02 May 2020
Book review: Cixi (2013) by Jung Chang, ***
In this groundbreaking biography, Jung Chang vividly describes how Empress Dowager Cixi - the most important woman in Chinese history - brought a medieval empire into the modern age. Under her, the ancient country attained virtually all the attributes of a modern state and it was she who abolished gruesome punishments like 'death by a thousand cuts' and put an end to foot-binding. Jung Chang comprehensively overturns the conventional view of Cixi as a diehard conservative and cruel despot and also takes the reader into the depths of her splendid Summer Palace and the harem of Beijing's Forbidden City, where she lived surrounded by eunuchs - with one of whom she fell in love, with tragic consequences.
Packed with drama, fast-paced and gripping, it is both a panoramic depiction of the birth of modern China and an intimate portrait of a woman: as the concubine to a monarch, as the absolute ruler of a third of the world's population, and as a unique stateswoman. (inside flap of the book)
Lots of information here, as usual for Chang. She digs deeper than anyone in Chinese sources and is very meticulous in her writing. One learns not only about Cixi but also about much of the troubled history that surrounded her long reign. Often the reader is led by the hand through the lives of the many characters depicted, and one has the impression of living in the Forbidden City or the Summer Palace. A real light on the life of late imperial China.
The major problem of the book is that the author is in love with her protagonist. This produces a hagiography rather than a biography. Cixi is praised for much, too much, and hardly ever criticized. When she is criticized, then immediately follows an excuse for her mistakes (of which there were many) or her shortsightedness.
Cixi did a lot of good, but also a lot of evil, and only the former is described in this book. Perhaps this is because Chang seems to be in love with female figures of Chinese history. Her Wild Swans remains my favorite and I am looking forward to reading her new book on the Soong sisters, hoping that it will be more impartial than this one.
Have a look at my list of books on China reviewed in this blog.