Jung Chang’s latest book on empress dowager Cixi. An apologetic work which has little to see with historical reality.




Niccolò Machiavelli wrote, five centuries ago, that: ‘the tragedy of mankind is that we cannot find a man totally good or a man totally bad’ all depending on the point of view. This is what Jung Chang is trying to do in her latest book Empress Dowager Cixi. The concubine who launched modern China wanting to highlight her mettle, her fierce nationalism, while minimizing her capital mistakes. She wants to change our point of view.

Indeed Cixi had been vilified by Chinese Communists but she was much more hated by Nationalists, like Sun Yatsen, Kang Youwei, a monarchist – who saw his brother and several other martyrs beheaded on her orders – Yeung Kui-wan, murdered in Hong Kong 1901 by Cixi’s assassins, assaulted at the corner of Gage and Aberdeen Street.

Writer Jung Chan will be soon in Hong Kong where she will present her book at the FCC and at the Asia Society. She is a great writer and she has penned a very readable book, well structured and convincingly built, although when we put it under a critical magnifying lens all arguments seem to vanish in a cloud of colorful question marks. She was on BBC prime time and her book is already getting gloating reviews and praises on western media, presented as a great historical biography. After reading it, we beg to dissent: to us it seems more an apologia in the classical sense of the term than a work of history. We may even call it a long love letter that the author want to send up to her. Historical facts seem to have been used only when they came handy and were tossed away when they contradicted the main theme of her work, that is: the vilified Empress Dowager Cixi had been a brave and forward-thinking reformer, contrary to common perception.

After the publication of her previous book in 2005 – written with her husband Jon Halliday, Mao: the unknown story – Jung Chan took some heavy poundings, standing accused of lack of scholarship and of taking too many liberties with historical facts by some sinologists like Gregor Benton, Steve Tsang and Jonathan Spence. They criticized the way Mao was presented in her book – even if her cause may have been a worthy one – pointing out her bungling of too many details. As Jonathan Fenby wrote: ‘The central trust of the book is that Mao was a sadistic monster, worst than Stalin and Hitler and responsible for 70 million deaths. His Marxism was only a shallow mark for selfishness.’ Their point being rather than Mao had been also a monster. For instance that book did not explain, nor give reasonable hypothesis, on why Mao had been able to cling to absolute power for 26 years and create a strong image internationally. According to them she made the mistake of personalizing the blame, with her latest book on Cixi we see a personalization of the praise. Furthermore some of her claims were not well supported like that Generalissimo Chang Kai-Shek intentionally letting the Red Army escape on the Long March of 1934-35; or the episode of the heroic Luding Battle – central in Communist lore – that in the book had never happened. Their only source being a 93-old lady they met at the scene and the curator of a museum. Jung Chang repeated the story of this never happened battle just a few months ago in Hong Kong, sitting close to David Tang during one of Tang’s lecture series. Recent research into that episode, made by British historians, contradicts the book’s claims; indeed there was a bloody battle.

The first sentence under Author’s Note that meets the readers’ eye is not the best way to start: ‘The ‘tael’ was the currency of China at the time.’Actually the tael was only a measurement of weight, a word derived from Malay and Portuguese. The following pages did not improve the first negative impact. In her book some grave facts seem too easily dismissed, such as the staging of a coup d’état. Illegal, treasonable and contrary to dynastic rules, then Cixi was able to cling to power because she corrupted and threaten with death all her adversaries, inside and outside the palace. When the Guangxu Emperor – her nephew – acted independently, aided by some forward-thinking reformists, she had them arrested and executed. The justification given in the book for her behavior was that they were planning to kill her. But, by the standard of the time, since she was a traitor and a grave threat to the State, death would have been a great act of justice. On the chapter dedicated to the Boxer uprising we read justifications of the paramount idiocy of Cixi when she sided with the Boxers, declaring war on the 8 Nations who had invaded China. Some of her advisers, seeing the uselessness of such an act, tried to oppose her but lost their heads in the process. Even elder statesman Li Hongzhang from Canton petitioned her to desist, writing that it was like ‘throwing a stone to a mouse moving among precious vases of porcelain’ but an headstrong Cixi tough otherwise.

Let me quote just one passage – but there are many in her book – just to show the extent, bordering the grotesque, of Jung Chang’s justification of the heinous crimes committed by her heroine:

But before all else , the day after she returned from exile Cixi honoured Imperial Concubine Pearl, whom she had drowned in a well just before she fled. This was an act of contrition. It was also an attempt to make amends to her adopted son, who had given her his cooperation over several years, especially during the exile. Above all, perhaps, Cixi was making a gesture to the western powers, who had been appalled by the murder.

When she had fled the Imperial City in July 1900, during the boxer rebellion, the Pearl Concubine of Emperor Guangxu wanted to defy her order of staying back, while she was leaving. Cixi gave orders to the eunuchs to grab her and throw her head down in a well. Her body was then left there to rot. This is a story that some thought not true, being told by Sir Edmund Backhouse in one of his book but not only Jung Chang admits it is true but she also wants the readers to let her get away with murder, quite literally!

