Empress Dowager Cixi: The Concubine Who Launched Modern China

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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 ...

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Empress Dowager Cixi

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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.

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Editorial Reviews

From Barnes & Noble

The future Empress Dowager Cixi (1835-1908) was only twelve when the Emperor Xiangeng chose her to become a Chinese imperial concubine. From that somewhat remote harem position, she rose in the Emperor's favor and in 1856 gave birth to his only surviving heir. After her mate's death in 1861, she schemed successfully to become his successor's regent, launching what was to become an effective forty-year reign over a country that she mainly knew from the inside of her palace. This new biography by June Chang (Wild Swans; Mao: The Untold Story) reveals the Empress Dowager as a surprisingly enlightened leader who, against formidable odds, moved China towards the twentieth century.

The New York Times Book Review - Orville Schell
In her absorbing new book, [Chang] laments that Cixi has for so long been "deemed either tyrannical and vicious, or hopelessly incompetent—or both." Far from depicting her subject as a sinister conservative who obstructed reforms, Chang portrays Cixi as smart, patriotic and open-minded. In her view, the empress was a proto-feminist who, despite the narrow-minded, misogynistic male elite that made up the imperial bureaucracy, "brought medieval China into the modern age"…While Chang's admiration can approach hagiography, her extensive use of new Chinese sources makes a strong case for a reappraisal…[Cixi's] story is both important and evocative.
Publishers Weekly
Her original first name was considered too inconsequential to enter in the court registry, yet she became the most powerful woman in 19th-century China. Born in 1835 to a prominent Manchu family, Cixi was chosen in 1852 by the young Chinese Emperor Xianfeng as one of his concubines. Literate, politically aware, and graceful rather than beautiful, Cixi was not Xianfeng's favorite, but she delivered his firstborn son in 1856. When the emperor died in 1861, he bequeathed his title to this son, with regents to oversee his reign. Cixi did not trust these men to competently rule China, so she conspired with Empress Zhen, her close friend and the deceased emperor's first wife, to orchestrate a coup. Memoirist Chang (Wild Swans) melds her deep knowledge of Chinese history with deft storytelling to unravel the empress dowager's behind-the-throne efforts to "Make China Strong" by developing international trade, building railroads and utilities, expanding education, and constructing a modern military. Cixi's actions and methods were at times controversial, and in 1898 she thwarted an assassination attempt sanctioned by Emperor Guangxu, her adopted son. Cixi's power only increased after this, and she finally exacted revenge on Guangxu just before her death in 1908. Illus. (Nov.)
Library Journal
First a Red Guard, then the recipient of a doctoral degree in linguistics from England's Bristol University, then the hugely best-selling author of Wild Swans and Mao, Chang has a remarkable life story. Her subject here is even more remarkable. Made a concubine at age 12, Cixi gave birth to Emperor Xianfeng's only male heir and had herself appointed regent when he succeeded to the throne as a four-year-old in 1861. When he died, she had a young nephew appointed emperor and continued what many consider an enlightened reign until her death in 1908.
Kirkus Reviews
An impassioned defense of the daughter of a government employee who finagled her way to becoming the long-reigning empress dowager, feminist and reformer. Chang (Wild Swans: The Daughters of China, 1991) strongly argues for a fresh look at this much-maligned monarch, who presided over China at a challenging period, when it was on the cusp of modernization and foreign invasion. Chosen as one of several concubines for the teenage Emperor Xianfeng in 1852, 16-year-old Cixi possessed more poise than beauty and was used to asserting her will in her own family; her star rose when she gave birth to the emperor's first son. A shrewd observer of the failed policy of trying to block Western influence in China, Cixi believed shutting out the enemy only brought catastrophe for the empire. After engineering the coup in 1861 that defeated the regents, effectively installing the two dowager empresses to power, Cixi ushered in a new era in the expansion of foreign trade centered in Shanghai and the buildup of a modern navy and arms industry. She welcomed foreigners and sent emissaries to tour Europe to report back on the outside world for the first time. The short-lived reign of her son Tongzhi, who died in 1875, meant that she continued on the throne, installing her sister's son, Guangxu, as her adopted son, so that her popular modernization policy continued--e.g., the beginning of coal mining and the installation of electricity. The coming-of-age of Emperor Guangxu meant the retirement of Cixi and a heap of foreign humiliation on the country, starting with the war with Japan. Yet this tenacious empress rebounded from an assassination plot and exile to implement a series of remarkable reforms in the six years before her death in 1908. In an entertaining biography, the empress finally has her day.
From the Publisher
**A Barnes & Noble Best New Nonfiction Book of 2013**
**A New York Times Notable Book of 2013**

“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

“The author of “Wild Swans” sets out to rehabilitate the reputation of a woman who, she argues, helped modernize China….While Chang acknowledges Cixi’s missteps—such as allowing the Boxers to fight against a Western invasion, which led to widespread slaughter—she sees her as a woman whose energy, farsightedness, and ruthless pragmatism transformed a country.” —The New Yorker

“A largely new—and to me, mostly convincing—interpretation. Chang makes a unique claim for Cixi, summed up in her subtitle: “The Concubine Who Launched Modern China.”…Jung Chang has written a pathbreaking and generally persuasive book.” —Jonathan Mirsky, The New York Review of Books
“[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

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Product Details

  • ISBN-13: 9780307271600
  • Publisher: Knopf Doubleday Publishing Group
  • Publication date: 10/29/2013
  • Pages: 464
  • Sales rank: 18,176
  • Product dimensions: 6.60 (w) x 9.46 (h) x 1.58 (d)

Meet the Author

Jung Chang is the best-selling author of Wild Swans, which The Asian Wall Street Journal called the most widely read book about China, and Mao: The Unknown Story (with Jon Halliday), which was described by Time as “an atom bomb of a book.” Her books have been translated into more than forty languages and sold more than fifteen million copies outside mainland China, where they are both banned. She was born in China in 1952 and moved to Britain in 1978. She lives in London.

