Empress Dowager Cixi by Jung Chang – Review

CixiJung Chang  張戎

Jonathan Cape (2013), 436 pages

The Gutter Bookshop, Dublin, €17

Country: China China

I was lucky enough to get a signed copy of this book at the inaugural Dublin Festival of History in Dublin Castle.  Unfortunately I didn’t realise the festival was on until most of the events were over but I won’t make the same mistake next year.  The festival ran over two weeks with talks being held in Dublin libraries and in Dublin Castle.  Tickets were free for all events which was great, especially given the high quality of speakers.  Apart from Jung Chang there were also contributions by Simon Schama, Frederick Taylor, Katharine McMahon, Mark Little, Diarmaid Ferriter, Margaret MacCurtain and Tim Pat Coogan.

The Dublin Castle Printworks venue was refurbished for Ireland’s Presidency of EU earlier in the year.  The hall holds around 500 people and was mostly full.  Jung Chang was interviewed by Caitríona Crowe about her latest book.  The stage was a good height  and there were two large screens to broadcast pictures for those further back in the hall.  Chang was resplendent in an antique blue silk Chinese dress from the Qing Dynasty period.  She is clearly taken by the independence, intelligence, and politicking of Cixi and her biography is a sympathetic look at an extraordinary woman.  I wasn’t completely sure that I would buy the book before the talk, but 90 minutes later I was certain that I wanted a copy.

Cixi was one of Emperor Xianfeng’s many concubines but, in 1856, she had the good fortune to bear the Emperor’s first son.  Following Emperor Xianfeng’s death it was expected that a Board of Regents (all male) would rule until the young Emperor reached his majority.  However Cixi and Empress Zhen had other ideas; they launched a coup to secure power for themselves, “A coup was treason . . . But they were willing to take the risk.  Not only were they determined to save their son and the dynasty, but they also rejected the prescribed life of imperial widows – essentially living out their future lives as prisoners in the harem.” (p. 42)  The coup was a success but Cixi and Zhen faced many difficulties.

Cixi is carried by eunuchs to her regular morning audience

China was facing increasing pressure from the imperial powers to open up China to Western trade.  In one of imperialism’s most shameful episodes Britain, through the Opium War (1839-42) , forced China to allow the importation of opium from British India.  China’s defeat by Britain was a sign of its military weakness.   During Cixi’s reign there would also be pressure exerted by Russia, France,  the USA, Germany, Italy, and later, Japan.  If China was to stand any chance against these forces it needed to modernise its military but also society as a whole.  Less than 1% of the population was literate, the exams for state positions were antiquated (being largely based on Chinese classics), poverty was endemic with natural disasters and famines still major problems (if Britain, the richest country in the world, couldn’t prevent a million Irish dying within its borders in the 1840s, what chance did impoverished China have?).  Similar to Mikhail Gorbachev, Cixi wanted to modernise China without destroying the underlying system.  She wanted the Manchus, who represented less than 1% of the population, to continue to rule albeit in a modified form. One of Cixi’s great talents was to surround herself with, and listen to, advisors whose primary interest was the fate of China.  Unlike many rulers of China, including the current regime, Cixi was also willing to listen to constructive criticism.  One of her most prized advisors was an Ulsterman, Robert Hart.  Hart rooted out corruption in the Chinese Customs Office which increased the income to China and he provided advice on how to successfully modernise China.

Cixi sent envoys to the West to learn how best to improve China.  Cixi, understandably, retained a distrust of the foreign powers and her attitude to imperialism is perhaps best summed up by one of her envoys, Zhigang, “‘Westerners preach “love of God” and “love of man”, and they seem really to believe it.  And yet they wage wars with gunboats and cannons to conquer people by force, as well as imposing opium, a poison worse than plague, on the Chinese – all for profit. ‘ ‘It looks like the love of God is less real than the love of profit.'” (p.81)  Mutual cultural incomprehension could lead to misunderstandings and violence, especially where Christian missionaries were concerned.  In certain parts of China rumours spread that Christian missionaries kidnapped children or stole their organs.  As we’ve seen recently with fears of Roma taking children or reports of organ theft in Kosovo (a child I was sitting beside on a bus in Kosovo a few years ago assured me that children, especially homeless children, were abducted for their organs) these superstitions aren’t necessarily confined to the distant past.  Cixi successfully managed to walk the tightrope of not being seen to fawn to the West who wanted their missionaries to have free reign in China, and anti-Western forces in the country who sought to forment attacks on foreigners.

