Friday, December 27, 2013

The Tao and Limitlessness

A couple of years ago I was sitting alone in the computer lab at school looking at a big, less-than-20%-grade-achievement on a line of math assignments that would surely reroute me back into the course the proceeding semester.  I was struck with panic.  I was tired and wasted with the idea that I could somehow conquer my math anxiety as well as other complications with the generality of arithmetic.  I was just about ready to let my defeat wash over me, turning into a wave of hate and resentment for life as I hit another block.  Somehow I managed to swallow a scream.  Then I simply... quietly... just sat still.  That stillness was silent enough for me to recall a video featuring Louise Hay and her philosophies on life.  Right then and there I managed to calm myself by stating the affirmation she shared in the video.  "All is well," she'd said.  "From this experience only good will come and I am safe.  For the Universe is on my side now and forevermore.  All is well."

That was all I had; I left out of that lab smiling.  While I didn't pass the course, a few months later I was redirected toward another school where I got all of the help I needed in math.  I left their prerequisite math course with a solid B.  Needless to say, I learned to use that affirmation often.  Whether a problem arises or I need to calm my thoughts down from over-obsessing about the future, I hang on to the truth that all is well.

After that experience I decided to seriously focus closer on the changes I wanted to make in my life through healthier thinking.  And while there were plenty, one of the old patterns of thinking gave me a little more resistance than others.  I found it difficult to squelch the idea that what was necessary and good in my life felt limited by my unconscious need to create time limits or expirations on them.  From money, to friendships, to my ability to accept grace and new found creative freedom, everything had a frustrating time limitation on it.  From the ability to be receptive to allowing certain dreams that I’d dreamed up to be, or to at least staple them down to becoming possible through some general actions toward their direction, had a time limit.  It was as if things had to change at a certain time in my life because I was always trying to escape the possibility of being tied down to a worthless existence.  I couldn't trust the process and there seemed to never be enough to work with.

Reversing that form of limited thinking required me to put forth the ever true concept that whatever I needed from God/Universe is forever in a state of endless abundance and assistance.  There is no limit to what God/Universe can do and provide.  Therefore, there is no need to limit my thinking about money because money would always be available to get me where I desired.  There was no need to think about my lack of friendships because friendships were always available and ready for creation (though most of that issue resided in my reclusive ways toward others).  There was no need to believe that my creativity had a limit, because God/Universe would always provide avenues to explore my creativity and share it further.  Inspired by change, I realized that all things are possible if I let go and put trust where it belongs.

Relating the Tao’s translation by Derek Lin to Wayne Dyer’s made me realization that the purpose of Chapter/Verse 4 is to recognize that bottomless abundance provided by God/Universe, and that we have to trust in how endless such a resource is.  Much of that realization can be achieved by reading the first four lines.  Nevertheless, let’s start with Lin’s translation stating:

The Tao is empty

When utilized, it is not filled up
So deep!  It seems to be the source of all things


It blunts the sharpness

Unravels the knots
Dims the glare
Mixes the dusts


So indistinct!  It seems to exist

I do not know whose offspring it is
Its image is the predecessor of the Emperor


Whereas Dyer’s translation reads:



The Tao is empty

But inexhaustible,
Bottomless,
The ancestor of it all.


Within it, the sharp edges become smooth;

The twisted knots loosen;
The sun is softened by a cloud;
The dust settles into place.


It is hidden but always present.

I do not know who gave birth to it.
It seems to be the common ancestor of all, the father of things.

Amazing, right?  Probably the shortest and clearest verse I’ve come across so far.  I find myself drawn to the comfort of words--between the two translations--like “empty”, “inexhaustible”, and “bottomless.”

So how do we shut our minds down long enough to let God/Universe/Tao do what it does and provide for us with its bottomless edge of abundance and assistance?  Or how do we allow these “forces” to bring abundance through ourselves?  It takes practice, but I believe the key within all of this is to quickly affirm that all is well.  This allows our mind enough calm to let God/Universe/Tao to provide us clear answers, or even deliver us the solution.  As I shared in my little mathematics story, I learned to quickly shut my mind up when problems arise.  Instead of jumping up to resist the issue, I tell myself that all is well.  This gives me time to chill, reorganize my thoughts, and put aside all of the thoughts that only make the situation worst.  Doing so at least gives me enough time to think up a solution or allow a solution to come.  Sometimes those solutions don't show up until days down the road, but I have to trust that that's okay too.  I'm not saying I always get it right, but I am always aware of the potential behind the tool of simply stating that "all is well".  From there, I begin to trust the process when the resources surrounding me are abundant.

