The Empress Dowager Cixi – The concubine who launched Modern China – Jung Chang at Jaipur Literature Festival 2015

IMG_5908 2Dressed elegantly in an attire of the nineteenth century China, Jung Chang responds to a compliment paid to her beautiful dress-“I wanted to show you all how women in the nineteenth century dressed”. As she gets ready to tell her story, she sets up her presentation to show the audience rare pictures alongside her tale of the great empress.

Jung Chang begins by talking about how she became a writer. As she talked about the hardships of writing under the reign of Mao, she expressed her inability to write, even for oneself-“Even writing for oneself under the reign of Mao was dangerous”.

She reminisces how her first literary poem had to be flushed down the toilet simply because she was scared that the writing may cause her and her family to be persecuted. Despite her failed attempt at writing, she didn’t give up. “The desire to write never left me. I was always writing with an invisible pen. I just couldn’t put pen to paper.”

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Jung Chang’s demeanour now changes. She stands proud and tells the audience of her remarkable journey from being a doctor without training, an electrician, a farmer to finally becoming a woman who was one of the first to be awarded a doctorate in communist China. She talks with great glee about the freedom she found in London and how her excitement was manifold because she was no longer under the severe impositions of China. She now begins to talk about just how bad the situation in China was under the reign of Mao. She has a catch in her throat and a visible tear in her eye while she talks about the untimely death of her persecuted father and the inhumane treatment of her mother who despite being beaten on broken glass and sent to a concentration camp, survived to tell her daughter the stories that ultimately inspired Jung Chang to write one of the greatest biographies.

She now begins to tell her tale of the great Empress Dowager Cixi. Jung Chang truly is the master of the oral tradition of storytelling, as she effortlessly tells the story of the most important women in Chinese history. History credits her with bringing a medieval empire into a modern age. At the age of sixteen, in a nationwide selection for royal consorts, Cixi was chosen as one of the emperor’s numerous concubines.

When he died, their five-year-old son succeeded 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 the officials who were all male.

As she continues to tell her tale passionately, it is obvious that Jung Chang chose Empress Cixi for a reason. The great empress was credited with freeing the women of the country, “She espoused women’s liberation in China”. Not only did she bring to China the modernity of the railways and the electricity, she also abolished gruesome punishments like “death by a thousand cuts” and put an end to foot-binding.

Championing the cause of women’s liberation, Cixi embarked on the path to introduce parliamentary elections to China. Jung Chang’s statement that “The press under her was freer than what it was today”, simply re-affirms the greatness of the empress.

As Jung Chang comes to the end of her tale, she ends the session by answering a question that was on everyone’s mind. Why Empress Cixi in particular? Why choose to write only about her? She responds confidently, “Cixi was more than just a historical figure. She was a reformer who suffered injustice and it was my job to return to history a brave reformer.”

The Penguin India Blog

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