Empress Dowager Cixi: The Concubine Who Launched Modern China

by Jung Chang

Hardcover, 2013





Knopf (2013), Edition: First Edition, 464 pages


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 16, in a nationwide selection for royal consorts, Cixi was chosen as one of the emperor's numerous concubines and sexual partners. When he died in 1861, their 5-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 ground-breaking 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, 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. Jung Chang comprehensively overturns the conventional view of Cixi as a die-hard 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 the invasion by 8 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 - with one of whom she fell in love, with tragic consequences. The world Jung 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 Based on newly available, mostly Chinese, historical documents such as court records, official and private correspondence, diaries and eye-witness accounts, this biography will revolutionise historical thinking about a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.… (more)


(124 ratings; 4)

Media reviews

Chinese biography tends to render even its most colorful subjects in monochrome. Once the Communist Party has determined whether an individual worth writing about is hero or villain the biographer's task is to burnish or darken an image until its true outline is lost. Information that contradicts
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the chosen narrative is casually dismissed or simply omitted. There's no nuance, no debate, no shades of gray.

So there's particular excitement whenever fresh material on a key figure escapes China and obtains uncensored publication overseas, such as is promised by Chinese émigré Jung Chang's new biography "Empress Dowager Cixi: The Concubine Who Launched Modern China." New access is claimed to "court records, official and private correspondence, diaries and eye-witness accounts."

But despite 35 years in England, Ms. Chang has not thrown off the habits of the regime from which she fled. There's a courtroom-style approach to her biographies; once she chooses a position every possible fact or argument, however spurious, is marshalled in support of that side.
... During her lengthy unofficial reign, Cixi stands accused of usurping power, suppressing development and executing reformers who would have strengthened the empire against foreign encroachments. She is also supposed to have spent vital naval funds on the refurbishment of the Summer Palace and connived with the Boxer rebels to kill or drive out every foreigner in China. Ms. Chang's Cixi is largely a mirror image of this figure: a campaigner for women's rights, an ardent supporter of modernization, a friend to foreigners and a victim of unfounded accusations. But her account is thin on references to reliable primary sources. It frequently quotes clueless foreigners (notably the British attaché Algernon Freeman-Mitford ) when their remarks happen to suit, as well as works by Chinese historians prevented by politics from publishing frank and accurate accounts. Rumors that appeal are passed on uncritically, while those that do not are dismissed as "just a story." Professional historians are unlikely to take the book seriously, not least because we are frequently told what Cixi was thinking or feeling. And despite ample material, Ms. Chang doesn't possess the narrative skills to turn her story into a ripping yarn. The only suspense comes as the reader waits to discover how each of Cixi's crimes will be explained away.
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While Chang’s admiration can approach hagiography, her extensive use of new Chinese sources makes a strong case for a reappraisal.

User reviews

LibraryThing member hfglen
What a character! In 1852 the 16-year-old "woman of the Nala family" was selected as a sixth-class concubine for the Emperor of China. She had considerable intelligence and determination, which she used to rise to being Empress, and when the Emperor Xianfeng died, Dowager Empress. In this capacity
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she blindsided the Grand Council who acted as regents to the new child-emperor, and ran the country for 40 years, until her death in 1908. Whereupon the place erupted into chaos that it's still recovering from. In more detail, Ms Chang has used a mountain of archival material only recently released for study (in Beijing), and contemporary Western accounts, to paint a picture of Cixi totally at odds with the one we're used to. No, she wasn't a bloodthirsty dragon; she "only" compassed the demise of some two dozen people (even if one of them was her adoptive son), rather than the 70 million that Mao chalked up. No, she wasn't a narrow-minded traditionalist; half the book details the steps she took to thwart the mandarins and bring China into the 19th century (at all times having to hasten slowly because the person a French diplomat apostrophised as "the only [proper man in China" was the wrong sex to be listened to). The book is occasionally heavy but mostly the pages turn themselves easily; the overall effect is riveting. And the thesis chimes in well with the Cixi-ana on public display to this day in the Summer Palace. Item: she was given a car (I'm sure the guide said she bought it, which would seem to have been in character), but only when it was delivered did someone realize there was a protocol problem: everybody had to kneel (or, with her permission, stand) in the presence of the Empress Dowager, and neither position is exactly conducive to safe driving. So she never got to try it out, and today it is parked in a museum hall in the Summer Palace.

