In this ground-breaking biography, Jung Chang vividly describes how Empress Dowager 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Based on newly available, mostly Chinese, historical documents such as court records, official and private correspondence, diaries and eye-witness accounts, this biography will revolutionise historical thinking about a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.
Reviews of Empress Dowager Cixi: The Concubine Who Launched Modern China
“Empress Dowager Cixi by Jung Chang is easily the best I read in 2019. The Empress Dowager is possibly the most remarkable woman ever to have ruled a great nation – China for the entire late 19th century in an age where women could not be seen, let alone rule, in most of the Forbidden City. Cixi, a concubine, manipulated and cajoled herself to be one of the most powerful rulers China has ever known. Her reign is vital to understanding Mao and modern China, the great conundrum of the 21st century. Jung Chang, the revelatory biographer of Mao, does another X-ray job here.” Andrew Adonis, The New European
“If there is one woman who mattered in the history of modern China, it is the empress dowager Cixi… [Her] conventional image is queried in this detailed and beautifully narrated biography, which at long last restores the empress dowager to her rightful place. Chang’s book relies heavily on the vast holdings in the imperial archives in Beijing… She has a wonderful eye for the telling detail and excels at unraveling palace intrigues and corridor politics…”
Frank Dikotter, Sunday Times
“In this vivid biography, as colourful and intricate as the embroidery on a Chinese robe, [Jung Chang] uses new evidence and meticulous research to cast a spotlight on the amazing woman she regards as the mother of modern China…This is a rich, dramatic story of rebellions, battles, plotting, rivalry, foreign invasion, punishment and forbidden love.”
Bel Mooney, The Daily Mail
“Jung Chang tells a story and what a colourful tale it is… This is history at its most readable.”
George Walden Evening Standard
“Chang has a proven Midas touch… Empress Dowager, by returning to female experience in the style of Wild Swans yet focusing, like Mao, on a controversial ruler, should appeal to fans of both.”
Jeffrey Wasserstrom, Financial Times
“A truly authoritative account of Cixi’s rule. Her story is both important and evocative.”
Orville Schell, New York Times
“Filled with new revelations, it’s a gripping and surprising story of an extraordinary woman in power. Using Chinese sources, totally untapped by western books, this reappraises one of the great monstresses of modern history… Jung Chang’s revisionism means that this book reveals a new and different woman: ambitious, sometimes murderous, but pragmatic and unique. All of this adds up to make Empress Dowager Cixi a powerful read.”
Simon Sebag Montefiore , BBC History Magazine