Showing posts with label China. Show all posts
Showing posts with label China. Show all posts

Tuesday, May 28, 2019

FauxCast ~ CHOP IT UP: War Trash by Ha Jin

WHADUPPPPP!  So, yeah.  Ha Jin's War Trash.  Let's GO!

War Trash by Ha Jin on Amazon (affiliate link)

Ha Jin’s masterful new novel casts a searchlight into a forgotten corner of modern history, the experience of Chinese soldiers held in U.S. POW camps during the Korean War. In 1951 Yu Yuan, a scholarly and self-effacing clerical officer in Mao’s “volunteer” army, is taken prisoner south of the 38th Parallel. Because he speaks English, he soon becomes an intermediary between his compatriots and their American captors.With Yuan as guide, we are ushered into the secret world behind the barbed wire, a world where kindness alternates with blinding cruelty and one has infinitely more to fear from one’s fellow prisoners than from the guards.

Sunday, May 8, 2016

I Wanna Buy This Book Butttt...

…Just about every review on Amazon claims this woman is a narcissistic.  Okay.  That's fine with me.  But then they also claim she went to court for tax evasion, stemming back from her early 2000s tax returns.  Trialed in 2010, she was convicted then subsequently deported.  Oh MY!  It actually makes me want to go back and pick the book up, though.  But the reason I point this out is because it's touted as an inspirational autobiography, but told by a woman driven by greed.
Heh.  And still I think I want to go back and get this book!
For the sake of providing a synopsis…
"When Diana Lu was three years old, her family was forced to leave their comfortable middle class life in the city to live an impoverished coal-mining village at the edge of the Gobi Desert for China s culture revolution "reeducation." Life in that remote place was a constant struggle against hunger and fear. Passionate & determined, Diana resolved to create a better life based on her own talents and dreams; she turned down prestigious job after medical school. Overcoming parental & societal objections, she explored university teaching, real estate, and other fields before finding her niche as a top executive in the optical fiber industry. In 1997 Diana moved to the United States, and launched her own international enterprise, melding the Western & Chinese business cultures to work with clients globally. Operating in a competitive, male-dominated high-tech field, she achieved astounding success from earning $30 a month in 1993 to in ten years making sales worth hundreds of millions of dollars. This inspirational book part memoir, part guidebook to personal and business success illustrates her remarkable journey."
What do you think?

Friday, April 8, 2016

Kwan's Rich Girlfriend

"Kevin Kwan, bestselling author of Crazy Rich Asians, is back with a wickedly funny new novel of social climbing, secret e-mails, art-world scandal, lovesick billionaires, and the outrageous story of what happens when Rachel Chu, engaged to marry Asia’s most eligible bachelor, discovers her birthfather.

On the eve of her wedding to Nicholas Young, heir to one of the greatest fortunes in Asia, Rachel should be over the moon. She has a flawless Asscher-cut diamond from JAR, a wedding dress she loves more than anything found in the salons of Paris, and a fiancé willing to sacrifice his entire inheritance in order to marry her. But Rachel still mourns the fact that her birthfather, a man she never knew, won’t be able to walk her down the aisle. Until: a shocking revelation draws Rachel into a world of Shanghai splendor beyond anything she has ever imagined. Here we meet Carlton, a Ferrari-crashing bad boy known for Prince Harry-like antics; Colette, a celebrity girlfriend chased by fevered paparazzi; and the man Rachel has spent her entire life waiting to meet: her father. Meanwhile, Singapore’s It Girl, Astrid Leong, is shocked to discover that there is a downside to having a newly minted tech billionaire husband. A romp through Asia’s most exclusive clubs, auction houses, and estates, China Rich Girlfriend brings us into the elite circles of Mainland China, introducing a captivating cast of characters, and offering an inside glimpse at what it’s like to be gloriously, crazily, China-rich."