I see this is Ms Chang's third book, and the library has one of the others. I can't wait go grab it.
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LibraryThing member Opinionated
It is really impossible to review this book without access to the original sources (which I don't have) or the ability to read Chinese (which I don't have). This is clearly a revisionist biography, but whether the very positive reappraisal of Empress Dowager Cixi as a founder of modern China is
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based on a realistic or an optimistic view of the Empress is impossible to say. Its clear that Jung Chang wishes to show the Empress in the best possible light, and readers should be aware that this is close to a hagiography - but, as I say, that doesn't necessarily make it untrue. As a reader, you have to willingly suspend any disbelief that she may have been more despot than reformer, more xenophobe than xenophile, more tyrannical than kindly, as the constant flow of subjects to the execution grounds might suggest, and accept the author's word, and let her tell her story

And what a great story it is; Cixi rises from 6th rank concubine, to mother to the heir, to ruling "behind the screen" as joint regent, then the power behind the throne to the somewhat feckless Emperor. In all, close to 50 years in effective control. During this period, there are times of relative peace and harmony in the Empire; at other times the complete opposite, as China loses a disastrous war with Japan and the Boxer rebellion leads to an occupation of the Forbidden City by foreigners, and the Imperial Family has to go into internal exile

As such the tone of the book wobbles between relatively sober assessment of court life and administrative duties, and tele-novela style treason and plot. Still, its entertaining stuff, and for people such as myself, who only knew the basics of the end of the QIng Dynasty, its a good way to fill in the gaps and join the dots. Its well worth reading - but with a sceptical attitude
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LibraryThing member zeborah
I seem to be giving lots of books five stars recently, and I'm not going to stop until I read a book that isn't fantastic.

This had me from the first paragraph. Going from girl, to concubine, to mother of the heir, to mother of the emperor, to "Oh god if we women don't do something the men are going
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to screw everything up; I know, let's run a simple dodge on them that'll work because they think we're just women," to bam! (co-)ruler of a third of Earth's population for the majority of the next half a century.

And a damn good one too. The author is possibly overly sympathetic to her, but then most of history has been overly antagonistic to her, with a lot more ulterior motive. Reading the Wikipedia article after this book is a surreal experience. But it is hard to really credit a theory of Cixi that says with a straight face "Ironically, Cixi sponsored the implementation of a reform program more radical than the one proposed by the reformers she had beheaded in 1898" (really, 'ironically'? do they think she did this by accident? or that she was the world's first hipster?) and "Cixi may have known of her imminent death and may have worried that Guangxu would continue his reforms after her death" and generally fails to recognise that just possibly it wasn't his reforms that she was opposed to, actually?

Likewise, apparently some people think she didn't get on with the Empress Dowager Ci'an, but I see no way a co-ruling arrangement could last for twenty years omg in that environment if they didn't.

So, though I think the book could have been more critical of the mistakes Cixi did make, as a read I don't much care. It's a riveting story with a powerful character achieving amazing things against tremendous odds.
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LibraryThing member ursula
Revisionist history, ahoy!

Revisionism seems to be a bad word in history, but sometimes things really do need a second look. That time has come for Empress Dowager Cixi, who has had a reputation as a ruthless, xenophobic, power-hungry ruler. According to this version of her story, she was actually
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the force behind China's overtures to foreigners and its moves toward modernization, although others got the credit. Cixi rose to power through a coup carried out jointly by her and Empress Dowager Ci'an, stepping into the power vacuum created by the death of Emperor Xianfeng. Ci'an had been the official Empress, and Cixi was the mother of the only heir, Tongzhi.

