Wed, Nov 06, 2013 - Page 12 News List

The concubine who launched modern China

The ‘Wild Swans’ author paints a sympathetic portrait of Empress Dowager Cixi as a modernizing reformer

By David Watkins  /  AFP, HONG KONG

“I documented her ruthlessness,” said Chang. “Every killing is documented in the book. Let’s not forget she was a 19th century figure, she grew up in medieval China.”

Chang said she was drawn to the story of Cixi when researching her multi-million selling debut Wild Swans more than 20 years ago.

“My grandmother had bound feet and I had been under the impression because of the propaganda that somehow foot binding was banned by the Communists,” said Chang.

“I realized it had been banned by Cixi at the beginning of the 20th century. So this discrepancy between the little bit I knew about her and her reputation got me very interested.”

The book is the follow up to the explosive 2005 biography Mao: The Unknown Story which she co-authored with her husband Jon Halliday.

It won praise for challenging perceptions of Mao, the founder of the People’s Republic of China who instigated the Cultural Revolution in 1966 and whose rule is estimated to have caused tens of millions of deaths through starvation, forced labor and executions.

But it also faced strong academic criticism over its balance and scholarship. The author, who lost her father and grandfather to the Cultural Revolution, says such criticism is “totally unjust.”

Along with 1991’s Wild Swans her study of Mao is banned in China. Chang says she is permitted to visit her elderly mother, who lives in the country, on the condition that she does not speak to the press, at public gatherings or visit friends.

As for whether or not her latest book will be banned, Chang says she expects sensitivity given what she sees as parallels between Cixi and a modern leadership looking to calibrate the pace of change in order to maintain control.

“In both cases there have been decades of economic development,” Chang said.

“She faced the same problems. A door has been opened, people have rising aspirations. And so where do we go from here?”

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