Empress Dowager Cixi
Great Britain, Jonathan Cape, Random House.
2013 436 pp RRP $40
ISBN 9780224087445 (trade paperback edition)
As number six Concubine of Emperor Xianfeng of China, Cixi should have had no influence in the court. However, the first concubine, Empress Zhen, had no children. When Cixi (Si-Shee) gave birth to the Emperor’s son, her status was elevated to mother of the future Emperor. Throughout the following decades, she became a woman of enormous influence and has been credited with bringing China into the modern world.
The author, Jung Chang, is well known for her popular first book, Wild Swans, (1991), a sweeping tale of three generations of Chinese women, and her second book, Mao the Unknown Story, (2005).
Jung Chang knows the intrigues of the country of her birth. For Empress Dowager Cixi she was able to access ‘newly available, mostly Chinese, historical documents such as court records, official and private correspondence, diaries and eye-witness accounts’ of the events recorded. From these she was able to construct a fast-paced and gripping drama and an intimate portrait of an extraordinary woman.
Empress Dowager Cixi managed to overcome her powerlessness as a woman by knowing how to manipulate the men and systems around her. At the time of Cixi’s story, 1835 to 1908, the throne was firmly in the grasp of the Manchu minority, known as the Qing dynasty. In 1852, the sixteen-year-old girl from a prominent family was among several chosen as concubines for Emperor Xianfeng and was brought into the court.
Her husband was about 30 when he died in 1861 while in exile from Beijing. His five-year-old son by Cixi was now named the new Emperor Tongzhi, with power in the hands of a Board of Regents. Cixi and the Empress staged a coup and seized the title from the Regents. Thus began Cixi’s long hold on power, conducted from behind her silk screen. Out of the forty-seven years of her Regency, from 1861 until her death in 1908, she effectively ruled for thirty-six years (her son for two and her adopted son for nine).
When he reached the marriageable age of seventeen, Tongzhi became Emperor and Cixi had to retreat to the harem and keep out of politics.
He died two years later. Cixi quickly adopted her sister’s three-year-old son and named him the new Emperor, Guangxu, with his father, Prince Chun, (her brother-in-law) as guardian. Cixi regained control.
When the new Emperor reached late teens he married and took power, relegating Cixi once again to the harem.
The new Emperor allowed many of Cixi’s reforms to lapse. He hated Westerners and would have nothing to do with them. He let the navy and army shrink so much that when Japan attacked they got an easy victory. After seeing his country almost overrun by foreign powers he reluctantly let Cixi share power and for many years they ruled together.
The court had to flee Beijing when it was besieged by the Japanese in 1898. She made disastrous decisions about the Boxers who brought incredible destruction on the population and countryside. Later, Cixi apologised profusely and brought in several measures in an effort to make amends.
Before her death great changes were coming over China and the Han Chinese were agitating to wrest control from the thousand-year-old Manchu dynasty. The weak Emperor was ready to hand the country over to the Japanese who were waiting to pounce. Forward-looking as always, Cixi put in place measures to ensure the survival of China as an independent country, and the survival of her Manchu people.
The Emperor died on 14 November 1908 and Cixi died the following day.
Cixi had been working towards changing the governance of China into a Constitutional Monarchy. On her death-bed she appointed her two-year-old great-nephew, Puyi, as the next Emperor. When Emperor Puyi was five years old, the people staged a coup and the country became a Republic. That story is told in the movie The Last Emperor.
Jung Chang’s lively writing gives extraordinary insight into this fascinating era. For those with an interest in China, or those wanting an exciting tale of a strong and remarkable woman who was ahead of her time, this book is highly recommended.