Posted by: biblioglobal | July 8, 2014

China: Empress Dowager Cixi (Book-From-Every-Country #56)

Dowager Empress Cixi

Apparently the bowls of apples were kept in the court for fragrance.

Here’s another example of the parochialism of an American education.* I’d never even heard of this amazing woman who went from being a low-ranked concubine to the de facto ruler of China for the better part of 40 years at about the same time Queen Victoria was ruling England.

Cixi had a bit of luck, in that she gave birth to the emperor’s only surviving son, but from there she took things into her own hands. She somehow managed to push aside the group of regents who the late emperor had assigned to rule and take charge herself, together with the late emperor’s wife.

Then, when her son died, Cixi adopted a new young son and declared him emperor (again with herself as regent). Her choice of adoptive son shows just how clever she was at the game of court politics. She chose the son of her chief enemy, Prince Gong. Sure, that was quite an honor for him, but it also meant that due to the rules about conflict of interest in the court, as the Emperor’s biological father Prince Gong had to resign from all of his official positions, including as leader of the Forbidden City palace guards.

Without a doubt Cixi is an impressive character. Whether she is admirable, however, seems to be a matter of much debate.  Jung Chang is out to disprove all the negative portrayals of Cixi, describing her as a reformer who introduced a modern education system, banned foot-binding, and was working towards implementing representative government. (Chang doesn’t dispute though that Cixi embezzled money from the navy to build herself a palace and had her adopted son murdered while on her deathbed.) I was confused then when Chang stated that Cixi is generally seen as being anti-reform. That was diametrically opposed to everything Chang had said about Cixi through the whole book.  I’m left not really knowing what to believe. It does seem that Cixi may have been unfairly villified, but at the same time I felt like I was only getting part of the story.

Besides Cixi herself, one thing that I found very interesting about this book is that it tells the history of China (unlike so much of the rest of the world) not being colonized. The relationship between China and the West was quite complicated, with China opening up and engaging with Western countries, sending diplomats and embracing Western technology and institutions, and at the same time, being under threat by the Western countries and Japan which kept demanding control over more and more ports and other territory.

I think the book’s shortcomings are the result of Jung Chang trying to write a book that is simultaneously a popular account of Cixi’s life and a history text arguing for a new interpretation of Cixi. One one hand, although the book is very well written and enjoyable to read, there are some times where it starts to drag on a bit, I think because it is also trying to be a serious historical text. On the other hand, presumably in order to keep the book as readable as possible, there isn’t really enough documentation in the book of sources to support the claims that are being made. Rather than comparing the evidence on either side, Chang just draws conclusions and even the references in the endnotes are pretty sparse for many of her claims.

Trying to write a book that is both popular and scholarly at the same time is a challenge. There are some scientific books, such as Richard Dawkins’ The Selfish Gene, that have successfully both appealed to a general audience and been cited in scientific literature. I haven’t read that much history (in fact this is the first history I’ve read for the book-from-every-country project!), so I don’t know if there are examples of this being done well in the field of history. I’d be interested to hear if anyone has any examples.

I’m certainly glad that I read this book and I would encourage anyone who is interested in learning more about the fascinating Empress Dowager Cixi to read it despite its flaws. Even though I’m left not knowing quite what to to think about Cixi, I wouldn’t have known anything about her at all, but for this book.

If the flaws do deter you from reading this book though, don’t let them deter you from reading Chang’s earlier memoir/family history, Wild Swans. It’s amazing and is the reason I wanted to read Dowager Empress Cixi in the first place.

* Seriously, here’s my middle and high school social studies curriculum: 7th grade-U.S. history, 8th grade- State history and U.S. government, 9th grade- World history (all of it), 10th grade- U.S. history again, 12th grade- U.S. government again. 



  1. I feel like I’ve heard of her previously, but most definitely NOT in school.

    • Maybe it is just as well since it seems we would have heard only negative things about her if we had learned about her in school!