Cixi was in power almost continuously for over 50 years, and they were tumultuous years indeed. Court intrigue and plots, deaths, power struggles, questions of how much to trust foreign powers, wars both internal and external, the coming of the modern world; Cixi dealt with all of them. Occasionally when I was reading, I'd want to look up some more information on something, so I'd search on the internet. Reading about her there was reading a completely different story. According to common theory, she had poisoned people, she had tried to keep China from changing along with the world, and she was basically everything that was wrong with China in her era. The book, on the other hand, showed her to be the force for change and insisted that there was no evidence that she poisoned anyone (well, with one exception).

I wondered how this completely different view could possibly be true, but apparently not a lot was available in English about Cixi, and there were many reasons to heap the blame for everything under the sun at her feet. History can always be told differently depending on the sources you choose to use or ignore, and this is a prime example. I thought that sometimes the author went a bit too far in declaring Cixi's innocence and pure motives, but I can understand the temptation to counterbalance Cixi's vilified reputation. All in all, it's a fascinating tale of a woman in power and a country in transition.
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LibraryThing member john257hopper
This is a well researched biography by the author better known for Wild Swans. Cixi was the most powerful woman in Chinese history effectively exercising executive power over the largest state in the world for most of the period between 1861, when her young son became Emperor Tongzhi, and 1908 when
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she died. The role of the concubine in the Chinese imperial hierarchy could be very powerful if she was the mother of the emperor, and she exercised power in the early years of this period with her husband's Empress, Zhen, a much weaker figure personally and politically, though apparently they got on well. Tongzhi assumed power for himself for just a couple of years before he died, possibly of syphilis, in 1875. The next Emperor was Cixi's adopted son (actually nephew) Guangxu, another boy over whom she could exert influence and rule herself (though there no real other candidates for the imperial role). She struggled to bring China into the modern age through bringing in trains, telegraphs and industry through more positive relations with foreign countries. There were several foreign invasions with nearly all the Western powers, plus Japan, invading and obtaining chunks of Chinese territory in the name of trade and economic expansion. So the difficult balance for Cixi was to learn from the west to bring China into the modern age, while patriotically fighting their imperial pretensions against Chinese territory. This contradiction was most clearly demonstrated in the nationalist Boxer uprising in 1900. After nearly being dethroned, she managed to draw on deep wells of support and come back to power, instituting what by Chinese standards, a fairly radical programme of reform, including abolishing footbinding and torture, a wider curriculum for mandarins beyond the Confucian classics and including travel abroad, promoting education for women, legal reform and even an outline for a form of parliamentary democracy, albeit still with imperial executive power ultimately still intact. Historians differ over the interpretation of these events, with the author challenging the traditional view that Guangxu was behind these reforms and Cixi conservatively opposing them. Jung Chang's interpretation seems more likely given the thrust of her life and policies over the decades of her rule and Chang considers that "Few of her achievements have been recognised and, when they are, the credit is invariably given to the men serving her. This is largely due to a basic handicap: that she was a woman and could only rule in the name of her sons – so her precise role has been little known." Cixi seems a fascinating and contradictory figure, a mixture of the Medieval and modern, a cautious reformer but with a capacity for ruthlessness that shocks on occasion.
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LibraryThing member sriram_shankar
This is an excellent book!

The story of the last days of the Qing empire is a very riveting one of human failings and of people trying to do the best they can, only to realize the best is not good enough.

