05/16/2014 05:49 pm ET Updated Jul 16, 2014

A Must Read to Understand Today's China


In order to understand China today, one must read Jung Chang's new book, EMPRESS DOWAGER CIXI: THE CONCUBINE WHO LAUNCHED MODERN CHINA.

I was a clueless kid when the antique store vendor showed my mother the final jade item, but when the other salespeople looked on in anticipation, I knew it was an important moment. The vase had an unusual green shade; it looked like a block of glimmering emerald. My mother stared at it and then held it up to inspect it from all sides under special lighting--she was always succumbing to such temptations--when she suddenly pushed herself away from the glass counter and balked, "Oh, it's too much, I cannot." But she didn't look away. The vendor came out from behind the counter, beckoned my mother closer, and whispered something in her ear. "Awwwww!" she exclaimed while staring at him in disbelief, her beautiful dark eyes as large as saucers. Eventually, she bought the vase and I learned that it was previously owned by the Dowager Empress Cixi (pronounced See-She). That was the first time I'd heard of her name and later learned the impact she had on others.

Like all her works, Jung Chang's book about Dowager Empress Cixi is worth its weight in jade. To understand China today, including global business trends, the past is prologue--which is why, in addition to its historical value, Ms. Chang's book is essential. As always, Ms. Chang's research was extensive. Afer Cixi died, China sealed her archives. But recently Beijing declassified millions of historical documents relating to the Dowager Empress's rule, including correspondence and court records. Thanks to the oldest civil service system in the world, these records totaled some twelve million; it took the author six years to sift through these and write her book. Of course, technology was a terrific resource. With digitization, Miss Change could access Beijing's records from her London office. She not only studied the Chinese language archives, but in order to get a clearer picture of each event, she sought verification and cross-referenced materials from thirteen other foreign-affairs archives in England, France, Italy, and America.

Ms. Chang's book spans the birth of Cixi in 1865, through the age of sixteen when she was selected as one of the Emperor's concubines, and continues during and after the Emperor's death when she was only twenty-six. Although their five-year-old son inherited the throne, Cixi organized a coup against the Regents selected by her husband and made herself the real ruler of China. A silk screen separated her throne from her officials who were all male. For a woman who was never permitted to set foot outside the Forbidden City, Cixi was highly prescient. Despite being female, she successfully reformed China, a country with one-third of the world's population and nicknamed at the time the "sick man of Asia." She ruled during the Taiping and Boxer Rebellions, withstood wars with hostile countries like France and Japan, and an invasion by the eight Allied powers, including Britain, Germany, Russia, and the United States. Highly intelligent, she solved problems by diplomacy. She modernized Chinese industry, the railway, the telegraph, and electricity as a resource; she destroyed the old examination civil service system, advocated a free press, and banned ancient torture customs, such as foot-binding. She fought for parliamentary elections and approved a voting system for the Chinese population. Her reforms were enacted faster than reforms in China today.

Ms. Chang is an engaging writer, describing events in a way that illuminates the characters' motivations. She successfully bridges the gap normally separating modern American readers from a foreign culture and events of 150 years ago, so that Americans can appreciate the impact of those times and its relevance today. She also lightens her subject with humor sprinkled throughout. A corrupt official had managed to become one of the Empress's envoys selected to negotiate the terms of a war settlement. When he was discovered to be also working for the aggressor nation, he was thrown into a Chinese jail. From his cell, he wrote to the foreign government, begging them to hold off paying him because of the official scrutiny of his finances.

I call this book the third body of work that completes the Chang triptych. DOWAGER EMPRESS CIXI joins WILD SWANS and MAO: THE UNKNOWN STORY as another example of Jung Chang's ability to render an exciting and penetrating study of China and its people with new revelations and insights. All three works are awesome.