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Read an Excerpt

Chapter One, Concubine to an Emperor (1835--56)

In spring 1852, in one of the periodic nationwide selections for imperial consorts, a sixteen-year-old girl caught the eye of the emperor and was chosen as a concubine. A Chinese emperor was entitled to one empress and as many concubines as he pleased. In the court registry she was entered simply as 'the woman of the Nala family', with no name of her own. Female names were deemed too insignificant to be recorded. In fewer than ten years, however, this girl, whose name may have been lost for ever,* had fought her way to become the ruler of China, and for decades -- until her death in 1908 -- would hold in her hands the fate of nearly one- third of the world's population. She was the Empress Dowager Cixi (also spelt Tzu Hsi). This was her honorific name and means 'kindly and joyous'.

She came from one of the oldest and most illustrious Manchu families. The Manchus were a people who originally lived in Manchuria, beyond the Great Wall to the northeast. In 1644, the Ming dynasty in China was overthrown by a peasant rebellion, and the last Ming emperor hanged himself from a tree in the back garden of his palace. The Manchus seized the opportunity to smash across the Great Wall. They defeated the peasant rebels, occupied the whole of China and set up a new dynasty called the Great Qing -- 'Great Purity'. Taking over the Ming capital, Beijing, as their own, the victorious Manchus went on to build an empire three times the size of the Ming empire, at its peak occupying a territory of 13 million square kilometres -- compared to 9.6 million today.

The Manchu conquerors, outnumbered by the indigenous Chinese, the Han, by approximately 100:1, imposed their domination initially by brutal means. They forced the Han males to wear the Manchu men's hairstyle as the most visible badge of submission. The Han men traditionally grew their hair long and put it up in a bun, but the Manchu men shaved off an outer ring of hairs, leaving the centre part to grow and plaiting it into a trailing queue. Anyone who refused to wear the queue was summarily beheaded. In the capital, the conquerors pushed the Han out of the Inner City, to the Outer City, and separated the two ethnic groups by walls and gates.* The repression lessened over the years, and the Han generally came to live a life no worse than that of the Manchus. The ethnic animosity diminished -- even though top jobs remained in the hands of the Manchus. Intermarriage was prohibited, which in a family-oriented society meant there was little social intercourse between the two groups. And yet the Manchus adopted much of the Han culture and political system, and their empire's administration, extending to all corners of the country like a colossal octopus, was overwhelmingly manned by Han officials, who were selected from the literati by the traditional Imperial Examinations that focused on Confucian classics. Indeed, Manchu emperors themselves were educated in the Confucian way, and some became greater Confucian scholars than the best of the Han. Thus the Manchus regarded themselves as Chinese, and referred to their empire as the 'Chinese' empire, or 'China', as well as the 'Qing'.

The ruling family, the Aisin-Gioros, produced a succession of able and hard-working emperors, who were absolute monarchs and made all important decisions personally. There was not even a Prime Minister, but only an office of assistants, the Grand Council. The emperors would rise at the crack of dawn to read reports, hold meetings, receive officials and issue decrees. The reports from all over China were dealt with as soon as they arrived, and rarely was any business left undone for...

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Customer Reviews

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Sort by: Showing all of 10 Customer Reviews
  • Anonymous

    Posted December 9, 2013

    Excellent inside the Qing Dynasty

    Indepth characters, times & geo-politics...

    3 out of 4 people found this review helpful.

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  • Posted February 5, 2014

    Terrific read - insightful and heartrending.

    Jung Chang beautifully blends East/West perspectives so that the reader evolves with the Empress Dowager in thought, culture and history. I found myself experiencing a full range of emotions from initial distrust, dislike,and confusion over Cixi's motives and manipulations to a true understanding and admiration of her choices and decisions for her country and its people. There is an even-handedness on the author's part in handling both Cixi's innovations as well as her mistakes. One never feels sorry for Cixi because she has so many dimensions and such genuine instincts when it comes to judging people and setting a course for China. I would have loved to have met her, even if it meant to be on my knees.

    1 out of 1 people found this review helpful.

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  • Posted January 3, 2014

    more from this reviewer

    After reading Jung's "Wild Swans, I was looking forward to

    After reading Jung's "Wild Swans, I was looking forward to reading another one of the authors books.  This is the first book I have read about Empress Cixi that puts her in a positive light,  Jung has uncovered facts that were up to know unknown.  Her research has added much information about this foreign dynasty has ruled China for so many years.  Highly recommended.

    1 out of 1 people found this review helpful.

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  • Anonymous

    Posted January 29, 2014

    Cixi The Empress Dowager

    Excellent! It's very hard for me to keep reading just one book because i usually get restless reading the same book, so usually i end up reading three books all at once; however, not the case with this book, i couldn't put it down!! the author is an excellent writer, he did a thorough research. The story of the empress is amazing, never a dull moment! She lived her life fully! I want to read more of his books, I'm hooked! I highly recommend the author and this book.

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  • Anonymous

    Posted January 10, 2014

    interesting pictures

    the book seemed to move rather slowly--didn't make it all the way through--too many other books that are more interesting to read.

    0 out of 1 people found this review helpful.

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