Book Review: Empress Dowager Cixi by Jung Chang

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Published: 2013

I came by this book when I was looking for a biography to read about an important historical figure. I was keen to stay away from any American or European people because I feel like I was taught a decent amount about those two continents in my education. I wanted to find someone fascinating from a part of the world I knew very little about. So I narrowed it down to East-Asia. Well at least we made progress right?

What intrigued me about his book right away is that it was based in the Victorian Era, a period I feel I had grasped well in school, and it was about an important woman of power. Pardon my naivety, but I didn’t know that women could easily gain influence and power in China during this period. As I began to read the book, I realised just how amazing thing woman was. It was indeed very rare for a women to not only make political and economical decisions in a country, not to mention also rule for such a long period of time (nearly 50 years)!

Empress Dowager Cixi started off as a concubine to Emperor Xianfeng, as the author explains, “a Chinese emperor was entitled to one empress and as many concubines as he pleased” (3). Her role as concubine came with no real power, she was merely meant to please her emperor. So how did this incredible woman manage to become Empress and bring China from a medieval empire into the modern age? Well you are going to have to read the book to find out!

As someone who has studied History in school, I must say that there are many authors out there that can make an exciting period sound awfully tedious and can drown you with facts and figures as an attempt to impress you with their knowledge. Little attempts are made to make historical fiction engaging as well as educational. I think this book does an amazing job with this. Jung Chang manages to tell a story in such an engaging way, I couldn’t put down the book the same way I couldn’t put down the heart-racing The Maze series by David Dashner. Without a second thought, I could pick up the book even now and start re-reading it!

I marvelled at every page at how incredible this woman was and what a tumultuous time she ruled in (through many attacks from the Japanese, Russians and the West to multiple assassination attempts on herself). She was a very shrewd individual who was able to push aside her own feelings and opinions in order to find ways to ways to make China a strong empire. This means introducing then controversial and Western tactics such as building up a military and railway system to better transport it’s people and produce.

If you are interested in Chinese history, but may be a little bit overwhelmed as to where to start I would recommend this book. As someone with nearly zero prior knowledge about China I was able to follow everything without any issues, probably because Jung Chang does such a great job explaining everything! A definite must-read!

Have you read up about an amazing person in history? Let me know the title and author so I can add it to my list!

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