      • That is very true!

  2. Yep – I haven’t heard anything about her at all, and the Indian education system, so far as the History textbooks are concerned, is a lot better than the one in the US. She sounds amazing, and to think this wasn’t the 21st century even! I will be adding this to my list!

    • That’s interesting that she didn’t get covered in India either. Since India and China share a border I might have expected more coverage of Chinese history there than in the U.S.

  3. I only started reading about her recently. The New York Times had a review of this book and then she showed up on some “Fascinating Historical Figures You Never Heard Of” list.

    My recollection of the NYT reviewer’s view is that the Dowager Empress was certainly the victim of character assassination after her death by her enemies and her accomplishments would have been harder to sweep away had she been a he, but that Chang wants to swing the pendulum too far the other way.

    (NYT Review:

    • I would certainly put Cixi near the top of any list of “Fascinating Historical Figures You Never Heard Of”!

      I read that NYT review and a bunch of other reviews by people who presumably know more about it than me. I think they all agreed that Cixi has been painted unfairly, but that Chang is overcompensating. They vary pretty widely though in just how much they think she is overcompensating.

      • As your big brother, my history education was nearly identical to yours … you just had a few more years of world history to cover in an hour a day for nine months.

        I tried to compensate for that by taking “History of East Asia” in college, but I realize that I don’t remember any specific details from it. The Empress Dowager may have been covered, but she didn’t stand out to me.

      • I bet if your class covered the Boxer Rebellion she at least got a mention. Apparently she fomented it. Oh, and I also learned that the original name of the “Boxers” was “The Society of the Righteous and Harmonious Fists”!

  4. Yeah, American history lessons are very… narrow. It’s always interesting to see how other countries teach world history, and to realize how huge the gaps are in certain areas.

    It seems like a curious attempt to plead a case, but like with a lot of “forgotten” histories or redemptions of characters who have been misrepresented over time, I think it’s too easy to go overboard. Seems like an interesting argument, perhaps less-than-perfectly executed. Also: I’d just like to argue that Dawkins’ The Selfish Gene is a, not exactly a huge scientific landmark/piece, and b, a terribly dry, boring book from a literary perspective… Dawkins may sell well, but I’d actually argue that a lot of other authors have done a much better job of melding academia and pop-lit than him. (Stephen Gould, in my opinion)

    • Thanks for your thoughtful comment. Also, I’m very much enjoying visiting your blog.

      Stephen Jay Gould would be another good example, particularly with Wonderful Life or Panda’s Thumb. I have to disagree with you about Dawkins though, I find him quite a compelling writer! I haven’t gotten into Gould as much, but I know I need to read more of his work.

  5. I do feel like I’ve heard of her, but definitely not in school. Like you, I had one year of world history in high school and honestly I barely remember even talking about China (or India for that matter)…which is really sad. Despite its flaws, this book still sounds really interesting. However, I think I will read Wild Swans first. Thanks for the recommendation 🙂

    • Yeah, I remember covering China and India, but I don’t remember anything of what we learned! The only thing I remember is having to learn the tenets of Buddhism somewhere along the way.

      Cixi is certainly worth reading, but I think Wild Swans first is a good idea. It’s a chunkster, but it reads quickly.

  6. Your comments about the US education system could apply just as well to the British version. We did cover European history but India and Asia were closed books as it were. I’ve just bought this and was wondering whether it was up to the same high standard as Wild Swans – so now I know what to expect

    • My impression from reactions to this post, is that it was unfair of me to pick on the U.S. and that many education systems have the same problems. I would have expected the British system to do a bit better though, given the linkages via colonialism with so much of the world.

      I’ll be interested to hear what you think of Empress Dowager Cixi.

  7. […] Empress Dowager Cixi by Jung Chang (China)- There’s some controversy about whether Jung Chang takes her admiration of Cixi too […]

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