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Empress Dowager Cixi
on 4 January 2014
This is an absolutely fascinating biography. Subtitled, "the Concubine who launched modern China" it takes you from 1835 to 1908 and tells the story of a young woman who first entered the Forbidden City at the age of 16. Chosen as a concubine to the Emperor Xianfeng, she was entered in the court register as, "the woman of the Nala family" - too lowly to even be given a name of her own. However, she had already helped her family raise funds, when her grandfather was imprisoned and her help in the crisis had become a family legend. Her father said, "this daughter of mine is really more like a son!" which was praise indeed, and she was certainly intelligent and capable. However, her willingness to voice her opinion was not appreciation by the Emperor; who resented her suggestions and she was not favoured. Luckily, the Empress Zhen, head of the harem, protected her and, even more in her favour was the fact that she gave birth to the Emperor's only living son, Zaichun. When the Emperor died, Cixi and Zhen organised a coup to control power through Cixi's son.
This then is the story of how a woman effectively ruled China. Cixi was eager to create amicable relations with the West and asked whether foreign trade and an open door policy was a bad thing for her country, as her husband has always asserted? She took the first steps towards modernisation and was eager to find out about other ways of life and methods of government. However, things were never easy. Cixi was to face opposition, tragedy, wars, and the loss of power when her son (and later adopted son) came of age. She was never able to fully rule, certainly not in her own name, or even to receive men without a screen between her and them and resented these restrictions. This biography takes us all the way through her life; with its amazing ups and downs, successes and tragedies, her ambitions and desire to push China from medieval times into the modern age. I have to admit that I know nothing about this period of history, so, if there are mistakes I would be unable to spot them. However, simply as a fascinating biography, it is an informative and enjoyable read.