Empress Dowager Cixi (1835–1908) is the most important woman in Chinese history. She ruled China for decades and brought a medieval empire into the modern age.
At the age of 16, in a nationwide selection for royal consorts, Cixi was chosen as one of the emperor's numerous concubines. When he 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.
In this groundbreaking biography, Jung Chang vividly describes how Cixi fought against monumental obstacles to change China. Under her the ancient country 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. Chang comprehensively overturns the conventional view of Cixi as a diehard conservative and cruel despot.
Cixi reigned during extraordinary times and had to deal with a host of major national crises: the Taiping and Boxer rebellions, wars with France and Japan - and an invasion by eight allied powers including Britain, Germany, Russia and the United States. Jung Chang not only records the Empress Dowager's conduct of domestic and foreign affairs, but also takes the listener into the depths of her splendid Summer Palace and the harem of Beijing's Forbidden City, where she lived surrounded by eunuchs - one of whom she fell in love, with tragic consequences. The world Chang describes here, in fascinating detail, seems almost unbelievable in its extraordinary mixture of the very old and the very new.
Based on newly available, mostly Chinese, historical documents such as court records, official and private correspondence, diaries and eyewitness accounts, this biography will revolutionize historical thinking about a crucial period in China's - and the world's - history. Packed with drama, fast paced and gripping, it is both a panoramic depiction of the birth of modern China and an intimate portrait of a woman: as the concubine to a monarch, as the absolute ruler of a third of the world's population, and as a unique stateswoman.
©2013 Jung Chang (P)2013 Random House Audio
"When an author as thorough, gifted, and immersed in Chinese culture as Chang writes, both scholars and general readers take notice." (Margaret Flanagan, Booklist)
"A fascinating and instructive biography for anyone interested in how today's China began." (Library Journal)
"An impassioned defense of the daughter of a government employee who finagled her way to becoming the long-reigning empress dowager, feminist, and reformer….In an entertaining biography, the empress finally has her day." (Kirkus Reviews)
I read epic sci-fi and historic fiction, good non-fiction science, classic philosophy, history and little bits of what blows through my ears
Critics of this work argue that Jung Chang has fallen in love with her subject, lost objectivity, taken a narrow view, abandoned scholarly rigor, and heavens, failed to entertain.
I am not a scholar of Chinese History and have only a little Mandarin but I feel compelled to respond to some of these assertions.
Jung Chang clearly sympathizes with Cixi, and I can not imagine her failing to do so. The author has a more intimate connection to her subject than either a doctrinal scholar of the People's Republic or any Western male scholar will. In fact, I find myself becoming incensed by the decidedly male view that seems to suggest that such a constrained, uneducated, besieged woman, standing for the vast and deep heritage of the Dynasty that self-identified as China could have done much better. The author does not hide Cixi's failings, in fact she is careful to attempt to discover how Cixi perceived those now condemnable actions. She does however fail to anticipate the criticism of Cixi's choice to promote constitutional monarchy, and her weak provision for succession.
We have not been provided with this view before. It is a fascinating study of willful leadership and a sense of responsibility from a position of privileged powerlessness - and somehow feels familiar and understandable even now to an average Western woman in the 21st century. Jolene Kim's appropriately noninflected delivery and slightly accented voice in quotation lend an appropriate atmosphere to the work. The author is doing her level best to give this woman her voice. Western critiques that attack her employment of epithet and mannerism are ignorant of historic cultural forms.
I do agree however, that better source citation, anticipation and address of objections, and inclusion of the external viewpoint from outside of the court to help us understand what she could and could not have understood and significant junctures in her rule would have improved this work. I also agree that the treatment of some topics are either over-extended or underrepresented.
I think it is perhaps important to recognize the limits of any human holding together the last moments of a regime with some compassion. To do so, may help our own leaders see in those people the image of themselves.
Perhaps but the narration has biased me
I was really looking forward to this but the narrator killed it for me. So much has been written on western political history and I have read and listened to a lot. This seemed to be a break from all that and a glimpse into a different world. Had it been narrated by someone else I think I would have enjoyed it but alas it was not. Her performance reminds me of one reading a children's book.
and a penny for your thoughts
I am anxious to spare anyone else from wasting their hard earned money so I am dictating this with my phone in transit. If I repeat myself, please forgive.
It is hard to review the book because the narration is so god awful so the audio portion is my focus. Don't waste a credit. If you need audio, get the eBook and let your iPhone or other smartphone read it to you. If you want an audiobook of Cixi's story, try Pearl Buck's “Imperial Woman”, read by Kirsten Potter (compare the audio samples to hear for yourself).
Cixi's story is an interesting one. It can be fascinating or confusing to a young, Western reader unfamiliar with Chinese history, depending on how it is told. If Jung Chang's goal was to correct Pearl Buck's version of events and set the record straight, based on newly uncovered records, she missed the mark. Pearl Buck's skills as a storyteller are legendary. Few authors can stand up to that comparison and shouldn't have to. I was eager to experience Jung Chang's version of Cixi's story. Unfortunately, the audiobook experience was so awful I didn't get to. Still interested in Chang's version of Cixi's life, I then purchased a printed copy of the book. That was a year ago and I still haven't had a chance to sit down and read it. Meanwhile, during all my hours driving, walking, cooking, scanning, organizing … living, I'm listening to and recommending other books by other authors - authors who respect the skill of reading and understand the value of what it brings to a book.