~ China Rich Girlfriend from Goodreads

Hear me out, folks.  On everything I love, I wish I had more to say about Kevin Kwan’s China Rich Girlfriend.  I really, really do.  However, I don’t.  Or at least have much to expound on about my minuscule disappointment with the book.  A disappointment brewed by the contrived connectivity with each of his characters’ story threads.  Including threads developed completely from the core cast (Nick and Rachel).  So it's kind of strange when I think about how much I loved his previous book, Crazy Rich Asian.  I guess I assumed too much going into his second book.
Nevertheless, after reading China Rich Girlfriend in January, I couldn't find the right words on how I felt about the book.  Good or bad!  So months later, my resounding complaint is still that contrived connectivity issue.  It's like a wall I can't climb.  It's all I think when I recall my experience.  Which has lead me to this late post.

Wednesday, July 16, 2014


Could you live the questionable life of a Chinese scholar?  If so, would you have protested in Beijing’s Tiananmen Square, after years underneath the suppression of Maoism and the Cultural Revolution?  Would you have survived the 1989 Tiananmen Square Massacre?  Or would you have not bothered to attend, content with not mixing your passion with your country's political system?  Among all the questions that surfaced out of the 323 pages of Ha Jin’s 2002 The Crazed, these were a few that I walked away wondering.

China, 1989.  The Crazed follows the discordant (literary-not-technical) narrative contemplations of a young Chinese graduate student named Jian Wan.  When Jian Wan’s mentor, and esteemed university scholar, Professor Yang, suffers from a sudden stroke, Jian Wan takes up the mantel as his part-time caregiver.  Furthermore, Jian Wan is engaged to Professor Yang’s daughter, Meimei.  However, Meimei's currently studying for her Ph.D. entrance exams away at Beijing University.  As for Professor Yang’s wife, Mrs. Yang, she's in Tibet on a veterinary expectation.  Therefore, Jian Wan is Professor Yang’s proposed immediate family.  So Jian Wan fulfills his duty of treating his ailing future father-in-law, even though he's not too great at it (a visit from the scornful Meimei shows as much).  The task proves to be anything but easy as Jian Wan watches his mentor succumb to his stroke in the form of demented outbursts, and the unconscious liberation of long lost secrets.  Nonetheless, it's through the sparsely coherent moments that Professor Yang attempts to urge Jian Wan to abandon his future in Chinese academia, and to even flee China.  At one point Professor Yang expresses lucidly, outside of the aftermath of his stroke: “’The more you know, the crazier you’ll go, like me.  Intellect makes life insufferable.  It’s better to be an ordinary man working honestly with yours hands.’”

And when you consider the time, country, and culture, there may be a sense of truth to Professor Yang's concerns.  

Nevertheless, much to the disappointment of the ever emotionally vacant ice princess, Meimei, and Jian Wan’s friends and superiors, Jian Wan begins to acknowledge the words of his rambling mentor as a possible embodiment of rational and political truths.  He questions the direction he chose to take his life in.  But can he really walk away from his path and passion?  Or is Professor Yang just schitzy in his paranoia, and shouldn't be taken seriously?

Writing & Background

I have to start with how drawn and captivated I became with The Crazed, and not only through the noted ramblings of Professor Yang.  Though those ramblings were entertainingly strange, poetic at times, and genuinely worthy of attention.  Nonetheless, it was through Ha Jin’s writing and storytelling that hooked me–almost trance-like.  The minute I glided to my bookshelf to find something to read, I picked up The Crazed and did not want to let it go.  I was absorbed in Jian Wan's personal story and narrative flow.  

As always, there is something precise and vigilant about Ha Jin’s writing, and that may be because English is his adopted language; furthermore, he, himself, is an adopted scholar and English professor in America.  Ha Jin is from Liaoning, China.  He joined China’s People’s Liberation Army (which is very present in The Crazed) when he was fourteen.  While Ha Jin earned his Masters in China, he ultimately (in 1986) arrived in the US to further his education at Brandeis University.  Eventually, he studied in Boston University’s Creative Writing Program, which completed his educational pursuits.  I assume that somewhere between his educational journey that he established his citizenship within the US, making America his home.  While knowing this tidbit of background information kind of fueled my personal appreciation of Ha Jin’s prose, it also reveals how his background is demonstrable to the material in his writing.  Or more precise, the inspiration behind The Crazed.  He—probably in more ways than one—is his character, Jian Wan.

