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Empress Dowager Cixi: The Concubine Who Launched Modern China.

Empress Dowager Cixi: The Concubine Who Launched Modern China. By Jung Chang. (New York, NY: Alfred A. Knopf, 2013. Pp. ix, 436. $30.00.)

Empress Dowager Cixi has both intrigued and perplexed the imaginations of scholars searching for emerging modernity in China. Who was Cixi? As one of the few women rulers in Chinese history, several waves of scholarship have placed Cixi within rather different frames, emphasizing various images of her complex life, from femme fatale to powerful woman and reformer. In Jung Chang's book, Cixi becomes the superhero who, as her book title states, "launched modern China."

This study is a provocative attempt to rewrite the Chinese history of Cixi's time. In the author's treatment of late Qing history, the standard masculine narrative of male figures making modern China is replaced by a Cixi-centered history of China's modernization and interaction with the external world. Chang's book seeks to provide an alternative interpretation regarding almost all the major historical events and figures of the time. One example is China's relationship with the West. According to Chang, once Cixi accomplished the coup and became the "real ruler of China" after her husband's death, she quickly switched China's international relations from Emperor Xianfeng's "all-consuming hatred" toward the West and the "closed-door policy of 100 years" to a new course of "opening it up to the outside world" (50, 55). And thus, "under Cixi, China entered a long period of peace with the West" and maintained an open-door policy even when Cixi faced a strong xenophobic faction within China (57). This open-door policy provided Cixi with the economic benefit of income from customs revenues and an open mindset to assume her role as China's modernizer and reformer during her reign. Cixi, in Chang's book, is credited with China's post-Taiping developments of reconstruction, the Self-Strengthening Movement, the Reforms of 1898, and the late Qing reforms. Even when faced with an attempted assassination by her enemies, Cixi still "wished the Reforms to continue" and placed the interest of the country before her personal safety. In contrast, male figures, such as Kang Youwei and the Guanxu Emperor, were the narrow-minded people who cared more about their personal power and gains (245).

Chang presents a radically different interpretation of Cixi and her time, suggesting that she was an intentional and conscious modernizer and reformer as well as a virtuous and likeable woman. As a popular text on Cixi, Chang's book is intriguing and well written. As a serious historical account, this reader hoped the author would provide more concrete and convincing evidence to support her claims in various places. For example, much more evidence is needed to back up the author's claim that the Reforms of 1898 "had been launched and spearheaded by Cixi" and the alleged assassination of the Dowager (245). Nevertheless, Chang's popular book on Cixi will undoubtedly draw more scholarly attention to her subject and force scholars to rethink and reevaluate alternative ways of understanding the Chinese history of Cixi's time.

Danke Li

Fairfield University

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Author:Li, Danke
Publication:The Historian
Article Type:Book review
Date:Mar 22, 2016
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