Lesson number 125 titled, In Quiet I Receive God’s Word Today, in A Course of Miracles kind of expands on the idea of silencing ourselves to grasp what many refer to as that inner voice (I leave that open to personal interpretation; some say it's angelic, God, Christ, etc.).  A passage from the lesson reads:

“Today He speaks to you.  His Voice awaits your silence, for His Word can not be heard until your mind is quiet for a while, and meaningless desires have been stilled.  Await His Word in quiet.  There is peace within you to be called upon today, to help make ready your most holy mind to hear the Voice for its Creator speak.”

A Course in Miracle: Text, Workbook, Manual for Teachers: The Advent of a Great Awakening. [United States]: Barnes & Noble, 2007. Print.

Dyer, Wayne W. Change Your Thoughts, Change Your Life: Living the Wisdom of the Tao. Carlsbad, CA: Hay House, 2007.

Lin, Derek.  “Accurate Translation of the Tao Te Ching.”  Accurate Translation of the Tao Te Ching.  N.p. http://www.taoism.net/ttc/complete.htm.

Wednesday, December 18, 2013

Crazy Rich Asians by Kevin Kwan

I can not write a post on Chinese biographer, Jung Chang, and Chinese-American author, Amy Tan, without mentioning Singapore born and raised, Kevin Kwan, and his take on satiric romp-literature in the form of his first novel, Crazy Rich Asians.  Now that was a mouthful of a sentence.  In any regard, I’ve wanted to read this book since I ran across it this past summer at my local bookstore.  The glittery gold cover and downy pink-colored lettering just screamed DRAMA LIKE NO OTHER.  Top that with the title itself and your forever-fettered Kdrama (Korean drama) obsessor was ready to peel open its pages to absorb all of the melodrama, fashion, money, and behind-closed-doors corruption of Asian millionaires and their spoiled heirs/esses.  Quite simply, I was ready to get my Kdrama fix in literary form, despite Kwan's cast being Chinese as opposed to Korean.  Should something that insignificant even matter.

This juicy piece of amusing fiction delivered just what it intended to, with the exception of a slap-across-the-face scene served by an overprotective, old money mother to her low-income son’s girlfriend.  That, unfortunately, didn’t happen.  And in many ways the devious antics displayed in the book were soft, as opposed to the cruel and downright trifling excursions played out by rivals in Kdramas.  But you know what, that’s not what this book is about.  Hardly.

I like to think that Crazy Rich Asians is a percussion strike between Kwan’s insider view of elite Asians and Jackie Collins's Western glitzy glam.  And to be honestly, while I love Collins, Kwan’s writing is far less diarist and clich√©.  Which brings me to another point as to why I liked this book.  Crazy Rich Asians moved away from those stereotypical/clich√© numbers we’ve become accustomed to by Asian-enthused novels.  This isn’t a book about an immigrant experience or a pro-democratic movement over China.  Matter-of-fact, it doesn’t even take place in China--specifically.

Aside from the opening character introduction taking place in 1980s London, Crazy Rich Asians starts in New York.  It's here that our main couple, Rachel Chu and Nicholas Young, share a quiet moment over tea in their favorite spot.  They are professional educators, matched by a mutual associate.  Nevertheless, the discussion over tea seems simple: Nick’s best friend’s wedding will take place in Singapore and he would like Rachel to attend and meet his family.  Rachel comes from a modest family/background, and is not even partially aware of Nick’s wealthy background and family.  She might’ve picked up on small, curious bits concerning Nick’s "resources", but the majority of her perception of him is that he is frugal and hardworking (besides being sweet to her).  Therefore, there is nothing for Rachel to assume, regarding Nick’s family.  Yet, she is tentative about meeting them and Nick's friends for the summer.

And for good reason.  Minutes after Rachel and Nick share a closing kiss, their conversation is captured by a nosy patron who recognized Nick.  Said patron emails her sister, who in turn calls her best friend in Singapore, who then texts eight different friends.  Eventually the news of Nick bringing a girl home to Singapore spreads like a virus across powerful social circles.