Although I prefer audio books, I sometimes choose printed. Nobody enjoys every reader. That doesn't mean they're not qualified, competent readers. This is a different case. Kim's reading is plain and simple - god awful. If this was your own kid's reading you'd have a hard time suffering through it. She not only ruins any storytelling enjoyment that might've been had but actually gets in the way of the listener's ability to even grasp the story. Kim's stiff, halted, insecure reading, combined with a clear lack of understanding for the material she is reading combine for a horrible experience. She brings no life to the material, even struggling at times. There are audible pauses before and after certain words (obviously corrections during post-editing) accentuating the already inept narration. It's like a 14 year old reading her book report, without the charm.
Whoever approved the narration of this audiobook should be ashamed. Kim is apparently a working actress but audiobook narration is a separate skill. Some have it naturally. Kim doesn't. She has no other reading credits and this is not the book to start with. With all the qualified, talented readers who've paid their dues and would have loved the chance to read this book, it boggles my mind that someone approved this reading. Was Kim given the job simply because she's Asian, disregarding her lack of qualifications or ability for it?
I've heard unknown, self published, self read books, classics read by Libra Vox volunteers that were better than this. How does a major publisher like Random House, that has spent gobs of money promoting a book not get a qualified reader?
It makes me wonder - if an author and publisher don't think her book is worth better reader than this, why should anyone else bother with it?
Audible should be ashamed to offer a reading this bad. It demeans the art of narration and is an insult to anyone who takes pride in the skill of reading an audio book.
I would have hired a different actress for the narration. Jolene Kim's reading is dreadfully amateurish, and her use of a Chinese-ish accent for direct quotations from the empress is grating.
Jung Chang does an excellent job providing historical background and context for the constraints and traditions of the monarchy in China.
No Pink Ponies
I've read almost every bio of Cixi there is since high school, when I studied Chinese history. This bio puts a new and modern spin on how Cixi actually tried to modernize China at the turn of the 20th Century--while maintaining order at home and keeping foreign powers at bay. I knew the players well but the new viewpoint on her reign as empress went contrary to many popular opinions that she was reactionary and a deterrent to modernization. Fascinating! And seeing how Japan, Russia, and the Europeans played their part in disrupting the Ching Dynasty and the entire region is likewise a deep look back into a land of mystery to most Americans.
Cixi is one of history's most fascinating women. But Prince Chun, her brother-in-law (doubly so, half brother of the Emperor and married to Cixi's sister) is equally fascinating in this book, where he mostly plays the bad guy but one who reforms in the end.
Jolene seems to have good Chinese pronunciation--while I can't be sure, she does seem to do a good job.
Dragon and Phoenix: China's entry into the modern world during the reign of Empress Cixi.
The book is well-written and very entertaining. Jung Chang has written a solid piece of work that makes learning about the dowager empress a lot of fun.
The narrator Jolene Kim, however, is another matter. She reads wll enough, and she might be of Chinese heritage (I have no idea), but she's clearly not from maninland China, and her pronounciation of Chinese Mandarin is horrendous. This detracts a lot from what could've been a perfect audio book. Kim pronounces Cixi as "Zi-shee" (the latter cyllable doesn't even exist in Mandarin), and because of her generally bad pronounciation of Chinese, it's very difficult for someone to look up names and words that she's is reading. Why not choose someone who actually IS from mainland China to read this book?
Another curious choice Kim makes is to read all of Empress Dowager Cixi's direct quotes in a type of Chinglish accent. Why would she do that? Cixi did not speak English at all, and thus did not deliver her opnions in broken English.
Please don't let this discourage you from reading or listening to the book, though! The book itself is great, and deserves to be read by everyone.
Someone else reading this.
I had a difficult time listening to it, so I couldn't say.
I bought the tape so I could listen to it while I knitted. I had purchased the book, but thought listening to it would work better because the names were so difficult to pronounce. Not! I ended up reading the book, only listening to the tape intermittently so I knew how to pronounce the Chinese names. The book was a great read; the tape was an awful listen.
Fantasy geek, literature lover!
This is a very interesting book, well written and well performed by the narrator. It ranks pretty high in my collection of historical biographies so far.
The author, even though certainly supportive of the empress's achievements, is not overall biased and is frank about certain decisions Cixi had to make in order to preserve her power and the Chinese empire.
It's funny the way the narrator switches to "chinese" English pronunciation when "performing" the empress in some of her letters or alleged sentences spoken to Ministers or Grandees or other.
"The Dragon Woman"
This book is a cohesive overview of 19th century China and establishes Cixi as the real "maker". So, it makes an interesting hearing not only for people interested in the Empress tout court but also for people interested in Chinese history. Contrary to many biographies, Ms Chang doesn't give in to gossip. The performer, Jolene Kim, does a very good job (rhythm of the narration, clarity, even "performance" of some of the personages).
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