In the novel il Gattopardo written by Giuseppe Tomasi di Lampedusa and set more or less in the same period but in far away Sicily, we read of a Prince of Salina who was faced with Cixi’s same dilemma: oppose or adapt to the changing times. Giuseppe Garibaldi had just landed, leading a wave of new people wanting to assert their power. The advice the old Prince received from his brilliant and young nephew was this: ‘If we want everything to remain the same, everything must change.’ Cixi did not heed her young nephew’s advice and ruin ensued. China is still paying an heavy price for the mistakes made by her and her conservative followers even if it may sound fashionable today to create a feminist heroine were there was in fact none. She was not a reformer and she could not have been one, either by instinct or by education. Her hold on power was illegal and therefore shaky, she was left with no choice but to keep as her ministers only rabid defenders of the status quo unable to offer dissenting voices to her suicidal policies.


A shorter take on the same subject is here:




3 commenti su “Jung Chang’s latest book on empress dowager Cixi. An apologetic work which has little to see with historical reality.

  1. A book cannot be perfect. “Mao: the unknown story,” is a great picture indeed. We can discuss it, of course. However it opens interesting and unknown windows. I’ll read Empress Dowager Cixi. With high curiosity thanks to these comments, knowing that Jung Chan is not a historian.

  2. I appreciate this review has alerted me of the true substance of the book.

    I attended the presentation of Jung Chang with David Tang in Hong Kong University. Her mentions to Cixi as an agent for change almost subjugated me. I have signed for her presentation in Asia Society next week, something that, if I had read this review before, I would not have done it.

    I did not trust myself but reminded of my ignorance in spite of my wide readings on Chinese history, among them the superb “The Search for Modern China” by Jonathan Spence. Certainly I read this book 15 years ago and could not recollect Cixi as being such a revolutionary figure, quite the contrary. But I did not trust myself and let the marketing machinery and Jung Chang’s charm and reputation mislead me. A friend from England wrote me saying his wife could not put the book down.

    I was also under the spell of Chang’s “Wild Swans”, my first book on China (besides Pearl S. Buck), 20 years ago, and still I consider it a masterpiece in the recreation of historical atmosphere and as a work of literature.

    The reviewer shows the intellectual stamina to stand his ground, convincingly and eloquently, drawing parallels to other historical circumstances, helping the reader to make his own judgment supported by plain facts. After all, also a moral exercise. Thank you.

  3. I just finished reading the book. Whether the details in the book are true or not is questionable, but the overall premise of the book is still true. The reforms that happened under her rule DID happen. And reforms in Imperial China don’t happen unless it is endorsed by the ruling dynasty. When Chang speaks of decrees and edicts, there must have been some written record of it somewhere and I would highly doubt that this would be fabricated as historians would be all over it.

    First of all lookup “tael” in google. You will find more than one source defining it as currency when applied to the way the Chinese used it. In fact, if you look at the definition of currency at dictionary.com, it means “something that is used as a medium of exchange”. So if the Chinese used 1 tael of silver to buy something, then in fact, that is the currency.

    Second of all, nowhere in the book did it say that Concubine Pearl wanted to stay. Chang’s explanation was that there was no room left on the cart and she had to decide who to take. Pearl got the short straw and could not go and was ordered to suicide… she declined. At that point, the order was given to throw her down the well. Of course, this is a minute detail and whether or not this is true is irrelevant. What’s relevant is that she was not on the cart… Also being the absolute ruler (similar to a dictator), one has the power to end another person’s life without just cause… especially in the Forbidden City. This is a fact of life when one’s word is law. If one’s word is law, then it cannot be murder. Under western laws, yes it is murder, but the story did not happen in the west.

    I’m not defending Chang’s book, but I tend to gloss over the details and look at the overall content when judging it’s merit. I’m a skeptic so I cannot endorse this book nor deny it. I can only compare the story against others on the same subject especially those who actually lived during that era and interacted with the people in question. As such, I highly recommend reading the following books:

    Two Years in the Forbidden City – Princess Der Ling.
    Old Buddha – Princess Der Ling.
    The Last Manchu – Henry Pu Yi.

    I plan to read Twelves Years in China by John Scarth to get the British point of view during this time.

    In regards to her book about Mao, I have not read it yet, but I have read this one:
    The Private Life of Chairman Mao – Li Zhi Sui – written by Mao’s personal physican. And of course, Wild Swans by Jung Chang. It is interesting to read both sides of the story.

    It is also unbelievable that Li Zhi Sui was riding in an open car with Mao in Tienanmen Square, and Jung Chang in the crowd as a red guard at that same moment – within eye-shot of each other. Both writing about it years later… two authors… two points of view… same point in history. Amazing.

    Suffice to say, during the years of 1800’s to mid 1900’s, the Chinese suffered greatly both in China and abroad – esp. in the west coast of North America. It certainly was not a good time to be Chinese.

    I would highly recommend you read the following books t

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