The proceeding chapter showers us with Nick’s uppity mother, Eleanor Young, receiving some unsettling information that Nick is heading to Singapore with a Taiwanese-American gold-digger (that‘s how far Rachel‘s “dossier” has stretched from the truth).  That’s three demeaning strikes and two lies already against Rachel before she even sets foot on a plane to Australia.  The only truth is that she is American.  She is later coined an ABC which means American Born Chinese.  However, this does not make Rachel’s situation any better as Eleanor use every available force of power that she has to put an end to Rachel and Nick’s relationship (the snubs begin with Eleanor leaving Singapore before their arrival).  The inventive cohorts that support Eleanor’s cause do most of her dirty work.  Of course she couldn't be bothered to roll around in the mud.  However, she is very present as a villainesque mother, drenched in her obsession with maintaining control, wealth, and her definition of the Young family image.

While Rachel and Nick's A plot takes up the ground of the book, Kwan gifts us with several B plots that increases the book‘s focus on wealth and the personal turmoil and baggage it creates.  One B plot consists of Nick’s fashionista cousin, Astrid, and her martial woes.  While another focuses on Nick’s other cousin, Eddie, and the strife he puts his children through as he struggles with his desire to appear seamless before his family and peers.

And believe me when I say that there is more to be had from this book.  Much, much more.
Alexis Rodriguez-Duarte

Crazy Rich Asians was just an entertaining read all around.  I enjoyed it a lot more than I anticipated, considering how I had a hard time establishing the multitude of side characters with their names, families, and purposes.  I probably struggled the most here, whereas some reviewers didn’t exactly like Kwan’s use of dropping big brand fashion names.  Nonetheless, after their fifth appearance, I started to understand who side characters like Daisy Foo and Ling Cheh represented in the scheme of the novel.  I also sputtered along with Kwan’s mixture of English and Romanized Chinese.  Not because they were present, but because they were footnoted.  This usually meant I had to cut myself from the narrative to spot the translation.  In nonfiction this doesn’t seem to bother me, but in fiction I realized that it did.  I would’ve preferred if he integrated the translations into the text by means of simply having the characters translate it themselves as a form of emphasis, or have characters respond accordingly so that it translates clearly to the reader.  

Nonetheless, nothings takes away how absorbing and fun Kwan’s novel is.  His writing didn’t slow down as he switched between revolving plots on the fly.  Each main character he employed drove me with a smile through their stories, as well as hot moments of rage (even the genuine Rachel drove me crazy at moments).  I don’t recall being able to put the book down after my initial adjustment to his style.  While it’s too late to label this a beach read, I still encourage anyone interested in peeking into the screwball lives of elite and powerful Asian families to pick up this book.  That way Kwan can present us with another book because Crazy Rich Asians will leave you wanting more.

ENJOY!

Thursday, December 12, 2013

Cornwell's Dust

It took me longer than I expected, but I finally wrapped up reading Patricia Cornwell’s latest Kay Scarpetta novel, Dust.  Did I love it?  Yes.  It was okay.  Meh.  I thought it was a bump up from The Bone Bed (2012); however, not as arresting as Cornwell attempt in Red Mist (2011) or even Port Mortuary (2010).  Dust did capture my attention enough to push through it, but it didn't stir me like the books I just mentioned.  I believe what threw me off more than anything, or was more noticeable in this entry to the series than ever before, was the goddamn stoical pacing of the book/plot/mystery.  


I have to gush about why I love Patricia Cornwell and kept reading her even when she spent six books serving me cold material, after leaving her readers out of the exclusivity of Scarpetta‘s first person narrative.  I am a loyal reader so I think I can say that about that awful third person, omniscient narrative she took on through books 12-17 in the series.  However, I digress.  Some years ago I wanted to know and education myself a little more on forensic science.  At one time I dreamed of writing something similar.  I knew I could never touch it like the experts, but I wanted to be in the know all the same.  I found a lot of non-fiction books during that period (particularly Bill Bass‘s books on forensic anthropology), but I needed something with story, and of course a female lead to guide me through it.  While I heard of Cornwell, and stocked plenty of her books back in my Borders days, I never read her.  Then I was recommended Cornwell’s The Body Farm (1994) and it sat on my shelf for damn near a year before one summer I finally picked it up.  Let’s just say the doors blew off the hinges.  Suddenly I was reading one book a day in the Kay Scarpetta series.  Even denying school work just to escape into another of Kay Scarpetta's forensic mysteries.  I was addicted from then forward and I never gave up on Scarpetta, Benton, Marino, and Lucy--Cornwell's cast.  Even when Cornwell's characters were getting understandably butchered (yes, I understood why people hated them) by reviews and readers, I kept reading.  I never gave up.  Never, never, never.  Until The Scarpetta Factor (2009) came out.  That book was HO-RI-BLE!  To this day I’ve never managed to finish it.  

