A good biography is really something: satisfying, informative, surprising and compelling. Jung Chang’s new book, The Empress Dowager Cixi: The Concubine Who Launched Modern China (Jonathan Cape) is all those things. Cixi’s personality, her cleverness and charisma, which allowed her to surmount obstacles and seize opportunities, is one aspect of the story; the other is the fascinating details about life at the imperial court, where both the Imperial family and courtiers were caught in a sticky mess of tradition, ritual and roleplaying that gives Mervyn Peake’s Gormenghast a run for its money.
Just look at Cixi’s fingernails, and her ‘bound’ feet – in fact she didn’t have bound feet and outlawed the custom, but she knew how to present herself as an upholder of tradition, in order to gain the power that would allow her to subvert it:
Cixi was amazing, not just because she went from concubine to Empress Dowager, but because she saw how the Imperial Court and China had to change in order to deal with the challenges thrown up by contact with the English, French and Russians, who all had their beady, avaricious eyes on trade, land and power. She was mostly interested in change in order to preserve the status quo – as long as her status was elevated. Considering her sheltered life and the weight of centuries of tradition, her openness to even considering change is remarkable, let alone her skilful manoeuvering to provoke it.
One of the reasons she is quite scary is her ability to coldly, sometimes cruelly, make use of and insist on traditional protocol when it suits her purposes, she was a mix of cleverness, curiosity and conservatism – you just couldn’t be sure which was going to trump the other traits on any given subject.
The book is well written ,and it is quite a fast read too – Chang keeps up the pace both of Cixi’s life and the great political changes occurring about her, while giving you a real sense of what life in the Forbidden Palace was like at all levels – fantastical, sumptuous, cruel and ordered.