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Empress Dowager Cixi: The Concubine Who Launched Modern China

3.90  ·  Rating details ·  6,861 ratings  ·  860 reviews
A New York Times Notable Book

Empress Dowager Cixi (1835–1908) is the most important woman in Chinese history. She ruled China for decades and brought a medieval empire into the modern age.
At the age of sixteen, in a nationwide selection for royal consorts, Cixi was chosen as one of the emperor’s numerous concubines. When he died in 1861, their five-year-old son succeeded
Hardcover, 436 pages
Published October 29th 2013 by Knopf (first published September 26th 2013)
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Sean Barrs
I’m planning on visiting China this summer (provided my university accept my application) because I find Chinese culture so fascinating. The history is so intriguing. My dissertation for my master’s degree will directly address how English writers (namely Ezra Pound) appropriated Chinese literature and created a new form of English Poetry. There’s so much I want to learn, and one day I’d even like to learn the language; Mandarin is, after all, the most commonly spoken language on Earth.

This is
Montzalee Wittmann
Apr 04, 2017 rated it it was amazing
Empress Dowager Cixi: The Concubine Who Launched Modern China by Jung Chang reads so smoothly like a novel but is strictly historical. I haven't read a history book so well done in a long time. Well done that keeps to the facts, not adding speculation, but adding what the what the surroundings/clothing/jewelry/etc would look like. So well done I felt like I knew the society of the times, dress, politics, dress, etc. Very different culture but interesting. I got this from the library and it was ...more
Joely Black
Dec 30, 2013 rated it liked it
Shelves: non-fiction
I grew up loving Wild Swans, and I was excited to start reading this. I kept seeing it in the window of book stores, enticing me. Yet the actual read of the book was often a terrible slog. The prose often felt rushed, and without any real life to it.

The notation system is terrible. Chang never uses clearly marked footnotes or endnotes. They are there, but you never know where there is a reference to a source because there's never any indication in the text. For a book making a lot of assertions
Jan 10, 2014 rated it it was ok
Shelves: biography, china
In total contravention to informed opinion, this author holds The Dowager Empress Cixi in awe and considers her a reformer. I was looking forward to what the author of Wild Swans: Three Daughters of China might have to say about Cixi. I was disappointed that not much of her premise holds up. The Dowager's actions, as cited in this very text, contradict the author's premise.

Women's roles in history are obscured and underrated. Cixi is not obscure and takes on her shoulders the centuries of tradit
Lyn Elliott
Jun 15, 2018 rated it really liked it  ·  review of another edition
In telling the story of Ci Xi, who effectively ruled China for the best part of 50 years as Dowager Empress, Jung Chang has the great advantage of being able to access primary and secondary sources in Chinese as well as English. She has referenced a wide range of archival materials in European and Chinese collections, diaries, letters, books and articles.

Jung Chang argues that Ci Xi recognised early that China would need to modernise to just to survive against the invasions of the western power
How can such an incredible life story! Chinese empress Cixi led a fascinating life: she wielded behind-the-scenes power over a third of the world’s population for nearly the whole length of Queen Victoria’s reign; she fell in love with a eunuch, survived multiple assassination plots, and was rumored to have poisoned several rivals, including her adopted son.

And yet this biography renders her life story utterly dull; like Kirsten Ellis did in Star of the Morning : The Lif
Amanda Bannister
Aug 08, 2019 rated it really liked it  ·  review of another edition
3.5/5 rounded up to 4!
Christine PNW
Apr 10, 2017 rated it really liked it
This was way outside of my usual reading fare - I don't read a lot of non-fiction and I read very few books set in China. I am involved in a GR group, and we selected the Dowager Empress Cixi as an area of focus for the first part of the year, so I ended up reading this. It was, unfortunately, the only book I managed to read on the topic, but it was fascinating.

