Jung Chang and 'the concubine who launched modern China'

Jung Chang and 'the concubine who launched modern China'
Author Jung Chang, (inset) Empress Dowager Cixi

HONG KONG - Jung Chang says she does not enjoy arguments, but the latest book from the writer whose works are banned in China is proving to be typically contentious.

The "Wild Swans" author has offered a revisionist account of Empress Dowager Cixi, the concubine who ruled behind the scenes from 1861 until her death in 1908.

A powerful figure who unofficially controlled the Manchu Qing Dynasty for nearly 50 years, Cixi governed during a tumultuous period in which she faced internal rebellions, war and foreign invasions.

Cixi has since been portrayed as a cruel, hapless despot with an extravagant lifestyle, a conservative who suppressed reform in China for decades, who ordered the killing of reformists and put the emperor under house arrest for years until his death.

Having scoured Chinese language archives in Beijing, Chang instead argues that Cixi was instead a reformer who laid the foundations for China to become the economic superpower of today.

"I'm not one of those who relish a fight. I don't enjoy it," the 61-year-old author told AFP in an interview.

"But I don't want to write what everyone else is writing. I will only embark on a project if there is something new I can say. So I can't reconcile these two things. If you open new ground you're going to be attacked."

"Empress Dowager Cixi - The Concubine Who Launched Modern China" presents a figure whose leadership enabled the country to begin to "acquire virtually all the attributes of a modern state: railways, electricity, telegraph, telephones, Western medicine, a modern-style army and navy, and modern ways of conducting foreign trade and diplomacy.

"The past hundred years have been most unfair to Cixi", writes Chang.

The Sichuan-born, London-based author says Cixi - and not reformist leader Deng Xiaoping who took power after the death of Mao Zedong - should be credited with launching the China of today.

"He didn't create a new model," Chang said of Deng. "He was returning to the model that had been created by the Empress Dowager."

The book has received positive reviews, but critics have also cautioned against the level of Chang's praise for a woman largely demonised by history.

"Historical facts seem to have been used only when they were useful and tossed away when they contradict the main theme of her work; that the heretofore-vilified Cixi had been a brave and forward-thinking reformer," read a comment piece published in the South China Morning Post recently.

"It may be fashionable today to create a feminist heroine out of thin air, even if in fact there was none. Cixi was not a reformer".

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