So I was ready to call it quits until Cornwell did the smart thing (yeah, I said it) and returned to first person narrative in the proceeding book to The Scarpetta FactorPort Mortuary.  See, the whole point of me loving the series was because I liked Scarpetta‘s voice.  I trusted her intelligence and felt associated with her and her world through her.  She was my connection, even when I spent six books teetering to the side.  I got my grounding fiction and my forensics lesson all in one drop, so to speak.  So what drove me to finish Dust even though I thought it was dusty and dry itself?  Scarpetta’s voice.  That was probably the singular thing that kept me in locomotion.  While some think she is self-absorbed and abrasive, I seem to somehow never notice it as I remain tapped into her well of information and dedication to bring about justice.  Her diagnosing gruesome situations, examining forensic details, and using simple deduction to solve cases just seems to hold my attention.  Even if I’m slogging through a book with some bad pacing.

Dust takes place in a single day, with the exception of a flashback scene from Scarpetta’s earlier years and a Five-Days-Later final chapter that closes off the book’s case in Florida.  Nonetheless, the book starts with Massachusetts Chief Medical Examiner, Kay Scarpetta, ill at home in bed after tending to the bodies of victims related to a large-scale spectacle killing.  Cornwell used an actual, recent national tragedy to postmark the reason behind Scarpetta’s burst of stress-induced flu.  Many readers/reviewers argue that Cornwell exploited this tragedy in her book; I’ll do like Cornwell did and not mention the tragedy by name.  Nevertheless, to me she really only spent two or three small moments in Scarpetta’s musings on the incident.  That was all.  Nothing forwardly advertised.  I understood what Cornwell was attempting to do and did not find it exploitative.


The prime vehicle driving any Scarpetta forensic thriller is a body.  In Dust one shows up as the former Gail Shipman, a computer engineer amidst a $100 million dollar lawsuit which very much reflected Cornwell‘s recently personal courtroom activities.  Gail was last seen exiting a bar before landing dead-cold in the middle of the Massachusetts Institute of Technology’s Brigg Fields, draped in a white cloth.  With the local police department on the case, Scarpetta is pulled in by her historically-steep off and on friend/associate, Detective Pete Marino.  This interaction comes in the form of a 4am phone call that awakens a sick Scarpetta on page one.  However, Scarpetta never actually attends to the body of Gail till page 100.  Which makes you wonder what happened in 100 pages?  Besides Scarpetta and Marino finally leaving her home 62 pages into the book?

I have the answer: nothing really significant but painfully uneventful set-up surrounding the case.

There’s a stream of ruminations and verbal putt-putting between Marino and Scarpetta.  There’s that flashback chapter that I still haven’t made sense of its purpose.  I anticipated a series of flashbacks throughout the book, each meant to provide a revelation of some sort.  But no.  It was that singular flashback that I can’t recall presenting me anything toward the plot.  What it did do was stress more on how much of a flake Marino is consistently painted out to be by the author.  Now we do get small hints surrounding the story behind Gail’s murder, hints that eventually lead to the FBI’s role in this investigation as well as Scarpetta’s FBI profiler husband, Benton, and super smart techno niece, Lucy.  But that’s just it; those 100 pages are filled with rumbling thoughts, hints, and conversations.

And that's pretty much the pacing of the book.  You're introduced to a new location/scene and for about 100 pages or so the characters stand around and ruminate on the crime, victims, modus operandi, and potential suspects.  I've gotten used to how multi-layered and contrive (sometimes unbelievable) the mystery aspects are in some books within the series.  Sometimes many of the elements that make up the psychopathic killer and his means of murder are so stretched out that I'm mostly left confused up to his/her final unveiling.  However, it doesn't help that there is no action or hard movement leading to a story's end.  No clever suspect interviews or trips to unknown places--considering Scarpetta once donned diving gear to work an underwater crime scene.  Just details and dialogue on the details mostly makes up Dust.

