Empress Dowager Cixi: The Concubine Who Launched Modern China, by Jung Chang, Cape, RRP£20 / Knopf, RRP£30, 464 pages
China’s Empress Dowager Cixi (1835-1908) had a life filled with intrigue and reversals of fortune to match any dreamt up by Dickens or Dumas. Born into an elite family that fell on hard times during the economic crises triggered by the opium war, she was chosen to join the ranks of palace concubines in 1851. New tribulations followed when foreign troops drove the court from Beijing in 1860, and soon after that the emperor died. But Cixi bounced back, proving so adept at court politics that she secured a place as coregent of the new ruler, her young son, and then, in 1875, was named sole regent to his successor, the Guangxu Emperor.
The final years of her life, as Jung Chang recounts fluently in Empress Dowager Cixi: The Concubine Who Launched Modern China, were equally eventful. In 1898, factions linked to the emperor and to Cixi locked horns in a fierce power struggle. The Empress Dowager’s side won, reasserting her position as the Qing ruling family’s dominant member, and the emperor was placed under house arrest. When he died in 1908, just before Cixi, new rumours that she’d poisoned him joined old ones alleging lurid liaisons with various powerful men.
Even a brief sketch such as this brings to mind three famous queens whose stories have been catnip for generations of fans of royal biography. Cixi’s long period of rule evokes Victoria; her notoriety, Cleopatra; her political manoeuvring, Elizabeth I.
It’s usually anyone’s guess whether a book on Chinese history will find a large readership, but you don’t need to be psychic to predict high sales for this one. For Chang has a proven Midas touch. Wild Swans: Three Daughters of China (1991), which begins with her grandmother’s life story and ends with her own, has sold more than 10m copies. Her 2005 collaboration with husband Jon Halliday, Mao: The Unknown Story, also topped bestseller lists. 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.
Empress Dowager seeks to persuade readers of three things. Cixi’s life was extraordinary. Those who caricature her as a lascivious arch-conservative xenophobe distort the historical record. And Cixi should be seen, rather, as a wise moderniser. The book convinces on the first two points but not the third.
Cixi has certainly too often served as a gendered scapegoat for the Qing’s failures, including its slowness to reform outmoded institutions. Chang is not the first to contest this vision. Her claim that, late in life, Cixi backed a bold progressive agenda that included policies presaging ones Chiang Kai-shek would later champion, follows in the footsteps of arguments that leading Qing historians such as Paul Cohen began making more than two decades ago.
When Chang goes further – describing Cixi as a “revolutionary” with life-long progressive leanings, veering into the historical novelist’s terrain with claims about the ruler’s innermost thoughts – she moves on to shakier ground, overstating the significance of archival fragments and memoirs that support her interpretation, while dismissing those that contradict it. In the end, Chang’s most convincing arguments are her least novel, while her most novel assertions are least convincing.
In her acclaimed Cleopatra: A Life (2010), Stacey Schiff combines spirited storytelling with careful dissection of the varied ways a ruler’s tale has been told, and mixes judicious interpretations of pivotal events with admissions of areas where only speculation is possible. I would love to read a comparably satisfying popular biography of Cixi. Unfortunately, this isn’t it.
Jeffrey Wasserstrom is professor of history at the University of California, Irvine and author of ‘China in the 21st Century: What Everyone Needs to Know’ (OUP)