x Abu Dhabi, UAEThursday 27 July 2017

Concubine seizes power

In Judy Chang's latest historical epic, we learn of Cixi, who was brought to Beijing at 16 to serve as a concubine, then became the empress after the death of Emperor Xianfeng

Jung Chang first came to prominence in 1991 with Wild Swans, her best-selling narrative of her own family’s fate under Chinese communist rule, before following it up with a somewhat polemical biography of Chairman Mao in 2005.

The British-Chinese author’s latest work is on the life of another figure who played a pivotal role in the history of China – the Empress Dowager Cixi.

Brought to the Forbidden City in Beijing at the age of 16, Cixi served as a lowly concubine in the harem of Emperor Xianfeng, before bearing him his only heir, then seizing power after he died in 1861.

Following her death in 1908, Cixi was routinely portrayed as a deranged tyrant or a guileless leader who brought about the demise of the Qing Dynasty. The author, however, persuasively argues that she was instead an astute social reformer and proto-feminist who ushered medieval China into the modern age.

Meticulously researched and full of plenty of telling details about the palace intrigues and diplomatic wrangles of the era, it makes for fascinating historical drama. Nowadays, as China’s world power continues to ascend, this work gives an absorbing account of one of the initiators of this rise.

hberger@thenational.ae