Yet that voice of Scarpetta sharing those details kept me going.  It kept me loving the slogging pacing which really translated to "simply spending time with one of my favorite book characters."  Things like this is so hard to explain.  But I would imagine that I'm not the only Scarpetta fan who was both bored with most of the book, yet in love with the whole damn thing.

Friday, December 6, 2013

The Valley & Tan

I have said it once and I’ll say it again: I love Amy Tan.  I loved her since I was too young to grasp The Joy Luck Club as a novel, but was spellbound by the movie like it was nobody’s business.  See, the movie was the perfect introduction to a ten-year-old because it quickly filled my head with sad stories about brave Chinese women, lost babies, and that un-belongingness I identified with as a youth.  The spice to my transfixed state rested on the movie’s cultural surroundings.  It was here that I got a glance into stringent conventions and traditions that bound Chinese women in a culture so foreign to me.  So naturally, I grew to want more understanding of all that I‘d witnessed.  The movie sunk into me at ten and never resurfaced to drift way.

When I was finally old enough I managed to read the novel and became a fan of Tan’s literary works from then forward.  I ate her books and stories--if you will.  And while the general consensus is that The Joy Luck Club lay in the majority of favorites among her readers (and undoubtedly her most popular novel), my personal love goes out to The Kitchen God’s Wife.  Besides being a thicker novel, I believe I loved it just a little more because I spent more time with the mother and daughter pair, Pearl and Winnie, and their respective narratives.  I say this as opposed to the various working characters and narratives in The Joy Luck Club.  In essence, Pearl and Winnie hung around a little longer to tangle me--as the reader--in their mother/daughter strife.

Nevertheless, I am a slave to Tan’s ethnic settings and illuminating mother/daughter themes, as well as that often used expression of “rich prose” that she uses.  Tan can take me to places far away and can take me to places close to home all at once.  I’ve waited eight years for something new from her (besides her Rules for Virgins Kindle Single) and it has finally arrived in the form of her 2013 release of The Valley of Amazement.  Spending those eight years between authors like Pearl S. Buck and Ha Jin wasn’t so bad, but I was certainly awaiting Tan’s return.  Good or bad, I spent my time reading The Valley of Amazement cutting my fingers in an excited rush through some parts, while using the book as a pillow during others.  It seems that while the device of using Chinese courtesans to move the novel was enlightening in the beginning, it was also the one thing that eventually pulled me away from engaging with the story fully during the later half of the book.  In turn, maybe even the characters.

I’ll attempt to not spoil the novel by sharing an overview of the material.  The Valley of Amazement takes place in late 19th century to early 20th century between Shanghai and San Francisco.  Told through the eyes of the mother/daughter narrative-sharing duo, consisting of Violet and her mother, Lulu, the story starts with Violet sharing a rundown of her current status as a lonely American girl living in Shanghai.  However, Violet’s mother is white while her father is Chinese.  Violet is unaware of this, while comfortably raised within a high-class courtesan house owned by her mother.  So she is exposed to much, but ignores what her true heritage consist of considering the physical signatures that make up her face.

In other words, she is in denial of her Chinese make up.

According to Violet she is American and fair-skinned--nothing else.  And it’s this attitude that causes her torment as a child by her academic peers.  She eventually leaves school, but her arrogance increases as the story moves forward with her development and eventual change.  Nonetheless, to young Violet, being and thinking Chinese means kowtowing to statues and ghosts and following old traditions simply because that was how things were done thousands of years ago.  Violet saw herself as too fearless and modern to be Chinese.

Violet is somewhat of a princess inside her mother’s popular courtesan house, and with that status and position comes an unhinged feeling that she isn't completely loved by her busy and inattentive mother.  So when a Chinese stranger comes into the courtesan house to speak exclusively with Violet’s mother, a prying Violet catches wind of a lost little brother that she has.  Her feelings of being unloved only intensifies at her mother’s angered response toward the stranger, who dredged up old memories, mistakes, and love unknown to Violet.  Suddenly, San Francisco is where Violet's mother sets her destination in locating her lost son; it's home.  The problem is getting there aboard a month long voyage on a steamer.  Reservations are required.  Passports are needed.  And considering Violet's mother suddenly finds her daughter's birth certificate misplaced, a visit to the American Consulate becomes necessary before the actual voyage.  A time crunch is pressed upon her.

It's here where Violet's mother make another big (and totally avoidable) mistake that sends her newly teenage daughter into the hands of a second-class courtesan house with her virginity up for auction as a virgin courtesan.  Everything Violet believed about herself is stripped away while her mother sails to San Francisco.

