Tuesday, October 15, 2013

[O] Empress Dowager Cixi: The Concubine Who Launched Modern China [Book][Jung Chang, Author]


I am currently reading this book, Empress Dowager Cixi: The Concubine Who Launched Modern China by Jung Chang. Just released and I bought it to read an alternate perspective of this ... dastardly woman. The jacket of the book says;

Her original first name was considered too inconsequential to enter in the court registry, yet she became the most powerful woman in 19th-century China. Born in 1835 to a prominent Manchu family, Cixi was chosen in 1852 by the young Chinese Emperor Xianfeng as one of his concubines. Literate, politically aware, and graceful rather than beautiful, Cixi was not Xianfeng's favorite, but she delivered his firstborn son in 1856. When the emperor died in 1861, he bequeathed his title to this son, with regents to oversee his reign. Cixi did not trust these men to competently rule China, so she conspired with Empress Zhen, her close friend and the deceased emperor's first wife, to orchestrate a coup. Memoirist Chang (Wild Swans) melds her deep knowledge of Chinese history with deft storytelling to unravel the empress dowager's behind-the-throne efforts to "Make China Strong" by developing international trade, building railroads and utilities, expanding education, and constructing a modern military. Cixi's actions and methods were at times controversial, and in 1898 she thwarted an assassination attempt sanctioned by Emperor Guangxu, her adopted son. Cixi's power only increased after this, and she finally exacted revenge on Guangxu just before her death in 1908

Two chapters in and I feel like I am reading a rather twisted love letter. Everything we know of this woman is negative. Evidence is in her actions, decisions and unintended monuments. However the decline of Qing Dynasty is not her fault; the demise of that dynasty is also not her fault. Her fault was doing nothing to slow it and doing everything to hasten it. But this book seeks to change that perception, as it writes by way of newly released documents, decrees, etc. No doubt every ruler/leader starts by being earnest but as they all say, power corrupts, absolute power corrupts absolutely. I skipped to the last chapter or so and I was shocked by the brazen announcement; that Puyi ran to the Japanese and established Manchuquo because he couldn't stand how her body was treated by the rebels. I thought that was rather simplistic and white washing. So I turned back to the first chapter and began reading earnestly. I do not dispute her intelligence, her keen eye for things but when I read how she had a great friendly relationship with Empress Zhen, I felt that can't be. No one can ever be that friendly earnestly with her rival in love. And then the book launched into an attack of her husband Emperor Xianfeng, blaming him for the start, loss and everything of the Opium Wars I felt that wasn't right. Was he supposed to pander to the westerners' demands for more ports to sell OPIUM to the Chinese people? And when the author suggested that Cixi actually had opinions on governance but was shut out by the Emperor, it was almost as if declaring as a justification how she would be able to do a better job. What a nonsensical tosh if you ask me. I feel the book is looking at state of things of the past with a modern eye and that is not accurate.

Since I bought the book I shall read it with an open mind. After all, histories are written by the victors and victors are rarely kind on their nemesis/losers. But the things I have read thus far is against everything I know about Cixi. So my conclusion, thus far is, every influential people would have done something bad, every despot something good, at least at some point of their rule/influence.

Anyway I am continuing my reading to see how the author forms a different opinion of one of the most maligned woman in Chinese history. And no, I don't think she launched modern China. When she died, she did take with her the old archaic dynastic China though.

By the way it does at times feel like I am reading TVB's The Confidant (here, here, here and here)!

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