The book brings out very beautifully the human side of the Celestial Emperor and the Empress
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Dowager. They may be 'mandated' by Heaven, but they were still only too human.
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LibraryThing member briandrewz
Fascinating insight into the life of the woman who changed China. The Empress Dowager Cixi seemingly dragged her country from the Middle Ages into modernity. Her under rule the painful practice of footbinding was outlawed, as was the torture and mistreatment of prisoners. Cixi established relations
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with foreign countries and innovative technology was introduced under her reign. This book is recommended reading for anyone interested in royalty, women's studies, or just a good biography.
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LibraryThing member podocyte
An interesting book about a very interesting historical figure. I wish the book contained more discussion about the widely felt negative view of Ci Xi in China today and the very positive view of Ci Xi presented by this book. Does the author have a bias as she presents the empress dowengeri in such
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a positive way?
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LibraryThing member artheart
Solely, if you are reading for pleasure, one would find Jung Chang’s book interesting. However, please do not take every sentence as written truth. The historical mistakes in this book are painful to read. Empress Dowager Cixi has not been portrayed in a balance way. Also, from a historical
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research perspective, there are more reliable resources available.
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LibraryThing member Zumbanista
A long and elaborately detailed story of China's last Empress, Cixi. Chronicling her rise from a concubine to the Emperor to her incredibly long rule as Dowager Empress. Cixi was a progressive ruler but always hampered by her gender. She was devious and ruthless too, resorting to murder in order
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the foster her plans. I believe the author attempts to revise history in this book, but If you take it at face value, it will reward you with a thorough education of China's political, social and international status during Cixi's lifetime. I had a little trouble keeping the many characters straight and the sheer length of the book wore me out at the end. Excellent photos appended and obviously a huge amount of research done. I will seek out more books about China's recent past.
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LibraryThing member jerhogan
Interesting take on Cixi who seems to have been a remarkable woman who made China what it is today.
LibraryThing member bjmitch
This is the biography of Empress Dowager Cixi, the woman who at the age of 12 became a concubine of Emperor Xianfeng which is a great honor even though she was initially only a low level member of his harem. Fortunately for her, she gave birth to the emperor's first son, and was therefore elevated
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to #2 concubine. She and #1 were both mothers to Cixi's son.

When the emperor died, Cixi and #1 managed a coup which made them regents over the four-year-old new emperor. The two women acted on Cixi's ability to keep her eye on the big picture as she instituted gradual reforms to pull the country out of abject poverty. Later her son died young and she got her sister's young son designated as the heir. Once again Cixi was the regent, keeping China on a steady course toward power, respectability, and prosperity.

Unfortunately that nephew undid much of the good Cixi had accomplished and he mismanaged relations with Japan so badly that the country was once again plunged into dire poverty. Only when he admitted Cixi into negotiations and political dealings did things improve.

Cixi was virtually a prisoner in the emperor's harem most of her life and yet was able to maneuver the men in power to her way of thinking. When they listened to her, China prospered, when they didn't, the country failed. She died in 1908.

The author was born in China, coming to Great Britain in 1978. This is a work based on scholarly research and the book will have footnotes, bibliography, photographs, and an index. However, it is accessible to the general reader. I didn't know anything about her, so I learned not only her story but quite a bit I had forgotten or didn't know about Chinese history. I come away from my reading with a great admiration for Cixi and for the journey China traveled from a closed country to the power it is today.

Highly recommended especially for women's history
Source: Amazon Vine
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LibraryThing member Annabel1954
700 plus pages of dense Chinese History 1835-1908 where Cixi took power and control through her family and greater China. A powerful accurate historical insight
LibraryThing member yooperprof
I learned an incredible amount of Chinese History reading this fascinating and well-written biography.

Cixi was one of the Chinese Emperor Xianfeng's favored concubines when she gave birth to his only surviving son in 1856. This gave her increased prominence at his court and made it possible for her
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to obtain the powerful position of Dowager Empress upon Xianfeng's death in 1861.

For the next half century - until her death in 1908 - Cixi was at the center of dynastic, internal, and imperial politics in China. She seems to have played a central role in an attempt to modernize the Chinese economy, but she also made severe miscalculations resulting in war and occupation by foreign powers at the time of the Boxer Rebellion of 1900.

I don't know enough about China and its history to comment critically on most of the arguments advanced by Jung Chang in her book. But the central thesis is certainly plausible: that the character and accomplishments of the Dowager Empress have been consistently minimized, maligned, and slighted by generations of historians and political leaders because of her gender.
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LibraryThing member mimal
bookshelves: autumn-2013, china, biography, history, nonfiction, published-2013
Recommended to Bettie by: Laura
Read on September 28, 2013

BBC BLURB: Jung-Chang's ground-breaking biography reassesses the reputation of this formidable 19th century stateswoman who single-handedly dragged China into
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modernity. Based on newly available documents, this biography comprehensively overturns the conventional view of the Dowager Empress as a deeply conservative and cruel despot.

