Book Review: Empress Dowager Cixi by Jung Chang.

 

 

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Paperback: 464 pages
Publisher: Vintage (3 July 2014)
ISBN-10: 0099532395
ISBN-13: 978-0099532392
http://www.amazon.co.uk/Empress-Dowager-Cixi-Concubine-Launched/dp/0099532395/ref=tmm_pap_swatch_0?_encoding=UTF8&sr=&qid=

If I hadn’t suddenly taken an interest in the Last Emperor of China I would probably have never read this book. I had seen it as an imposing hardback as I passed stacked book of the month tables, and had even picked it up, but I didn’t feel curious about late Imperial China at that moment & I had never heard of Empress Dowager Cixi, let alone Jung Chang.
Suffice to say things changed, and a combination of finishing Julia Lovell’s Opium War and stumbling onto the story of Puyi, I saw Chang’s book for half price and quickly decided that if I was to read about the Last Emperor, the story of Cixi would be invaluable to me. How right I was.

The biography is of Empress Dowager Cixi, a concubine who became a regent, who ruled the largest population in the world for much of her life, and also the oldest empire in the world, needless to say, change came hard to China. By a quirk of fate Cixi would take responsibility for setting this ancient kingdom onto the road to becoming a modern state.

If Cixi had been a western monarch she would probably have been remembered as one of the greatest that ever lived. But being Chinese, a woman and being part of the imperial hegemony that ruled China for almost 300 years, she became a victim of communist revisionist historians, who painted her as either a tyrant or hopelessly inept.

Chang seeks to redress the balance. Convincingly showing how Cixi brought Medieval China out of the past and into the future. She herself was a medieval mind trying to find a way in a 19th century world. The author is clearly sympathetic to her subject, fearlessly defending Cixi to critics, yet boldly detailing her flaws, forcing you to look at the Empress Dowager as she was, liking her at first, recoiling from her near the end and finally finishing with a newfound respect for her, this book has an eloquent balance of light and shade and is a beguiling read.

The book offers a complete picture of her. A very detailed look into a lost wold, uneven chapters weave strong images in your mind, sometimes focusing on a small facet of her personality, then diving into one of the sweeping periods of her life, the little details bring her to life. The faint fragrance of greenwood and apples, fresh flowers in a Manchu coiffure and many other little treats make this a literary feast.

In the end I found it very easy to be impressed by Cixi. Despite her detractors she comes off no worse than some Roman Emperor’s or Elizabeth I for that matter, right now, revisionist historians are taking second looks at people like Caligula & Nero, so a fresh look at Cixi is more than overdue. I think she fascinated people when she was alive, and I think that by the end of this book, you will be fascinated by her too.

Happy Reading.

Josh

Book Review: The Opium War by Julia Lovell.

Hardcover: 480 pages
Publisher: Picador (2 Sep 2011)
Language: English
ISBN-10: 0330457470
ISBN-13: 978-0330457477
http://www.amazon.co.uk/The-Opium-War-Dreams-Making/dp/0330457470/ref=tmm_hrd_title_0book cover

Appearance and handling:
The rich red dust-jacket fairly jumps from any shelf it is placed on. A delicate, significance laden, Poppy graces the front over a scene from the first war. The hardback is heavy and definitely a showy number but be careful how you hold it, because the publishers unwisely went with embossed guilt lettering, not only on the front but on the spine as well, which rubs off removing all but subtle traces of the writing. I’ve tried different hand postures but the only ones that work are very uncomfortable. Inside it’s got some nice illustrations in two sections, with the usual ratio of pictures to page, relatively generic maps of course, and a few black and white images scattered in between.

Review:
A more accurate name for this book would have been: “The Opium War, Causes & Consequences.” In that the main focus is not so much on the conduct of the wars, but the trigger mechanisms, socio-political ramifications and cultural significance of the conflicts.

Julia Lovell does a fine job of this and convincingly show’s how China was violently thrust into the modern world, and how, later, it took control of its past to secure its destiny. Initially the British and the Chinese face off as two nations, each imbued with its own sense of moral, cultural and racial superiority, both unwilling to understand or compromise with the other.

Triggered by the hot topic of the Opium trade, the ensuing clashes of arms leaves China with its moral superiority intact, but very little else, and a bruising road of rebellion, revolution and reform begins, which, due to the ideological hijack of the historical record by the Communist party, all leads back to the Opium War, which is at the root of Chinese attitudes to the world.

The book tries to encompass quite a large subject into a short space, 361 reading pages by my count, the rest is notes, index and maps. Not only does Lovell try to tell the tale of the Opium Wars but she also includes the Taiping & Boxer Rebellions, an interesting study of how “sinophobia” gripped the west in the late 19th century, and even a skim over the tumultuous events of the 20th century too.

This book therefore is perfectly good for a reader, new to the subject as I was, and wants an overview of the causes and of how they impact the world today. Despite its name though, the book is not a military history.

Comment on the lack of the sort of detail in the battle’s and campaigns military historians would prefer I will omit, I have already said this is not actually a military history. Suffice to say that “Breech loading percussion muskets” were not used against the Chinese by the British army in the 1840’s and it was not a company of the 37th Foot that got surrounded during the Sanyuanli Incident, it was one from the 37th Madras Native Infantry.

The main bulk of the text is taken up with what I have called causes and consequences, and the 1st war, the second getting but a chapter, but this is because the 2nd War was not directly caused by Opium, not in the same way the first was, and hardly merits the name, note the name of this book is not pluralised.

I believe this book will give a reader a good comprehension of the effects of European interference in China, and of the many varying factors that affected the decisions and actions of the participants involved, it will also show you how China’s modern journey began.

Josh.

Ching Shih, The Pirate Queen of the China Sea.

From Canton across the South China sea to the edge of the Philippines the Red Flags of Pirate Junks waved in the fragrant breeze. These were the ships of the greatest pirate fleet ever to sail the sea, the only true pirate confederation to actually exist and it was all headed up by one very mysterious woman named Ching Shih. There’s allot of information out there about Shih, and most of it is either unrealistic, unprovable, tentative or just wrong. If you believe most internet sites then you will come off with the impression she took on the world and won. Well it didn’t quite happen that way and the it’s time for the Internet to step back from sensationalising her. This (so far be understood) is the real story. Continue reading