Empress Dowager Cixi
A New York Times Notable Book
Empress Dowager Cixi (1835–1908) is the most important woman in Chinese history. She ruled China for decades and brought a medieval empire into the modern age.
At the age of sixteen, in a nationwide selection for royal consorts, Cixi was chosen as one of the emperor’s numerous concubines. When he died in 1861, their five-year-old son succeeded to the throne. Cixi at once launched a palace coup against the regents appointed by her husband and made herself the real ruler of China—behind the throne, literally, with a silk screen separating her from her officials who were all male.
In this groundbreaking biography, Jung Chang vividly describes how Cixi fought against monumental obstacles to change China. Under her the ancient country attained virtually all the attributes of a modern state: industries, railways, electricity, the telegraph and an army and navy with up-to-date weaponry. It was she who abolished gruesome punishments like “death by a thousand cuts” and put an end to foot-binding. She inaugurated women’s liberation and embarked on the path to introduce parliamentary elections to China. Chang comprehensively overturns the conventional view of Cixi as a diehard conservative and cruel despot.
Cixi reigned during extraordinary times and had to deal with a host of major national crises: the Taiping and Boxer rebellions, wars with France and Japan—and an invasion by eight allied powers including Britain, Germany, Russia and the United States. Jung Chang not only records the Empress Dowager’s conduct of domestic and foreign affairs, but 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—one of whom she fell in love, with tragic consequences. The world Chang describes here, in fascinating detail, seems almost unbelievable in its extraordinary mixture of the very old and the very new.
Based on newly available, mostly Chinese, historical documents such as court records, official and private correspondence, diaries and eyewitness accounts, this biography will revolutionize historical thinking about a crucial period in China’s—and the world’s—history. 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.
From the Hardcover edition.
“A fascinating and instructive biography for anyone interested in how today’s China began.” —Library Journal (starred review)
“In [Chang’s] absorbing new book….her extensive use of new Chinese sources makes a strong case for reappraisal. Since none have made use of a full range of sources in both languages, there has been no truly authoritative account of Cixi’s rule. Her story is both important and evocative….What makes reading this new biography so provocative are the similarities between the challenges faced by the Qing court a century ago and those confronting the Chinese Communist Party today….there is much to learn here from the experiences of Empress Dowager Cixi.” —Orville Schell, The New York Times
“Jung Chang’s book dives into a genuinely fascinating figure: a fierce imperial consort who rules behind the thrones of two successive Chinese emperors and helped ease china into the twentieth century….a fantastic Machiavellian tale by the author of the definitive Mao biography.” —New York Magazine
“[Chang has] trained her sleuthing skills and piercing pen on the common concubine who rose to rule china, and what she’s uncovered is nothing short of imposing….as painstaking in detail as it is sweeping in scope….Chang’s new tome is certain to become the standard by which all future biographies of the Dowager Empress are measured.” —Katie Baker, The Daily Beast
“Empress Dowager Cixi: The Concubine Who Launched Modern China seems likely to garner plaudits not only from students of China but from anyone interested in world affairs and China's role therein....This is a rich and fascinating book that never relaxes its hold on the reader despite the marshalling of a mass of complex historical details seen through the prism of Cixi. One cannot help but feel there are still many more books waiting to be written about this fascinating period in Chinese history.” —Jane Haile, New York Journal of Books
“It was a biography by Jung Chang and her husband Jon Halliday that finally toppled Mao Zedong from his creaking pedestal. Now she has demolished another myth. The Empress Dowager of China…was not the scheming, vicious, reactionary she-monster of fond imagination but the force behind what she calls ‘the real revolution of Modern China’….what a colourful tale it is….This is history at its most readable by an author with a point of view.” —George Walden, London Evening Standard
“Cixi’s extraordinary story has all the elements of a good fairy tale: bizarre, sinister, triumphant and terrible.” —The Economist
“‘Although I have heard much about Queen Victoria,” her Chinese contemporary, the Empress Cixi once remarked, ‘I do not think her life is half as interesting and eventful as mine.’ It is a judgment that is hard to dispute….the tumultuous story of her reign remains astonishing.” —James Owen, Telegraph
“The times that Cixi dominated were critical to the shaping of modern China, a country that resembles the Qing autocracy in many ways, though without the empire’s relatively free press and anticipated suffrage. The top echelons of Chinese politics remain as male-dominated and vicious as ever, and Cixi remains as gripping a subject.” —Isabel Hilton, The Guardian
“When an author as thorough, gifted, and immersed in Chinese culture as Chang writes, both scholars and general readers take notice.” —Margaret Flanagan, Booklist
“An impassioned defense of the daughter of a government employee who finagled her way to becoming the long-reigning empress dowager, feminist, and reformer….In an entertaining biography, the empress finally has her day.” —Kirkus Reviews
From the Hardcover edition.