Dowager Empress Cixi was the last ruler from the Qing dynasty in China, and had been a concubine. Imperial China seemed very strange to
BAM The Bibliomaniac
For close to forty years the Dowager Empress Cixi ruled the empire of China beginning in 1860. She is alternatively described as either pragmatic, shrewd, sensible, just and gracious or meddlesome, cunning, underhanded and selfish. She is documented throughout Chinese history as a scapegoat for the turmoil inflicted from the beginning of her rule to the beginning of the Republic. Research by Jung Chang has proven that is not the case. Throughout her reign in the name of her adopted son, the empe ...more
Jung Chang's biography of the Empress Cixi is a fascinating look at a period of history about which I know very little. As I'm not familiar with the existing historiography, I don't know to what extent exactly this is a revisionist biography—certainly, if Chang's characterisation of previous historical works on Cixi is true, then this is a swing of the pendulum in the other direction. Chang presents a picture of a woman who was not without her faults, who could be ruthless if necessary, and who ...more
Sep 26, 2013 rated it really liked it
I received an Advanced Copy of “Empress Dowager Cixi” through goodreads.
It’s always a good thing to inspired by real women from history. Unfortunately our history books hold few accounts of women who have impacted history or politics. If you ask me, Empress Dowager Cixi ranks up there along with Queen Elizabeth I. Jung Chang makes Cixi’s story accessible through her no nonsense prose and seemingly thorough research. One cannot help but be truly impressed with Cixi’s intellect and brilliant usage
Sep 23, 2015 rated it it was amazing  ·  review of another edition
Shelves: history, biography
I started this book, carrying with me all standard anecdotal baggage one hears about the cruel old crone who loomed behind the imperial throne in the final decades of Qing dynasty China. Very quickly, the author thoroughly dispelled each and every one of these clichéd images. Rather than acting as a bulwark against modernisation and progress, Cixi actually spent nearly every waking day in her role as Empress Dowager drawing the Chinese state into a new age whilst still maintaining its independen ...more
Josh Brett
Nov 21, 2013 rated it it was ok
Where to begin with Cixi? Undoubtedly, Cixi has been unfairly maligned by the historical record, always (especially in Chinese historiography?) biased against women wielding political power, and she has too often appeared as the archetypal "Dragon Lady" (actually the title of an earlier biography). Her opponents have certainly had a better talent for cultivating a public image, both in defaming her and promoting themselves (but do we really need to call him "Wild Fox" Kang EVERY time??). As I se ...more
Caidyn (he/him/his)
This summer, I took a course on eastern civilizations. India, Japan, and, of course, China. However, when we were touching on the final dynasty, we never talked about Cixi. The most I remember discussing was that a three year old was put on the throne and then it all sort of tumbled to a terrible close for the monarchy. Enter Mao Zedong.

But, she was absolutely fascinating to me. Sure, the book could get a bit dry, but she literally ruled the throne without being crowned. That's happened so many
May 06, 2014 rated it liked it
Shelves: nonfiction, china
I enjoyed reading this book though I had strong reservations about the author's impartiality. What I came to think of as "women's boosterism" seemed to motivate much of her commentary on Cixi, whom she hails as a modernizer who has never been given her due. Since I'm not well versed in the history of China during this period, I can't say how valid Chang's views are, but there's little doubt that she got carried away in her role of chief Cixi apologist and defender.

The book also suffered from sw
Ashley Marie
I think GR booted this off my TBR because I've had the book for years and would've sworn I'd listed it here on GR as well... whatevers.
Orinoco Womble (tidy bag and all)
Thanks to Mike Chen of Youtube's "Chen Dynasty" for waking me up to the obvious fact that I knew nothing about China's rulers except for Mao and thereafter. He talks rather quickly to keep his videos short, but if you want a good overview of the lives of rulers, concubines, gods and heroes, it's an excellent place to start.

An amazing book. I'm so glad I picked it up. Chang writes very well, making what could be hard-slog history lessons accesible to the average reader. She grabbed me by the lape
Linda Lpp
Apr 05, 2018 rated it really liked it
I can tell this book will take me some time to read. But so far it is quite interesting. I wish I knew how to pronounce CIXI.
Am just reading about advancement for China to commence travelling to Western countries. Not quite to modernization as such yet, but recognizing the need to open up to China trading more with other countries. They needed better transportation (rails, and ships), military and development of higher levels of education to train their own to work in profesional roles. I chuckl
Steven Z.
Feb 20, 2019 rated it it was amazing
Last week the Peabody Essex Museum located in Salem, MA concluded its wonderful exhibit, Empresses of China’s Forbidden City. It was “the first major international exhibition to explore the role of empresses in China’s grand imperial era — the Qing dynasty, from 1644 to 1912. Nearly 200 works, including imperial portraits, jewelry, garments, Buddhist sculptures and decorative art objects from the Palace Museum, Beijing (known as the Forbidden City), tell the little-known stories of how these wom ...more
Sep 09, 2014 rated it liked it
Shelves: biography, china, 2014, history
This book has a remarkable flow - it took me a while to read it for the simple reason that these days I have very little time.

