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.