Book Reviews

Empress Dowager Cixi: The Concubine Who Launched Modern China by Jung Chang

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List Price: £6.99


Kindle Edition: 528 Pages.

Published: 26 September 2013 by Vintage Digital



In this groundbreaking biography, Jung Chang vividly describes how Empress Dowager Cixi – the most important woman in Chinese history – brought a medieval empire into the modern age. Under her, the ancient country attained virtually all the attributes of a modern state and it was she who abolished gruesome punishments like ‘death by a thousand cuts’ and put an end to foot-binding. Jung Chang comprehensively overturns the conventional view of Cixi as a diehard conservative and cruel despot andalso 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.


5.0 Stars5.0 Stars5.0 Stars5.0 Stars5.0 Stars  by Anne

Very readable

The Empress Dowager Cixi lived at the end of nineteenth century and the turn of the twentieth. She was the concubine of one emperor and the mother of the next after seizing power. With two interruptions she ruled China for the rest of her life but always in the name of male emperor at the time and often from behind a screen so that she never saw the officials who enacted her decisions. She was an absolute ruler who recognised that China's isolation had made it very backward but who then had to struggle to modernise against the weight of inflexible tradition.

I knew very little about China at this time (or at any time) and I felt that the author aimed this book very successfully at the general and rather ignorant Western reader. She is very clear in her explanations and repeats information when necessary. She concentrated on the personalities rather than the strategy and the details so that it made for an interesting and understandable read. To understand the period in detail and the implications of what the empress did and didn't do you would need to do some additional reading around the events but for a general understanding this book is excellent.

Although I thought that the writing style made the content very accessible I do have to say that I found that the author had an obvious affection for this woman who was, despite everything good that she does, a bit of a monster. The book is clear about the murders she ordered and the beatings and torture that were very much a part of court life. It is true that these things were expected and that they were necessary for her to keep power but the woman was a tyrant who overthrew the rightful emperor and used any method possible to maintain her position - this is evident from the content of this book but the author never makes it explicit.

I really enjoyed this history/biography and found that I was devouring it like a novel - some of this was because I genuinely didn't know what would happen next, unlike most European histories that I read. It is great to have such an easy way to learn about a new culture and its history. I recommend this book to all who enjoy history whether or not they know anything about China.

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