Memorial tower above Cixi’s tomb
Credit: Rolf Mueller

When Emperor Guangxu took power Cixi was forced into retirement.  Guangxu had little interest in continuing Cixi’s reforms and was suspicious of modernisation in general.  While Japan modernised its navy, China’s navy remained outdated but the Emperor did not receive this information.  His advisors were too afraid to give the disinterested Emperor’s the full picture.  Cixi’s openness had insured that she was never left in the dark.  China couldn’t compete with the Western powers but it should have tried to keep up with its increasingly belligerent neighbour.  Japan tried to provoke a war over Korea and Guangxu foolishly believed that China would defeat their far smaller neighbour.  China lost the ensuing conflict and the 1895 peace terms were crippling; China lost territory and was forced to pay a massive indemnity.  Chang argues that if Cixi had been in power that the navy would have been modernised and that Cixi wouldn’t have agreed to such crippling peace terms.  The Emperor’s failure allowed Cixi to return to power.

Cixi’s biggest mistake was her attempt to use the Boxers fight the foreign powers in 1900.  The Boxers were xenophobic, they disliked the apparent favouritism shown to Christians by the judiciary, and believed magical forces made them immune to bullets.  Riots in Shandong province resulted in German soldiers committing atrocities whilst attempting to quell the Boxers.  At first Cixi tried to suppress the Boxers too but, emboldened by successfully facing down Italian demands for territory, Cixi believed she could use the Boxers to finally restore Chinese sovereignty over all its territory.  However it soon became apparent that for all their ferocity the Boxers were an undisciplined fighting force.  China lost the war and Cixi was forced to agree terms.

Cixi managed to retain power and continue on her course of modernization.  Chang points out that previous histories of China have usually been critical of Cixi viewing her as against reform.  Chang convincingly argues that much of the bad press for Cixi was created by Wild Fox Kang and his allies.  Kang is portrayed as a power hungry backstabber who allied with Japan in the hope of making himself China’s ruler.  Chang argues that it is Kang’s unreliable depiction of Cixi that has resulted in previous inaccurate pictures being painted.  Chang has gone back to the original archives for her research in order to avoid using inaccurate secondhand sources.  Cixi managed to reform China’s economy, military, and education system.  She banned foot-binding and the most brutal forms of capital punishment.  She eventually introduced railways.  Under Cixi’s reign a relatively free press flourished and plans for the vote to be introduced by 1916 were set in motion.  Cixi’s death in 1908 and the subsequent march of Chinese history meant that the right to vote wouldn’t be introduced.


There was a question and answer session at the end of the talk and Jung Chang responded to a question which had crossed my mind, could any similarities be drawn between the final years of the Qing Dynasty and the current Chinese rulers?  Chang replied that she did indeed similarities between the two regimes.  If Cixi had lived it’s possible that a constitutional monarchy of some sort could have been retained and China’s path might have avoided the road to communism.

The question for the current Communist Party leadership is whether they are leading reforms or are merely responding to people’s demands for changes.  If the Communist Party cannot keep up with the demands of its population then it will either be forced out of power or else try to hold onto power by increasingly repressive measures.  Increasingly it’s the rural poor who are defying communist rule as they see the corruption of local leaders whilst healthcare,  education, and a clean environment are inaccessible.  It will be interesting to see if China’s next fifty years are as turbulent as those leading up to the collapse of the Qing Dynasty.



One thought on “Empress Dowager Cixi by Jung Chang – Review

  1. Pingback: Books of the Year 2013 | thedublinreader

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