Jung Chang

The Diplomat’s Justin McDonnell spoke with author Jung Chang about her latest book, Empress Dowager Cixi, a biography of the “most important woman in Chinese history.

Jung Chang
Credit: Jung Chang

Jung Chang is the celebrated author of the family biography Wild Swans, which has sold more than 10 million copies worldwide. The Diplomat’s Justin McDonnell recently spoke with Chang about her latest book, Empress Dowager Cixi, a biography of the “most important woman in Chinese history,” and the parallels between the challenges facing the Qing Dynasty ruler and those confronting China’s leadership today.

How did you pick Empress Dowager Cixi to be the subject of your book?

I first became interested in her when I was researching Wild Swans more than 20 years ago. Because I grew up in Communist China, I somehow thought foot binding, which my grandmother suffered, was banned by the communists. And then I realized that it was the empress dowager who banned it. That took me by surprise because the image of the empress dowager was that of a diehard conservative, a cruel despot. That she should ban foot binding somehow surprised me. That was one reason.

Also, when I was researching Mao, I found that she had created a very free society full of opportunities for people like Mao, a peasant lad. So again that somehow surprised me.

After my biography on Mao was published, when I was thinking about another subject, I did a little research on her and I found that her reputation even then and even today to some extent, was still the kind of image I was given when I was in China. So then I became more interested, because that means I could do research, and I could again be a historical detective, and get down to the bottom of the truth.

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Cixi is often characterized as being impervious and ruthless. Yet, you recount her life quite differently – even considering her a progressive modernizer. What did you find in your research that led you to depict the controversial concubine in a new light?

I think she was certainly ruthless and she was capable of immense ruthlessness. I think that is also clear in my biography. She came to power through this coup, and you know three people were executed. The first act after she came to power was to put down peasant uprisings, like the Taiping rebellion. Of course, the Taiping had caused immense death and devastation but still she was ruthless enough to defeat that uprising and other peasant uprisings.

There was no doubt she was capable of immense ruthlessness, but she was also a modernizer. That is not incompatible. I discovered her modernizing efforts through years of research. I wrote the biography of Mao with my husband, Jon Halliday. We spent 12 years doing research and writing. I worked for six years on the empress dowager. Those years were mainly reading archived documents, primary sources and original documents. From her edicts which are now digitalized, court correspondence, diaries, people’s memoirs and interviews with Cixi, and so on, all these documents show that she was a modernizer.

Do you think China would look very different today if the Qing dynasty hadn’t collapsed so early in the twentieth century? 

I’m not very good at predicting. I simply don’t know. The thing is the empress dowager was certainly sincere in her efforts to establish a constitutional monarchy at the beginning of the 20th century, but she also had some very tough problems. A major one was that the Qing dynasty was Manchu. The Manchus were only one percent of the Chinese population, so it was a minority rule. It’s very hard to imagine that a Han Chinese, the vast majority of the Chinese, would accept this Manchu throne. I think that its very unlikely this constitutional monarchy would have worked. You probably would need many years of intermarriage for the constitutional monarchy to work, and it’s certainly too late by the time the empress dowager was working on it. She realized on her deathbed that without her this system may well not work or will not work which is why just before she died, there were signs that she came to accept Republicanism. China became a republic three years later and she very much anticipated that.

Both Wild Swans and Mao: The Unknown Story are still banned in China. Are there any hopes that your new biography will be released there?

There are hopeful signs. I heard that a recent concert that had been planned for Mao’s 120th anniversary in the Great Hall of the People in Beijing had just been cancelled. If this is true, it’s an encouraging sign because whether the book can get published or not is linked to my name rather than the subject matter. My book is banned mainly because of Mao, so everything’s linked to him. In other words, if the Empress Dowager Cixi was going to get banned, it would be on the account of my name.

I hope it will get published, but I certainly don’t know. I’m in the middle of translating the book into Chinese. I think a test will be when the Chinese language edition comes out and when my Chinese language publisher based in Taiwan tries to see whether or not the book can go into China. Only then will we know.

Are there similarities between the challenges faced by the Qing Imperial court and those facing the Communist Party today?

Yes, a lot of similarities. Basically in both cases, there have been decades of economic reforms, open-door policy, rising expectations, aspirations, and where do we go from here?  That is the question basically of both regimes. The dowager decided to push ahead. She introduced the free press; she introduced the Western legal systems; she abolished the old Chinese education system and introduced a Western-style education, and above all, she tried to install a constitutional monarchy with an elected parliament. She planned to give the Chinese the vote but that is certainly not on the agenda of the current regime.

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In fact, there have been voices in the regime, calling for China to turn back and be more like a Maoist regime, and to apply Maoist rules and Maoist methods. Of course, I don’t think that they’ll succeed and I also think many people in the regime won’t agree. But it’s more uncertain in China now. One thing that is certain is the political reforms carried out by the empress dowager are not being carried out or will not be carried in China today, I think, for a long time to come.

If Empress Cixi were alive, what do you think she would say to women in today’s China?

I think she would encourage them to be more assertive and to do more, to challenge, and to demolish in fact the kinds of traditional prejudice against women. The empress dowager not only banned foot binding, she espoused women’s education, and she released them from their homes, and encouraged them to go to school and even to go abroad.

Also, she wanted women to participate in politics. She organized an opera show in the Summer Palace with the title Women Can Be Patriots. That was quite remarkable given that was the beginning of the 20th century. Whereas even today, women are not doing anything to counter the prejudice that somehow women were inferior to men in intelligence and to accept this view that somehow women are slightly inferior to men.

When I was writing Empress Dowager Cixi, a friend of mine said to me, “It is true that women’s hearts are more vicious, isn’t it?” He was assuming that the empress dowager had a vicious heart. I was flabbergasted because he was a liberal, articulate man.

I think she would certainly encourage some campaign to get rid of the deep-rooted prejudice in Chinese society, including prejudice against women.