The other side of the "readability coin" is that this book lacks proper probing of the issues: Chang seems too much in love with her project (offering a portrait of Cixi which is very different from conventional wisdom - at least as far as China's assessment of her goes) to remember to educate her readers on so many other aspects of that long reign that just a modest amo
Dec 29, 2013 rated it really liked it  ·  review of another edition
This is an absolutely fascinating biography. Subtitled, “the Concubine who launched modern China” it takes you from 1835 to 1908 and tells the story of a young woman who first entered the Forbidden City at the age of 16. Chosen as a concubine to the Emperor Xianfeng, she was entered in the court register as, “the woman of the Nala family” – too lowly to even be given a name of her own. However, she had already helped her family raise funds, when her grandfather was imprisoned and her help in the ...more
Elizabeth Heritage
Dec 16, 2013 rated it really liked it
I found this book fascinating and compulsively readable. It opens a window onto a time and society about which I know very little: nineteenth-century imperial China. Jung Chang has used extensive research into previously untapped sources to illuminate the life and reign of Empress Dowager Cixi, the woman Chang credits with ushering in the age of modernity in China. Cixi (who I had never heard of) has apparently been reviled for decades, and it is Chang's stated aim to rehabilitate her in the eye ...more
Robin Webster
Jul 06, 2014 rated it really liked it
Empress Dowager Cixi born 29 November 1835 and died 15 November 1908 was a powerful and charismatic woman who unofficially but effectively controlled the Manchu Qing dynasty in China for 47 years, from 1861 to her death in 1908. She was selected as an imperial concubine for the Xianfeng Emperor as a young teenager and gave birth to a son, in 1856. With the Emperor’s death in 1861 the child became the Tongzhi Emperor and she became Empress Dowager. Cixi was the real power behind the throne throug ...more
Tim Evanson
Oct 30, 2013 rated it really liked it
The history of the last 60 years of the Qing dynasty in China (from the concubinage of Cixi 1851 to the abdication of Puyi in 1913) is not well studied. These were the years in which China collapsed, and the Dowager Empress Cixi ruled (in fact, if not in title) during most of this time.

But why did China collapse?

The opening of trade with Europe, which began in the 1500s but really soared in the 1700s, was one cause. China believed itself to be the most advanced country in the world. It had no mo
Inderjit Sanghera
Jun 21, 2019 rated it it was amazing
Chang's skilful weaving of Empress Dowager Cixi life resembles the traditional robes she wore; her life as decorated as the intricate emblems which reflect her heritage, her past as colourful as the harlequin colours woven into the fabric, her will as indomitable as the symbols which demonstrated her power and wisdom and her ability to rise phoenix-like from the ashes of Chinese history, in a society which, despite its best efforts to deny her power because she was a woman, she was able to bend ...more
Mar 07, 2019 rated it really liked it
This is an amazing book for so many reasons, but it is not a page-turner. It is a vivid and detailed historical account of a woman who changed Chinese history. I never heard of her before this book and now that I've read the book, I'm shocked that so much could have happened without my awareness. For one thing, it is so amazing to me that Britain was so insistent on importing opium to China that they actually forced the Chinese to allow them to bring it in, despite the horrible damage it was cau ...more
Okay, so the annotation system is very, very terrible but Cixi is awesome.... I think?? I mean, her reign started with a coup and ended with a murder so I'm in, but because the annotation is so bad, it's incredibly difficult to evaluate the author's Cixi Is Awesome thesis. Cixi was maligned for decades as a corrupt and power-hungry despot, but in recent(ish) years historians have started to reevaluate that view. But this book felt especially hagiographic and like -- what evidence is there? Some! ...more
Dec 19, 2015 rated it really liked it
Recommended to Anna by: Helen
Jung Chang’s Wild Swans: Three Daughters of China is one of my favourite books of all time. Here, she again tells the story of transformational change in China through the life of a woman. Her biography of Empress Dowager Cixi greatly increased my knowledge of late 19th and early 20th Chinese history. The titular Cixi emerges as a fascinating figure, the strong leader behind a series of weak and inept emperors. Her life story demonstrates repeatedly the quixotic implications of treating women as ...more
May 25, 2016 rated it it was amazing
Shelves: history
To enjoy this book one must suspend disbelief: then the tale is a decent read. It is certainly a strident and welcome recognition of a woman's achievements against all the odds in a male dominated world. It also has the special merit of being an acccount of Chinese history through Chinese eyes, albeit the perspective is restricted to the imperial court. It depicts the Chinese state as an active agent, responsible for its own destiny, making both good and bad decisions. That must be better than p ...more
Sep 11, 2014 rated it really liked it
I enjoyed this book. It is a very different take on a fascinating woman, compared with the usual portrayal of her. At the same time, I feel that Jung Chang's admiration for her tended to make her excuse some of Cixi's more ruthless actions, not least of which were to poison her adopted son to ensure he did not outlive her, and to have his favourite concubine killed by throwing her down a well. This despot was enlightened, but only some of the time!