Politics & Academia

Now on to some of the political elements within The Crazed.  As mentioned, Professor Yang sometimes leaps out of the dementia given by his stroke to discourage Jian Wan from embracing the life of a Chinese scholar.  Professor Yang’s argument is that it’s a needless career path, as long as China remains a Communist and retrogressive country that is anti-Western.  The further China balks at foreign notoriety; the further Chinese scholars extend their philosophies, credo, tenets, etc. in small circles among one another.  So what use is it to carry their ideologies without others to contend them with?  It is better to put aside those thoughts and instead push China toward a democratic shape by playing an "active" role in China‘s change?  Or is it better to sit still and continue to honor conformed roles?  (Incidentally, with all the novels, poetry, and short stories Ha Jin has written, only one is currently available in China.)

Those political-based thoughts are probably the main argument of the overall book, and not just the keystone to Jian Wan's sway.  Jian Wan weights Professor Yang’s concerns, moved by both the professor’s words and the apparent "consequence" of forging a life of closed academia.  And with that weighting, Jian Wan finds himself heading toward Tiananmen Square to take part in the country’s historic pro-democracy demonstrations that led to The Tiananmen Square Massacre of 1989.  However, even toward the end you'll wonder which direction Jian Wan will choose?  Or is he brave enough to choose one?  Or even if he'll make it out alive to celebrate his choice?  

From its opening to its end, The Crazed is an intimately eye-opening book.  It's one of those stories that really took me through the speculative mind and musings of an individual I would love to sit down and learn something about life and choices from.

Friday, February 7, 2014

Chinese Cinderella & History

I’ve been writing about China and Historical Fiction/Non-fiction on Comic Towel lately.  So much so that I wanted to share more of my love of both subjects in their sometimes blended splendor.  While the book I’m currently reading doesn't occupied either of the two topics, I couldn't exactly find a book to square up to that would allow me to delve deeper into the subject.  Then I glanced at my copy of Falling Leaves: The Memoir of an Unwanted Chinese Daughter, by Adeline Yen Mah, and recalled the summer night I spent reading the book from start to finish.  Needless to say, that night I freely absorbed Chinese culture and Mah’s personal story revolving around subjugation to many of China’s darkest administrations.  Politically and communally I might add.  That glancing led me to an essay I wrote not to long ago featuring Adeline Yen Mah’s teen version of her autobiography titled, Chinese Cinderella, as well as the topic of historical fiction versus fact.  I would like to share it here, knowing that these subjects have always been something I generally loved to talk about.

Historical fiction and non-fiction novels contain a precise view of the world via a particular story’s setting.  This category of children stories represent realities of earlier periods in human history, told to contemporary readers.  Therefore, because of generational gaps, children may be unfamiliar with the settings and traditions that make up historical fiction.  Here writers must provide enough strong material to fill in the customs of the past so that children of the modern age can understand and appreciate the entirety of a story.  It is this filling of significant period-related material that eases children into the plot of a story, instead of pushing a history lesson.  Adeline Yen Mah’s nonfiction biography, Chinese Cinderella, introduces children to 1930s China through the eyes of an unfortunate girl within an emotionally abusive home.  It is a story that pulls from generations past to express political and cultural upheavals while maintaining the story of one Chinese family’s struggle.  Some may assume that Mah’s need to reveal Chinese culture and politics found itself unnecessary in developing the story’s theme concerning family and child disassociation.  However, Mah’s political and cultural reflections of past China shape much of the influence of family oppression that encouraged young readers to engage with her story.

