Empress Dowager Cixi

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The Taipang and Boxer Rebellions, Sino-Japanese Wars and the Eight-Power Expedition – these are only a smidgen of the immense obstacles Cixi fought against during her rule. Her reign was one where she never truly had full power in her own right, but it did see the launch of modern China, women’s liberation with the abolishment of foot-binding, as well as the eradication of gruesome punishments like ‘death by a thousand cuts’. It was Cixi who attained the industries, electricity and contemporary attributes that exist in today’s modern state, but the conventional view often depicts the Empress as an arch-conservative and cruel despot who dragged China behind. It’s this distorted perspective that Jung Chang sets out to change. “Cixi was capable of immense ruthlessness as a product of medieval China, but she was quick to accept modern ways; she was a real reformer and a forward-looking visionary,” says Chang. “I hope my book will help people form a balanced view.”

Chang explains Cixi’s stained reputation as a result of China becoming a Republican state three years after the death of the Empress. “The Nationalists, and then the Communists, wanted to create this image that she was the one who made a mess of China – and that they were the ones who rescued it from her destruction,” Chang explains. “They’re still doing this today.” Cixi’s squandering, reckless reputation in the Western world was formed by councils who doubled as her enemies. Kang Youwei, a scholar and supporter of the constitutional monarchy, fled abroad after he attempted to assassinate her. “He was a brilliant essayist,” says Chang. “He told lies about the Empress. As he was abroad, the lies just stretched.” Confined to the Forbidden City, separated by a silk screen from her male officials and having to use the means of her son, the Tongzhi Emperor and her nephew, the Guangxu Emperor, Cixi knew little of the outside world and never exposed the murder attempt against her.

The biography presents an assimilation of historical facts collected through five years of intensive research, primarily from Chinese archives which historians have only been able to access since the death of Mao in 1976. Referencing a colossal documentary pool of imperial decrees, court records, official communications, personal correspondence, diaries and eyewitness accounts, Chang reveals a vast majority of information and sources that have never reached the light of day outside China’s borders.

Chang’s interest in Cixi stemmed from her research for Mao. “I realised Mao was enjoying extraordinary intellectual and
sexual freedom growing up under the Empress Dowager’s legacy – the kind I could never dream of growing up under Mao. He was a peasant lad but could easily go to college, travel with his girlfriends and so on. I was fascinated with the freedom and opportunities available in Cixi’s society.”

Brimming with detail, Chang’s new book offers a panoramic illustration of the land under Cixi’s rule, and an intimate portrait of the provincial officer’s daughter who rose from concubine to monarch, becoming the absolute ruler of a vast land. Chang releases her new book in Hong Kong at the Hong Kong International Literary Festival, due to the city’s close proximity yet different politics to the Mainland; her previous novels were banned in China. Of the book’s reception, Chang concludes, “We’ll have to wait and see.”

Empress Dowager Cixi is published by Jonathan Cape, priced $240. Four pairs of tickets for Chang’s HKILF talk on Nov 2 at City University have been reserved; email events@festival.org.hk quoting ‘Time Out Readers’.

 

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