Did I give away too much?  Nah!  Trust me when I say this book goes a long way from Violet's troubled beginning.  About a quarter toward the end of the book the narrative switches to Violet's mother's history and point-of-view of the events.  Unfortunately, by the time I got to Lulu's narrative I was nearly worn out on the whole subject of courtesans and women having their sex taken or auctioned off to men.  Particularly toward the very last bit of the first arc that housed Violet's narrative.  The book is littered with themes concerning trust, and these women never seen to make the right connection toward it until it hits them in the face.  Nevertheless, I'll keep that relative to the reader, so you have to read the book and their journey to really decide whether or not the women could do more with their decisions or lack thereof.  But the way Tan painted the characters in the beginning of the book left me feeling as if they only managed to do less than what I believed they were capable of.  An example would be how Violet's mother, Lulu, found herself in power and status as a high-class courtesan house owner, yet she suffered through her mistakes by not applying the resources she created for herself. 

I felt a lot of "do this; problem solved" in this book.
Credit: Rick Smolan/Against All Odds

This leads to another particular I had about the book.  There were moments of disconnect that I felt for the characters.  As the reader I seemed to see things the characters didn't see.  With all of the great descriptions and glimpses of history and of a courtesan's lifestyle, none covered the feeling I got that I was witnessing the events that took place as opposed to living them with the characters.  So when the plot devices set up, I just saw the characters walk into them.  

The book often took on a strong telling atmosphere in this case, as if Lulu and Violet were feeding me (as the reader) information more than living it on the page as they moved through the plot.  Now there were certainly some solid, emotional moments in the book that moved me into feeling the character's experience.  One was Violet's violent reaction when she found herself in the low-class house.  I cheered for her flash of anger.  Then a couple of pages in she was damn near complacent with her position as the virgin courtesans.  Many areas of the novel felt like this; set-up when pages later the experience passes and the character dwell on it lightly.  Or even loosely.    

I still thought it was a great novel.  It told an obvious but great story.  I think the key essence in the novel wasn't so much the story per say, but more of the communication between mothers and daughters and relationships.  As well as consequences for not communicating (which in some areas they did shamefully to fulfill a plot device).  All that is usual to Tan--which is why I love her.  I suppose it was told a little "lightly" in this book because there was a sort of testingness (I often make up words) to it.  Nonetheless, we get to explore themes on trust and abandonment and how loving the wrong person can lead us to the wrong (some may even say right) places only so many times.  Eventually the characters find or reclaim some value in themselves, so that's a solid ending.  The book didn't ground me in like Tan's older novels, but it was a force of its own and very much worth reading a second time.

The secret ingredient to this novel is Magic Gourd.  I'll leave it at that.

Sunday, December 1, 2013

Jung Chang | Cixi

I was a little wary in writing and posting about Jung Chang’s latest book, Empress Dowager Cixi: The Concubine Who Launched Modern China, for several reasons.  I’ll state a few of those reasons even if they may sound preposterous.  One reason is that I’m not a historian or scholar and this book is a biography about a 19th century Chinese Empress.  With no claims to know every single historical detail on that century/era, I feared some form of ridicule from those who've studied the subject--professionally if I should say.  Still, that small hesitation was constantly pounded by my affinity for Chinese history, developed from reading Chinese and Chinese-American authors. 

The other reason I was wary came through my research on the author and her status in China.  Evidently, with her books banned in China, Jung Chang is only allowed there in short visit to see her mother and sister.  So what happens if an individual from China ran across my blog post (which according to my blog’s statistics, they are there)?  Would this cause readers to turn away because of the debates behind the author and the subject of Empress Cixi herself?  I gnawed on that for a while after reading the book… always the careful thinker.

Then I realized I was being ridiculous to the ninth degree.  Really, I enjoyed the book enough to be inspired to post about it.  So why in the hell was I over-thinking doing so?

