Saturday, 22 February 2014

seven.

Empress Dowager Cixi by Jung Chang (2013)
The Concubine Who Launched Modern China

Empress Dowager Cixi, born in 1835, ruled China until her death in 1908. She was the one who modernised China, and fought wars against Japan and the great European powers. But as Cixi was just the Empress Dowager she had to rule behind the curtain and make sure that the Emperor was under her thumb.

Because she was just a concubine, and not married to the Emperor, she was not entitled to any power. But the Empress had not given birth to any sons, something which Cixi managed to do. When the Emperor died, her son, Tongzhi, was made the Emperor and Cixi, along with the Empress, were upgraded to Empress Dowagers. As Tongzhi was only 5, the Empress Dowgers were in charge. They also staged a coup which resulted in the removal of the Emperor's advisors and the insertion of Cixi's trusted men.

Her son became the ruler when he was married. Cixi stayed away from politics, but she didn't agree with her son's decisions. Tongzhi died in 1875, and because he had no sons, a boy was chosen and adopted by the Dowager Empresses to become the new Emperor. When Ci'an died in 1881, Cixi became the sole ruler until the boy, Guangxu, was old enough to rule himself.

In this period, Cixi had a lot of enemies. The most famous one was Wild Fox Kang who tried to murder Cixi several times. He didn't succeed and Cixi found out about it. She believed that the Emperor himself was in on it, and successfully put him in house arrest so she again became the ruler, and this time she was in power until her death. This period was marked by the Boxer rebellion and the following war with the European powers. And after the war, China needed to reform in order to survive.

Although the book gives a detailed account of the life of Cixi, I never felt that I got to know her. I found her boring, and I also felt that Jung Chang spent a lot of time defending her. It also gives a detailed account of China at that time, and I definitely learnt a lot about Chinese history.  I became more fascinated by Wild Fox Kang, and I'm glad that Jung Chang wrote so much about him as well. The collection of pictures in the end was also very fascinating.

I'm going to read Wild Swans later this year, and Mao is also going to be read sooner or later, probably as a part of Ingalill's superb biographies reading circle which this book was a part of.


2 comments:

  1. Kudoz for keeping tracks of the politics.
    I agree with the Chang being her defender, and sometimes I wish she would have been more subtle about it. I find it hard to believe the whole Cixi-good, everybody else-bad scenario we are sometimes given. About getting to know Cixi, I would guess that nobody really knew her, except the courtspeople, but at least we know that she had beautiful hands - (even though those long nails give me the creeps -).

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    1. And she hated wearing yellow, even if that was what the Empress had to wear.

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