Book review: Empress Dowager Cixi by Jung Chang

Author Jung Chan. Picture: Phil Wilkinson
Author Jung Chan. Picture: Phil Wilkinson
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It was a biography by Jung Chang and her husband Jon Halliday that finally toppled Mao Zedong from his creaking pedestal.



Jonathan Cape, 464pp, £20

Now she has demolished another myth. The Empress Dowager of China, her new book shows, was not the scheming, vicious, reactionary she-monster of fond imagination but the force behind what she calls “the real revolution of modern China”.

Above all, Jung Chang tells a story – and what a colourful tale it is. Cixi’s selection for the harem of the emperor Xianfeng owed more to her character than her beauty, and the early death of her son and his equally dysfunctional successor to the throne left her as de facto ruler for almost 40 tumultuous and, for China, formative years. If the foot- and tradition-bound country (she did away with foot-binding, not Mao) progressed during that period, it wasn’t because of the calibre of its courtiers or political class. As a French diplomat was to comment, she was the only man among them.

Scarred by the Opium Wars (ignominious for the Chinese victims as well as for Britain), it was she who pushed for a modern Chinese army. She invited Westerners to train it and bought foreign warships off the shelf. Despite the ultra-conservatives in the Forbidden City and lack of qualified personnel – China’s first envoy to the West was an American – she was determined to make contact and learn from the country’s invaders. Her palace intrigues were unending but her methods restrained for the times (only one poisoning). Her schemes were well-intentioned: to keep modernisation going and to frustrate the territorial appetites of greedy foreigners, notably Japan, whose naval victory in 1895 was a shattering event. Five years later, it was German incursions that were to spark the popular resistance that lead to the Boxer uprising. (It was Kaiser Wilhelm II who had called a China-Japan union “the yellow peril”).

Back in the Forbidden City after fleeing the capital, she launched into a final round of reforms and achieved more in the early years of the century than ever before: the outlawing of torture – notably death by a thousand cuts, women’s education, Western medicine and a relatively open press. When she died in 1908, she left a project behind for a constitutional monarchy, including a partly elected parliament, but over a century later, China is not there yet. If she was capable of huge mistakes and ruthless acts, it was most often in defence of her country. Her backing for the savagely xenophobic Boxers, which she was to regret, had brought another wave of foreign intervention.

And it was to prevent her adopted son, the feeble young Emperor Guangxu, from handing the country over to Japanese influence after her death that during what was to be her own terminal illness, she had him poisoned. The arsenic in his remains was definitively established in 2008.

This is history at its most readable by an author with a point of view. “Looking back over the many horrific decades after Cixi’s demise, one cannot but admire this amazing stateswoman, flawed though she was,” writes Jung Chang. It certainly changed my perception. The author’s Mao biography is banned in China and it seems this will be banned too, which would not be clever. Among other things it is a hymn to Cixi’s passionate, enlightened patriotism at a time when the country was besieged by predatory colonial powers. And in Jung Chang’s portrait of this remarkable woman, the author reveals herself as very much a Chinese patriot too. That, after all, was why she showed herself so indignant at the sufferings – this time self-inflicted – that her country was to face under Mao, half a century after “the Old Buddha” died.