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, 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.
A fast-paced and gripping story which takes us inside the mind of a brilliant political strategist.

Read by Pik-Sen Lim
Abridged by Sara Davies
Produced by Gemma Jenkins.

Airbrushed into diplomatic terms, this did not engage me. How could anyone have made this history such bland fayre.

5* Wild Swans
2* (2.5) Empress Dowager Cixi
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LibraryThing member busterrll
Enjoyable read - except in latter chapters where the author turns apologetically feminist.
Additionally, the last Chapter had me wondering if the author had access to "alternative" facts.
Unfortunately, my personal knowledge is sufficiently weak that I need to do more homework before I complain..
LibraryThing member tronella
Interesting and very readable, even though I knew basically nothing about this period of history beforehand. The author often mentioned that most historians disagreed with her on any point, which made me think that her views are probably somewhat exaggerated too. Still, I feel like I learned a lot.
LibraryThing member MontzaleeW
Empress Dowager Cixi: The Concubine Who Launched Modern China by Jung Chang reads so smoothly like a novel but is strictly historical. I haven't read a history book so well done in a long time. Well done that keeps to the facts, not adding speculation, but adding what the what the
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surroundings/clothing/jewelry/etc would look like. So well done I felt like I knew the society of the times, dress, politics, dress, etc. Very different culture but interesting. I got this from the library and it was the audio book.
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LibraryThing member bookbrig
This book is SO GOOD. (The audio was also great.) I feel like I actually got to know the empress intimately, as well as getting a sweeping look at Chinese history and its role in the geopolitical landscape. I found the ways she had to work within the dynastic system fascinating, and I can't imagine
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the intelligence and unwavering will she had to have to get things done and see them through. I looooooved this.
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LibraryThing member Scapegoats
This is a terrible history book. It isn't bad for historical fiction, but should never be used as a basis for understanding the Empress Dowager Cixi or the late Qing Empire. The author takes a great subject and distorts it beyond recognition, somehow claiming that Cixi was a benevolent reformer. To
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sum up the main points, Cixi did everything she could to save China. When she made mistakes, they were understandable, but she didn't make many.

There are two big problems with this book. The first is that the author seems to think she knows Cixi's mind. It is fine to look at someone's actions and speculate on what they might be thinking, but she repeatedly makes claims about Cixi's thought process that are simply not born out by the evidence. She has decided that Cixi's every thought and move was for the benefit of the empire.

This leads to the second problem. She tries to rewrite history to make Cixi into a tragically misunderstood figure. That might be a worthy endeavor, because Cixi's historical reputation is probably overly harsh. But the author does it in a way that is more like historical fiction than history. Here are a few examples:

1) Cixi apparently built up the Chinese army so it could defend the country, but Emperor Guangxu undid that in only a few years, leading up to the Sino-Japanese War. In fact, had Cixi been in charge at the time, China was won the war. Even if it lost, she never would have agreed to the Treaty of Shimonoseki. That is what really ruined China, not her decades of rule.
2) Cixi was also responsible for the reforms of Kang Youwei, even though she eventually reversed them.
3) Cixi led China into the modern era with the "real revolution" of the last eight years of her life. The author cites Cixi's progressive open-mindedness as the reason, without discussing the political expediencies involved. It was all about Cixi's vision, including picking an incredibly weak emperor, regent and empress-dowager to succeed her.

All in all, the author appears to have made up her mind about her subject and then twisted the facts to fit the picture she wanted to paint. If a student turned this in to me, I would applaud the effort of something so broad but give it an F for historical analysis.
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LibraryThing member AidClu06
Interesting autobiography on an otherwise quiet member of history. Seems to have been an important person.


James Tait Black Memorial Prize (Shortlist — Biography — 2013)


Original language


Original publication date


Physical description

464 p.; 9.56 inches


0307271609 / 9780307271600
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