History has not been kind to China’s Empress Dowager Cixi. Credit for her numerous achievements is generally given to the men who served her. She’s been called a ruthless tyrant and murderer, and those in power after her claimed to be cleaning up yet another of her unforgivable messes. Were any of this true, the criticism might be forgivable. However, author Jung Chang (Wild Swans) has uncovered new research and debunked the myth-makers to bring us Empress Dowager Cixi in all her complexity.

To call this a rags-to-riches story would be a gross understatement. At age 16, Cixi was chosen as one of the Emperor’s concubines, albeit a low-ranking one. By remaining friends with the Empress, avoiding competition with the other women in the harem and, most significantly, producing the first male heir to the throne, she secured a foothold from which she climbed steadily into power. When the Emperor died in 1861, Cixi’s 5-year-old son succeeded him, and Cixi orchestrated a palace coup (at age 25!) that made her the true leader of the country. She led from behind the throne—behind a screen, in fact, to separate her from male officials.

Cixi steered the country toward modernity and greater prosperity. The railroad, electricity, telegraph and telephone lines, Western medicine, foreign trade and a modern military were all brought about under her reign. She slowly ended the brutal practice of female foot-binding and vastly expanded opportunities for women. And while her legacy is not without significant missteps and errors, she notably made public apologies upon seeing the error of her ways, and ruled in a relatively bloodless manner.

This biography is engaging especially for the contrasts Chang finds between old and new ways: Cixi pushed for China to accept a degree of Westernization as necessary to its prosperity, but took her tea with human breast milk on the advice of a doctor. She built the railroads, but ensured work was begun on an astrologically “auspicious” day and sent envoys out to assure the locals that the remains of their buried ancestors would not be disturbed by the noise.

Empress Dowager Cixi corrects a longstanding misconception about a woman whose impact on China can’t be overstated. It’s a fascinating look at power, politics and the gender divide.

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