Book Review: Redefining Empress Dowager Cixi

Ms. Sharanya Menon, Research Intern, Institute of Chinese Studies

JUNG CHANG, Empress Dowager Cixi: The Concubine who Launched Modern China. (London, Random House Group, 2013), pp. 436, ₹ 360/ £ 7.48, ISBN: 9780224087438

Through the Empress Dowager Cixi’s biography, Jung Chang has attempted a reappraisal of a controversial figure in Chinese history – Empress Dowager Cixi (Qing dynasty) –who ruled for over four decades, during some of the most turbulent years in Chinese history (1861-1908). Commonly perceived as ‘tyrannical’, ‘vicious’ and ‘incompetent’ (pp. 373), Empress Dowager Cixi was known as a traditionalist and unfalteringly opposed to modernisation and any engagements with the West. Her adopted son, Emperor Guangxu was known to be a reformer, moderniser and heralded for shaping modern China during its nascent stages. Commonly perceived to be anti-Western and deeply traditional, Cixi is often accused of being the primary reason for China’s humiliating defeat in the Sino-Japanese war in 1895.

Using newly available Chinese records and historical documents, Jung Chang, through this detailed biography of Empress Dowager, constructs a compelling counter narrative. The author throws new light on Cixi’s reign by describing her as an ‘astute’ ruler (pp. 298), and most importantly, a strong woman who stood her ground among the misogynistic male bureaucracy and society. The book narrates the story of a concubine who, with the desire to protect her empire, transforms into an ‘amazing stateswoman’ (pp. 373).

The book is divided into six sections with each section devoted to the various stages and the important events that shaped her life. The first section takes the reader through the initial years of Empress Dowager’s life in the Summer Palace as an imperial concubine of Emperor Xianfeng (1835-56). Initially left as a low-ranking concubine, Cixi was hardly taken notice of by the Emperor. This changed with the birth of her son, Tongzhi (1856), the heir to the throne. She was consequently promoted to a higher position and gained prominence.

Emperor Xianfeng’s lack of foreign policy understanding and deep-seated loathing for the Westerners was seen by Cixi as the primary cause for the empire’s defeat in the hands of the foreign powers during the Second Opium War (1856-1860). Cixi understood that it was in the interests of the empire to engage with the West instead of following a contractionary trade and foreign policy. State-affairs were assigned to a Board of Regents chosen by her husband till her son came of age. Known to share the late Emperor’s views on the West, Cixi was afraid that with themn power the empire would plunge deeper into crisis. Hence, Cixi launched a coup that transferred all authority and powers to her till her son, Tongzhi, came of age.

Section two takes off with Cixi assuming power and ruling from behind the ‘yellow screen’; being a woman, she could not appear in front of the men who served her. Her initial attempts at modernisation and engagement with the West are described along with the resistance that she endured. With the support of her trusted aides, Cixi embarked on the journey of transforming medieval China by introducing foreign policy, diplomacy and engaging in foreign trade at a level that was unprecedented. She introduced reforms to modernise the army and navy; trade and diplomacy boomed during her reign and the empirerom a slump (1861-1873).

Cixi retired as soon as her son came of age and willingly stayed away from state-affairs. Emperor Tongzhi had a short reign (1861-75) and died at a very young age, forcing a heartbroken Cixi to assume power yet again, this time through her adopted son, Emperor Guangxu. Section three and four explore Cixi’s modernisation efforts and her engagement with the West until he came of age. Unlike with her own son, Cixi did not share a warm and close relationship with her adopted son. Often alienated, Emperor Guangxu grew up rooted in Confucian principles and espoused deeply traditional values. Cixi had to retire once again as Emperor Guangxu came of age and was forced to remain silent when he undid all her modernising efforts and reverted to an isolationist foreign policy.

The final two sections highlight the consequences of Emperor Guangxu’s decisions and efforts. China suffered a humiliating defeat in the Sino-Japanese war of 1895 due to Guangxu’s conservative approach. Cixi, unable to hold off any longer, launched yet another coup and assumed the mantle of power. However, at this stage, faced with the combined forces of the imperial powers (British, French, Russian, German, United States, Italy and Austria-Hungary) and Japan. Cixi committed the fatal mistake of aligning with the anti-West and anti-Christian rebel group, the Boxers. The foreign powers overpowered the forces and the empire suffered a setback once again. The period from 1906ere spent in rebuilding her empire and she devoted her time towards transforming China into a constitutional monarchy. Her wish was to allow her subjects to participate in the affairs of the state and hence become citizens.

The nationalists that came to power after the fall of the Qing dynasty (1911-12) were not kind to her legacy though. They yoked together a narrative that presented Cixi in a manner that was highly unfavourable, while all her achievements and successes were credited to Emperor Guangxu or to the men who served her.

The author has attempted to undo the great disservice that has been done to an important historical figure in China. While some may allege that the author is rather explicit in her bias towards the Empress, and the biography at times takes on characteristics of a hagiography, Jung Chang presents the Empress in a manner that disrupts her otherwise demonic characterisation. The book is successful in attempting to produce a fresh and alternative narrative to the dominant one, by successfully presenting Cixi as the astute political ruler and stateswoman, despite all her flaws and handicaps.