Jung Chang's writing style is straightforward an
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Jung Chang (simplified Chinese: 张戎; traditional Chinese: 張戎; pinyin: Zhāng Róng; Wade-Giles: Chang Jung, born March 25, 1952 in Yibin, Sichuan) is a Chinese-born British writer now living in London, best known for her family autobiography Wild Swans, selling over 10 million copies worldwide but banned in mainland China.

See also ユン チアン, 張戎.

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67 likes · 31 comments
“Cixi’s lack of formal education was more than made up for by her intuitive intelligence, which she liked to use from her earliest years. In 1843, when she was seven, the empire had just finished its first war with the West, the Opium War, which had been started by Britain in reaction to Beijing clamping down on the illegal opium trade conducted by British merchants. China was defeated and had to pay a hefty indemnity.

Desperate for funds, Emperor Daoguang (father of Cixi’s future husband) held back the traditional presents for his sons’ brides – gold necklaces with corals and pearls – and vetoed elaborate banquets for their weddings. New Year and birthday celebrations were scaled down, even cancelled, and minor royal concubines had to subsidise their reduced allowances by selling their embroidery on the market through eunuchs. The emperor himself even went on surprise raids of his concubines’ wardrobes, to check whether they were hiding extravagant clothes against his orders. As part of a determined drive to stamp out theft by officials, an investigation was conducted of the state coffer, which revealed that more “than nine million taels of silver had gone missing.

Furious, the emperor ordered all the senior keepers and inspectors of the silver reserve for the previous forty-four years to pay fines to make up the loss – whether or not they were guilty.

Cixi’s great-grandfather had served as one of the keepers and his share of the fine amounted to 43,200 taels – a colossal sum, next to which his official salary had been a pittance. As he had died a long time ago, his son, Cixi’s grandfather, was obliged to pay half the sum, even though he worked in the Ministry of Punishments and had nothing to do with the state coffer. After three years of futile struggle to raise money, he only managed to hand over 1,800 taels, and an edict signed by the emperor confined him to prison, only to be released if and when his son, Cixi’s father, delivered the balance.

The life of the family was turned upside down. Cixi, then eleven years old, had to take in sewing jobs to earn extra money – which she would remember all her life and would later talk about to her ladies-in-waiting in the court. “As she was the eldest of two daughters and three sons, her father discussed the matter with her, and she rose to the occasion. Her ideas were carefully considered and practical: what possessions to sell, what valuables to pawn, whom to turn to for loans and how to approach them. Finally, the family raised 60 per cent of the sum, enough to get her grandfather out of prison. The young Cixi’s contribution to solving the crisis became a family legend, and her father paid her the ultimate compliment: ‘This daughter of mine is really more like a son!’

Treated like a son, Cixi was able to talk to her father about things that were normally closed areas for women. Inevitably their conversations touched on official business and state affairs, which helped form Cixi’s lifelong interest. Being consulted and having her views acted on, she acquired self-confidence and never accepted the com“common assumption that women’s brains were inferior to men’s. The crisis also helped shape her future method of rule. Having tasted the bitterness of arbitrary punishment, she would make an effort to be fair to her officials.”
“The Manchus drank tea with a lot of milk. In her case, the milk came from the breasts of a nurse. Cixi had been taking human milk since her prolonged illness in the early 1880s, on the recommendation of a renowned doctor. Several wet nurses were employed, and took turns to squeeze milk into a bowl for her. The nurses brought their sucking babies with them, and the woman who served her the longest stayed on in the palace, her son being given education and an office job.” 5 likes
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