I first heard of Jung Chang when I worked in a bookstore in Atlanta.  It was around the time her book on Mao released and the publisher did a re-release of her early 1990’s book, Wild Swans.  Because Mao was a behemoth (about 900 pages) and had yet to really urge me to tackle its reading, I was instead excited to grab a copy of Wild Swans for drowning myself in stories about Chinese mothers and heartache during the Cultural Revolution.  And I did so with pleasure; Wild Swans comes highly recommended from my reading list.  I have yet to read Mao: The Unknown Story, although now I’m ready for the action (just yesterday I picked up a copy).  However, I kept Chang in mind after my experience with Wild Swans.  Naturally, after years of patience and double checking her profile on Amazon, I was glad to see that she was releasing a new title in 2013 based on a Chinese Empress named Cixi.  Drool and bolts of excitement struck me until its release and I spent no time cutting through this exciting book the minute it was in my hands.  Once finished, I went online to search every video, article, and review to match my concluded enthusiasm with others.

I suppose it should be stated that Chang received some criticism for her latest book as well as her previous.  Decades of debates swirled around Cixi’s ruling methods over China, and it's here that Chang gathered criticism for painting a rather “white” light on her portrait and perspective of Cixi.  Lucky for me I didn't have much to debate with as I went into the book.  I just knew I was about to learn something valuable.  I trusted Chang's details would be genuine and true; nobody reward lies in a biography or piece of non-fiction.  Nevertheless, my realized desire was to gain awareness of the story of a woman in power during historic China.  I wanted to understand and fill my head with the story/portrait of Cixi, but not necessarily with the inclusion of deciding whether her decisions as one of China’s leaders belongs to my judgment.
Credit: Jon Halliday

Jung Chang begins Cixi’s story with 16-year-old Cixi (the daughter of one of China’s government employees) gaining the attention of China’s then emperor, Xianfeng, during the Great Qing dynasty.  As one of Emperor Xianfeng’s many concubines, Cixi’s role was more or less summarized to her producing a male heir as the successor of Xianfeng’s rule.  She became the only concubine who managed to do such.  Sheltered within the confines of the Forbidden City in Beijing, Cixi grew with little awareness of the world surrounding China, although there was curiosity for that world.  It wasn’t until British and French forces moved into Beijing during the 19th century, when foreigners sought much of China’s resources as well as tangling in opium war discord, that things begin to turn within the Great Qing dynasty.  As foreign troops stomped through Beijing, destroying the emperor’s Old Summer Palace with fire, Emperor Xianfeng fled with his family/court to a Hunting Lodge in Northern China.  

Emperor Xianfeng died in the lodge, but before his death he consorted with his Board of Regents in producing a will that placed his only son as ruler.  With the help of Emperor Xianfeng’s wife, Empress Zhen, did Cixi step forward to maneuver her way into becoming the Empress Dowager of China through the shield of her toddler son’s new found position as leader.  With the rise of foreign contacts, affairs, and disputes, Cixi saw that it was time for reform in China.  According to Cixi, to do that required China to open up its doors to Westerners instead of resisting them.  

Given that opposition would arise within the Qing court, one of Cixi’s first strategic moves was to rid her son of the Board of Regents while allying herself with her late husband’s brothers (Prince Chun and Prince Gong).  The removal of the opposing Board of Regents resulted in a twisted political game moved in Cixi's favor.  With the threat hanging over her new found position removed, Cixi went on to pull the political strings surrounding China’s move toward modernity and reformation of culture/traditions (she is known as banning Chinese foot binding).  Having all the details documented in Chang's book, it's hard to not find yourself wrapped in Cixi's ambitions struggle.  And needless to say, by the end of the book, Cixi left a body or two along the path to China's move into modernity.  But what leader in history has not?

Empress Dowager Cixi: The Concubine who Launched Modern China is a book that provides a sharp, piercing look into what was then of China and its inner politics.  It’s here that we not only learn the insides on what made Cixi tick as a fascinating and frightening leader full of intent, but also we get to witness evolving China move into the modern age suggested by Cixi’s ruling.  From China’s dealings with Japan over sovereign countries, budding Chinese Reforms and the (what I saw as) somewhat backlash that sparked the Boxer Rebellion, and the pickings of foreign countries stripping the dynasty of several of China’s territories, did this expansive book reflect on the makings of  modern China through the grounding of Cixi’s story.

Without a doubt this became a gripping, well-written (and apparently thoroughly investigated) read that I would recommend to anyone interested in exploring Chinese history through the eyes of one of its most charismatic and powerful rulers.  We watch Cixi struggle to keep her country’s traditions while remain aware of the inevitability of opening China’s doors to world.  It's a wager filled with consequences and successes till the bitter end.  With that said, I am now capable and ready to move into reading Jung Chang's Mao: The Unknown Story. For more on Jung Chang and her new book, click on the video below.

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