Saturday, July 25, 2015

Book Review: Empress Dowager Cixi By Jung Chang

This book review is on Amazon.

The author takes advantage of archival material only available in recent decades to write a remarkable and revisionist history of China's last Dowager Empress. Some the narrative will surprise the reader by the plethora of minutia the author uses in her portrayal of Cixi. She is unequivocal in presenting Cixi as a progressive, intelligent and reform minded leader, every bit as worthy to sit on dragon throne as Wu Zetian of the Tang dynasty, the only woman in China's long history who did reign in her own name.

At other times, perhaps lacking supporting reference material in her research, the author resorts to broad sweeping statements and generalizations that leave the reader to decipher between that which is based in historical fact and that's merely her conjecture and opinion. Indeed, just as Ms. Chang effectively raised the image of Cixi in her book, she has diminished the reputation and integrity of many of the ranking officials in the Qing court. For example Li Hongzhang, the most senior Han Chinese in court, widely regarded as a brilliant statesman and lead negotiator with the western powers is depicted as a less than competent person of doubtful integrity. Kang Youwei was nothing more than a scheming, conniving person in cahoots with Japan, who plotted to assassinate Cixi, restore Guangxu to the throne so that he can become the power behind the throne. Until this book, Kang enjoyed that reputation as the initiator of the famous hundred days of reform while Guangxu was in power.

The author has the irritating habit of bestowing handles to people as a way of denigrating them. For example, throughout her book Kang was consistently referred to as "Wild Fox" Kang. Zeng Guofan was "Marquis" Zeng and earlier mentioned Li Hongzhang was "Earl" Li. Presumably honorific titles relevant to the British peerage and merely dissonant in the context of the Chinese imperial court.

Perhaps because the author lives in U.K. and is married to a Brit, she goes easy on, much less squarely blame, the British empire for forcibly crammed opium into China and was responsible for the destruction of China's society and economy. The strongest condemnation I found in her book was, “Foreign opium imported into China was chiefly produced in British India and shipped solely from British ports.” Oh my goodness sake.

The merit of this book lies in filling the blanks in the history of the end of the Qing era. For example, not remembered was Robert Hart, an Englishman who came to China while young and stayed. He set up the customs collection system for China and by managing the duty collection, he became the de facto treasurer of China and responsible for a major source of revenue for China, without which China would not have been able to continue to enter unequal treaties and pay indemnity to the western powers. Towards the end of her life, Cixi conferred a title to Hart that ranked him third in the hierarchy of the imperial court, a rare honor for someone not related to the imperial family much less a big nosed foreigner.

For the history buff wanting to know about the last years of the Qing Dynasty, this book is a welcome and valuable addition--especially for the discerning reader with the care and willingness to separate the gems from the author's rant.

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