By the mid-19th century, China was in desperate shape. The weakness of the Qing Empire was symptom of centuries of cultural atrophy and inwardness. Without either a bold reformer or, more likely, a bloody revolution, the country would collapse.
From within the Forbidden City emerged one the more improbable agents of change in history. Her actual family name was possibly Xing, but starting in 1852, when she caught the eye of the emperor, she was henceforth known as Cixi, meaning “kindly and joyous.”
Just 16 at the outset, Cixi soon became a favourite concubine of Emperor Xianfeng. By bearing him a male child in 1856, she ensured her position within the imperial harem. With Xianfeng’s death in 1861, during yet another crisis involving a colonial invader, their five-year-old son ascended to the throne.
Officially, the boy emperor’s mother still had no standing in the court. But in move of almost unthinkable audacity, Cixi orchestrated a coup against the conservative Regents set to rule until the child came of age. She was now all of 25.
Her fellow conspirator was the equally young widow Empress Zhen, and the two women had to outsmart a gallery of men. With hindsight, their success seems closer to a manga fantasy of girl power than a historical incident.
Cixi even dispatched key opponents, the first of several instances where she used violence for political ends. As a woman, she was not even permitted to attend her son’s coronation. But from behind the famous screen that maintained the illusion of rule-by-emperor, Cixi became the actual leader of China.
For the next half-century, the Empress Dowager went about the near impossible task of bringing “medieval China into the modern age.” According to Jung Chang, she was an “amazing stateswoman” whose “groundbreaking achievements, political sincerity and personal courage” initiated the nation’s transformation out of “poverty, savagery and absolute power.”
History, Chang admits, hasn’t generally viewed her so positively. “The past hundred years have been most unfair to Cixi,” she writes. Her posthumous reputation as “either tyrannical or vicious or hopelessly incompetent” was the result of two factors.
First, she was a woman, and could only rule by secret, and in the name of her sons. Second, the political forces that have dominated China for most of that time “deliberately reviled her” in order to claim they had saved the country from “the mess she had left behind.”
Jung Chang knows those political forces only too well. Her celebrated 1991 memoir, Wild Swans, opened an intimate window for the West onto Mao’s China. 2005’s Mao: the Unknown Story, co-written with her husband Jon Halliday, rendered vivid Mao Zedong’s tyranny and viciousness, along with – indeed – the mess that he left behind.
Empress Dowager Cixi is revisionist history at its most exuberant. As with her damning Mao exegesis, Chang hasn’t only a gut conviction about her subject. Extensive research, often into previously unexamined sources, produces hard evidence of both Cixi’s formidable gifts as a strategist, and her sincere efforts at reform.
It is a wild narrative ride. There is the assassination attempt by her own son and her hasty flight from the invasion of Beijing. There is the extravagance and waste of the few juxtaposed with the poverty and neglect of the many. There are the rebellions, the Taiping and Boxer, and the foreign incursions. There are the eunuchs and concubines and deaths by a thousand cuts.
There is also a portrait of a woman who gives over her life to save her behemoth nation from its own worst instincts. Such a commitment takes a personal toll, especially on relationships. When her likely one true love, a court eunuch, is arrested by her enemies, she is unable to save him from a beheading.
Chang, while never overlooking Cixi’s capacity for ruthlessness, attends to the plight of women in the Qing Dynasty. Even the most advantaged were victims of a deeply ingrained misogyny.
“All the ladies would try to be cheerful when they were around Cixi,” she writes of her circle, “but there was little real happiness.”
By the time of her death in 1908, Cixi was at work on reconceptualizing the monarchy as constitutional, rather than absolutist. In the estimation of her sympathetic biographer, had she lived to affect that reform, 20th-century China might have taken a radically different direction.
Jung Chang’s rehabilitation of this complex figure will strike some as overstated. True or not, her enthusiasm for Cixi, along with the astounding details of a half-century of outsized Chinese history, makes for a compelling, lively account, rich with drama and intrigue.
If, too, Empress Dowager Cixi seems about a vanished world, keep in mind its underlying theme: the difficulty of affecting change in China without catastrophe. A century and a half after the coup that brought her to secret power, that issue remains of urgent concern.
Charles Foran is the author of ten books. His new novel, Planet Lolita, is forthcoming in 2014.