MathildeHK and the last Empress of China, Tzu Hsi or Cixi

You are curious about imperial China,

You want to know who the last empress really was,

You like biographies and novels on imperial China,



Picture of Empress dowager Cixi,  1835-1908, picture@primaltrek

I recently read two very different books on Cixi or Tz’u Hsi, China last empress. The first was published in 1956 by Pearl S. Buck and won the Nobel Price for literature, the second was recently written by Jung Chang and published in 2014. Comparing them was quite interesting and reading them definitely provided a nice journey throughout imperial China during the Qing Dynasty.

What is the truth about the last Chinese empress?

Dowager Cixi was born on the 29th November 1835, the daughter of an ordinary official. Her Manchu name was Yehonala. At sixteen, she was chosen to be one of the concubines to Emperor Xianfeng. Among the many emperor`s concubines, only Cixi bore a son. After his birth she was soon raised in rank from a third-level concubine to a first-level one. When eventually the emperor died in  1861, at the age of 30, she became the Dowager empress and reigned over China.

The story of Cixi’s life and reign remains veiled by varying versions of the truth. Some sources paint her as a  cruel witch, poisoning and assassinating her enemies. Others link her to sexual intrigue within the palace walls. What do those two books  tell about her?


ImperialWoman           images

Imperial Woman is a fictionalized biography of Tz’u Hsi. That novel portrays the young concubine  and her fascinating ascension to the throne of China. Pearl S. Buck followed the raise of the second consort and tried to give psychological explanations to her behavior and manipulations. In a very sensible manner, the author recreated the feelings and fears of the young concubine and stressed the importance of a cousin who would have loved her and guided her throughout her reign. However, nothing can be proved in that respect. That interpretation of a powerful women led by her secret love for a strong men can also be found in French History, under the features of Marie of Medici and Richelieu or Anne of Austria and Mazarin.



Detail of a picture of Ci Xi, 1903-1905, Beijing, picture@SMITHSONIAN.COM

In a sense, Pearl S. Buck’s book echoed the prejudice against the Empress dowager who has been portrayed as a Chinese Machiavelli, sitting against Westerners and willing to defend imperial rules and traditions. I find the whole novel fascinating because details and descriptions really gave life to Ci xi and encouraged the reader to identify with the characters. The Historical context is well given but the novel maintained Tz’u Hsi in the role of a conservative figure, an authoritarian mother and woman not wanting to compromise with modernity , which isn’t the case with Jung Chang’s biography.


Daniele Vare, an Italian diplomat in Peking, 1936 biography of Cixi,”The Last Empress”

In her historical biography, Empress Dowager Cixi, The concubine who launched Modern China, Jung Chang defended the idea that Ci Xi was a pioneer in introducing China to modernity and change. That very detailed study, particularly well written and clear, based on unexploited sources, raised the prospect of a revisionist look at an important figure or even an entire era. The reign of Ci xi, according to Jung Chang, has been misjudged and reduced to a caricature of authoritarian age.

More than the story of a second rank concubine and her personal manipulations, that new study tried to sustain every information with historical proves and sources, which was not at all the perspective of Pearl S. Buck’s work. For instance,  I  learnt that the propaganda against Cixi started quite early on during her reign and was mainly the work of Japanese secret services that wanted to see imperial China falling to take on power over the empire.


I would recommend both books to any History or China lovers. Starting with Pearl Buck is a good introduction, while reading Jung Chang`s biography would be a stronger commitment but a better study. It could be an excellent Christmas gift!


– Imperial Woman, The Story of the Last empress of China, Pearl S. Buck, 1956

– Empress Dowager Cixi, The concubine who launched Modern ChinaJung Chang,2014


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