Empress Dowager Cixi
By Jung Chang
Review by Kira (History)
I read this book following a documentary about China’s first female Emperor, Wu Zetain, when I first started to explore history outside of my school curriculum. My school had only ever focused on European matters, so I was slightly apprehensive that a book like this, so completely out of my comfort zone, maybe above my comprehension level but I bit the bullet and I’m glad I did because I was totally mistaken.
As someone who really had no clue about Chinese culture or the way the system of governance worked at the time in the area, I was never confused when reading this book – the author Jung Chang doing an amazing job clearly explaining everything. They also fully detail other aspects at the time which informs you on why Dowager Cixi may have made certain decisions, and what the outcomes of such decisions mean. However, Jung Chang doesn’t trail off onto long and spiralling tangents like it seems many historians seem to, which I think adds to how easy to read this book was for me.
What I love the most about this book is how I really feel for the subject, Dowager Cixi. I was constantly impressed or amazed at the cunning and intelligence she displayed with whatever challenge she met, and personally, it felt like reading a fictional book and I was totally engaged throughout. Personally, I think an important aspect of history is to feel and understand for whomever you’re reading about and having impersonal retellings of events and people with a degree of separation is almost counterproductive to what historians should be doing. Hence, perhaps a reason I advocate for this biography so much is because, while the author doesn’t sugarcoat Dowager Cixi, they also don’t hold her at an arm’s length, and I feel her representation is true and helpful in understanding her and the time.
Overall, as someone who often enjoys documentaries more than books because of their convenience, this biography was vital to introducing me to a time period and area I now adore to look into, and to convincing me that books weren’t as scary as I thought they were.
Empress Dowager Cixi: The Concubine Who Launched Modern China by Jung Chang