Empress Dowager Cixi: The Concubine Who Launched Modern China
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In 1852, at age sixteen, Cixi was chosen as one of Emperor Xianfeng’s numerous concubines. When he died in 1861, their five-year-old son succeeded to the throne. Cixi at once launched a coup against her son’s regents and placed herself as the true source of power—governing through a silk screen that separated her from her male officials.
Drawing on newly available sources, Jung Chang comprehensively overturns Cixi’s reputation as a conservative despot. Cixi’s extraordinary reign saw the birth of modern China. Under her, the ancient country attained industries, railways, electricity, and a military with up-to-date weaponry. She abolished foot-binding, inaugurated women’s liberation, and embarked on a path to introduce voting rights. Packed with drama, this groundbreaking biography powerfully reforms our view of a crucial period in China’s—and the world’s—history.
overlord, but as an ordinary official. His two previous key posts, Imperial Commissioner for North China and Viceroy of Zhili, had already been transferred to somebody else and were not returned to him. The earl was allowed only to keep the title of Chief Administrator of the empire, which was largely honorific. As if this was not punishment enough, another edict publicly censured him for ‘trespassing into a royal estate’ and fined him a year’s salary. These crushing blows were inflicted by the
the Villa of the Jade Balustrade, the Yu-lan-tang, which sat right on the edge of the lake, with a panoramic view. It was the residence of the emperor, but Cixi acted as host. As Grand Tutor Weng recorded, she declared that the villa was ‘full of light and air, better than the Forbidden City’, and she was ‘all praise and solicitude’ for the grandees of their ‘hard work’ in concluding the Russian pact. Enquiring after a Grand Councillor who had been ill, she offered medical advice, telling Weng to
he could deal with Westerners in a friendly and dignified manner. There were serious limitations about him, of which she was well aware. Once, at a dinner party at the American Legation, he was asked, ‘What does Your Highness think of the relative characteristics of the Germans and the French?’ and he replied, ‘The people in Berlin get up early in the morning and go to their business, while the people in Paris get up in the evening and go to the theatre.’ Clearly he was recycling a cliché. Cixi
the Chinese, nothing could be more honourable; in any case it is extremely satisfactory to myself that the Empress Dowager should do this before retiring …’ One of Cixi’s decrees thanked all foreign envoys for their help in forging amicable relationships between their own countries and China. She ordered the Foreign Office to select an auspicious day on which to give a grand banquet for the envoys and to present each envoy with a ru-yi, a good-wish sceptre made mostly of jade, as well as silks
Imperial Concubine Pearl, Zhirui, who insisted that as ‘Japan was merely a tiny and poor country, our ships must parade on the open sea … and attack and destroy its gunboats. Our canons must fire first, the moment we encounter an enemy ship.’ When Cixi saw the draft edict sacking the Admiral, she was incensed and said with palpable outrage: ‘The Admiral has not been found to have committed any crime!’ She refused to allow the edict to be issued. In a gesture of defiance, Emperor Guangxu gave a