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At the age of 16, 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 to the throne. Cixi at once launched a palace coup against the regents appointed by her husband and made herself the real ruler of China - behind the throne, literally, with a silk screen separating her from her officials who were all male.
In this groundbreaking biography, Jung Chang vividly describes how Cixi fought against monumental obstacles to change China. Under her the ancient country attained virtually all the attributes of a modern state: industries, railways, electricity, the telegraph and an army and navy with up-to-date weaponry. It was she who abolished gruesome punishments like "death by a thousand cuts" and put an end to foot-binding. She inaugurated women's liberation and embarked on the path to introduce parliamentary elections to China. Chang comprehensively overturns the conventional view of Cixi as a diehard conservative and cruel despot.
Cixi reigned during extraordinary times and had to deal with a host of major national crises: the Taiping and Boxer rebellions, wars with France and Japan - and an invasion by eight allied powers including Britain, Germany, Russia and the United States. Jung Chang not only records the Empress Dowager's conduct of domestic and foreign affairs, but also takes the listener into the depths of her splendid Summer Palace and the harem of Beijing's Forbidden City, where she lived surrounded by eunuchs - one of whom she fell in love, with tragic consequences. The world Chang describes here, in fascinating detail, seems almost unbelievable in its extraordinary mixture of the very old and the very new.
Based on newly available, mostly Chinese, historical documents such as court records, official and private correspondence, diaries and eyewitness accounts, this biography will revolutionize historical thinking about a crucial period in China's - and the world's - history. Packed with drama, fast paced and gripping, it is both a panoramic depiction of the birth of modern China and an intimate portrait of a woman: as the concubine to a monarch, as the absolute ruler of a third of the world's population, and as a unique stateswoman.
Customer ReviewsMost Helpful
By Heidi on 01-09-14
Very Important if flawed history of a leader
Critics of this work argue that Jung Chang has fallen in love with her subject, lost objectivity, taken a narrow view, abandoned scholarly rigor, and heavens, failed to entertain.
I am not a scholar of Chinese History and have only a little Mandarin but I feel compelled to respond to some of these assertions.
Jung Chang clearly sympathizes with Cixi, and I can not imagine her failing to do so. The author has a more intimate connection to her subject than either a doctrinal scholar of the People's Republic or any Western male scholar will. In fact, I find myself becoming incensed by the decidedly male view that seems to suggest that such a constrained, uneducated, besieged woman, standing for the vast and deep heritage of the Dynasty that self-identified as China could have done much better. The author does not hide Cixi's failings, in fact she is careful to attempt to discover how Cixi perceived those now condemnable actions. She does however fail to anticipate the criticism of Cixi's choice to promote constitutional monarchy, and her weak provision for succession.
We have not been provided with this view before. It is a fascinating study of willful leadership and a sense of responsibility from a position of privileged powerlessness - and somehow feels familiar and understandable even now to an average Western woman in the 21st century. Jolene Kim's appropriately noninflected delivery and slightly accented voice in quotation lend an appropriate atmosphere to the work. The author is doing her level best to give this woman her voice. Western critiques that attack her employment of epithet and mannerism are ignorant of historic cultural forms.
I do agree however, that better source citation, anticipation and address of objections, and inclusion of the external viewpoint from outside of the court to help us understand what she could and could not have understood and significant junctures in her rule would have improved this work. I also agree that the treatment of some topics are either over-extended or underrepresented.
I think it is perhaps important to recognize the limits of any human holding together the last moments of a regime with some compassion. To do so, may help our own leaders see in those people the image of themselves.
7 of 7 people found this review helpful
By Patricia on 03-20-14
God awful narration
Would you say that listening to this book was time well-spent? Why or why not?
Perhaps but the narration has biased me
Who would you have cast as narrator instead of Jolene Kim?
Any additional comments?
I was really looking forward to this but the narrator killed it for me. So much has been written on western political history and I have read and listened to a lot. This seemed to be a break from all that and a glimpse into a different world. Had it been narrated by someone else I think I would have enjoyed it but alas it was not. Her performance reminds me of one reading a children's book.
5 of 5 people found this review helpful