Following the death of her husband, she launched a coup to oust the powerful board of Regents, placed her own three-year-old son, Tongzhi, on the throne and established herself as the de facto ruler. She was only 25 years old.

Cixi inherited a lot of sht to deal with. The previous rulers were weak; the system was corrupt, and natural disasters such as famine drove the population to rebel (her husband, Emperor Xianfeng, died while dealing with Taiping rebels – the biggest peasant rebellion in Chinese history that lasted for 10 years and saw millions dying). She also had something else previous rulers did not have to handle: foreign powers flexing their muscles as they scrambled for power in Asia, as they knocked on China’s doors and demanded she open them for trade.

After the tragic death of her son the emperor at a young age, Cixi adopted and appointed her young nephew, Guangxu, to the throne. She continued ruling until the boy turned into an adult, handing over the reins of power before settling into retirement at her Summer Palace. Although he sought out her advice often, Guangxu was not raised with the same iron fist as his adoptive mother. He was a reformist; compliant to the wishes of foreign powers – and attempted to launch reforms that Cixi saw were too abrupt for China to adopt within such a short time.

Hearing of a plot by Guangxu and his allies to assassinate her, she launched a coup and put him under house arrest instead. She tried to keep his part in the plot under wraps, as China was already under siege from all sides – they did not need their people to lose trust in their royalty. The situation was delicate, and Cixi, coming out of retirement, had to manoeuvre through a dangerous minefield of politics and power.

Ministers and nobles were divided on who to support, there was foreign pressure to allow more Westerners in to China, while xenophobic locals became increasingly unhappy. This broke out into the Boxer Rebellion, where members of the ultra-nationalist Boxers burned and pillaged homes, attacking foreign legations, killing Westerners and missionaries. It was made even worse as Cixi’s own anti-West sentiments at that time drove her to officially support the Boxers. The Allied forces now had a reason to enter the capital by force, which they did – resulting in Cixi and Guangxu fleeing Beijing, and later, to pay huge indemnities – a sure blow to an already bleeding Chinese treasury.

Later in her years, she attempted to redeem herself in the eyes of the world by inviting ladies from foreign legations into the Palace and making friends with them: a monumental step for Chinese royalty as nobody had ever breached such protocols (the Emperors have ruled for hundreds of years by ‘Heavenly mandate’ – making them representations of Heaven on earth) To ‘lower’ herself to the foreign ‘devils’ must have required tremendous effort and open-mindedness. She also started implementing many modern reforms; setting up schools and systems according to Western models, now that she saw how China could benefit from the white man.

On her deathbed, she was still worrying about the fate of the nation, lest it fell into the wrong hands. On the evening before her death, she poisoned Guangxu with arsenic, making sure China’s Qing Dynasty would not fall into the wrong hands. (She would have turned in her grave to know that it fell anyway, in the next few years.)

I was moved by the story of this remarkable woman. Granted, she was no saint: she has had her share of political killings and disastrous decisions (supporting the Boxer rebellion, for example). People were murdered on her account, such as Guangxu’s favourite concubine Pearl, who was thrown down a well. She was ruthless and swift, ordering executions (sometimes of the innocent) as examples to others and staging a coup against powerful men, risking death. China was already crumbling by the time she came into power, but at least, with some of her reforms and policies, the inevitable was delayed… for some time. For a few brief years, it even brought in modernisation to the country.

But most of all, I felt sorry for her. The weight of the world is heavy on those who take on such burdens, and she did so at great personal cost. An Dehai, her servant, was killed because men of power hated her and knew that she had fallen in love with the young, ill-fated eunuch. She has had to watch her own son die from disease after securing the throne for him, survived an assassination attempt by her adopted son, and then gave the orders to poison him. Watching a dynasty she worked so hard to build crumble at the hands of foreign powers and incompetent leaders must have struck a blow in Cixi’s heart.

It was a breath of fresh air to read Jung Chang’s version of Cixi, as the public has often only read of her as a greedy, power-hungry consort who would do anything to stay on top (eg, in works of semi-fiction like Empress Orchid by Ancheemin). Even so, I felt that Jung’s ‘research’ was too subjective and emotional to be deemed a serious autobiography, and had a very romanticised view of the Empress Dowager. Cixi is portrayed as a kind and benevolent leader: murders are done because they were ‘necessary’ and simply brushed off as a casualty of war and politics, or ‘softened’ by implying that Cixi felt regret for some of her actions. Jung peppered facts with rationalisations of Cixi’s behaviour, even corruption.

Whatever the case, it was a fascinating read and a fresh look at the story of a woman who ruled one of the greatest dynasties of all time for over 47 years, from behind a silk screen.

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