#FridayReads: Empress Dowager Cixi: The Concubine Who Launched Modern China by Jung Chang

JungCangCixiBiographyWe’ve explored a lot of interesting women through our fall #FridayReads focus on great female biographies. And naturally more than a few of them were pretty powerful. And today’s focus is on the Empress Dowager Cixi in a biography by Jung Chang. 

The incredible story of Cixi, who began as a 16-year-old concubine of Emperor Xianfeng and ended up not only taking the reigns of the entire country, but bringing it into the modern era. Empress Dowager Cixi (1835–1908) is considered to be the the most important woman in Chinese history, ruling China for decades.

When Emperor Xianfeng died in 1861, their five-year-old son succeeded to the throne. Cixi at once launched a palace coup against the regents appointed by her husband and made herself the real ruler of China—behind the throne, literally, with a silk screen separating her from her officials who were all male. Jung Chang vividly describes how Cixi fought against monumental obstacles to change China. Under her rule China attained virtually all the attributes of a modern state: industries, railways, electricity, the telegraph and an army and navy with up-to-date weaponry. It was she who abolished gruesome punishments like “death by a thousand cuts” and put an end to foot-binding. She inaugurated women’s liberation and embarked on the path to introduce parliamentary elections to China.

Fun facts Chang is a badass herself, a Chinese-born British writer now living in London, she wrote a family autobiography Wild Swans that sold over over 10 million copies worldwide but banned in the People’s Republic of China.She co-wrote a 832-page biography of Mao Zedong, Mao: The Unknown Story with her husband, the Irish historian Jon Halliday.  So just in case historical biographies aren’t your thing (though Cixi is a badass and you should) you can read Chang’s instead!

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