Jung Chang's new book tackles the legend and legacy of Empress Dowager Cixi, the concubine who modernized China.
“It is necessary,” writes Niccolò Machiavelli in his famous treatise on the craft of ruling, “to be a fox to discover the snares and a lion to terrify the wolves.” Shrewd statesmen from antiquity through the Florentine’s day and beyond have embodied this alchemical mix of the vulpine and the leonine in their quest to consolidate power, and their names gild our history books: Cesare Borgia. Catherine de’ Medici. Maximilien Robespierre. Mao Tse-Tung. Yet one iron-willed leader is conspicuously absent from the Princes’ Hall of Fame, at least in the West: that of China’s original ‘Dragon Lady’, the Empress Dowager Cixi. Adored and feared during her Methuselian lifetime, demonized by later Republicans and Communists as a concupiscent tyrant who sold China out to the Europeans, Cixi has been an object of fascination and scorn ever since she seized the reins of the Manchu dynasty in 1861 in a carefully calculated palace coup. Still, despite a handful of attempts to sort through the myths surrounding her life and legacy, Cixi’s name has remained synonymous with feminine wickedness and imperial perfidy.
Enter Jung Chang, the London-based author of the best-selling Wild Swans and Mao: The Unknown Story, both of which remain banned in her homeland. Chang is a meticulous researcher, as displayed in her Mao biography, which was heralded as a “magisterial” work of serious scholarship (and which aired some of the Chairman's dirtiest secrets and worst atrocities). For her next act, she’s trained her sleuthing skills and piercing pen on the common concubine who rose to rule China, and what she’s uncovered is nothing short of imposing. Empress Dowager Cixi is a hefty work, close to 400 pages total—by the midway point alone, Cixi is already 60 years old, with many assassination attempts yet to survive and massive reforms yet to wreak—as painstaking in detail as it is sweeping in scope. Chang captures the minutiae of court life—Cixi’s daily allowance of meat (70 pounds of pork, one chicken, one duck), the ‘sunset calls’ of the eunuchs—as well as the churning backdrop of the late 19th and early 20th centuries, when the Great Game was rushing to carve up Asia and restive rebellions roiled China’s countryside. Whether or not the book ever sees the light of day in Beijing and Shanghai, Chang’s new tome is certain to become the standard by which all future biographies of the Dowager Empress are measured.