Chinese Cinderella represents a story about conquering one’s own painful past to establish a productive and wealthy future.  Told through the autobiographical eyes of Adeline Mah, the children’s novel begins with young Mah living a relatively normal, happy life as a child in revolutionizing China.  

The beginning of the novel shows Mah celebrating with a silver medal that she received from school as well as a certificate.  This celebration is in honor of her leading her class, an element that foreshadows her future as a physician and writer.  Nevertheless, like many Chinese families, Mah lives within a complex family; therefore, she presents this award to her aunt, who is combing her hair and not to her numerous brothers and sister because of her fear of an unwarranted reaction.  Mah’s aunt becomes inspired by her niece’s achievement, pulling forth old photographs to relay where her niece came from within the complexities of her family‘s list of honors.  With the photograph, Mah’s aunt reminds Mah of each family member and his or her purpose, goals, and achievements.  However, when Mah questions her aunt about her mother’s role and death, her aunt reveals that Mah’s mother died three days after giving birth to her only.  This begins to set the tone of a motherless girl who becomes classified under Chinese tradition to contain bad luck because of the life her birth took.  No amount of achievements would appear to shadow Mah’s existence following her mother’s death, even within her own family (Mah, 1999, pg. 6)

Mah’s family siblings would forever blame her for their mother’s death, her father sought marriage to a woman of French and Chinese heritage.  This wife bore two additional children (a girl and a boy) during the time China faced and lost the Opium War between England and France.  Many families migrated from coastal cities to Tianjin and Shanghai as a result of the war.  As World War II came about many Chinese traditions further changed from customs featured in the Tang dynasty.  One of these customs was the custom of bounding girls’ feet, considering Chinese men put stock in women with small feet.  Here, Mah no longer had to follow tradition.  This later granted her the ability to form her own destiny as the story unfolds presenting the horrors her stepmother placed on her family (and her in particular) during their time in changing China.  Because her stepmother came from mixed heritage, it became easy for the father to accept that her form of discipline was a matter of cultural progression.  Therefore, he accepted the abuse for the sake of maintaining his wife during a period of struggle (Mah, 1999, pg. 8-10).

Literary elements that construct novels such as Chinese Cinderella are honest history and convincing characters.  Each of these two elements coincides with one another to illustrate a story.  Readers of Chinese Cinderella must consider the history behind China, presented in the novel as well as the character’s place and reactions to those histories and settings.  Convincing cannot be established when the setting and characters are not balanced correctly.  One must fit into the other.  Should the setting contain elements of future sciences and technologies, the characters would no longer be honest to the setting.  Likewise should the character contain knowledge of future sciences and technologies, the character would have no place within the influence of his or her story (Russell, 2009, pg. 247-250).  Chinese Cinderella manages both literary elements correctly, stemming from its nonfiction nature.  Told from the perspective of an individual, the information is accurate.  However, that is not to say that some autobiographies contain elements of fiction.  

Nevertheless, examples that illustrate Mah’s placement of these two literary elements are Mah’s reaction to traditions such as her older sister’s marriage arrangement and bringing honor to family and ancestors.  Under each circumstance, Mah remained innocence and honest in her wonder as regarding why such traditions should be held, even as she went about upholding them.  However, when faced with the scrutiny of her stepmother (who twice sent her to boarding school because of Mah’s tendency to question her), Mah’s resolve to one day be set free of China increased.  This set of traditions (including the early mention of bounding girls feet for marriage) reflected the character of Mah, who has remained an outcast to her family no matter how clever and smart (indicated by her school achievements) that she was.  

One insightful passage helped establish readers to the character of Mah as well as her struggle to separate herself from the harshness of China because she longed for life outside her confinement as a girl and an unwanted daughter.  The passage is told by Mah’s grandfather.  He states to her:

“You may be right in believing that if you study hard, one day you might become fluent in English.  But you will still look Chinese, and when people meet you, they’ll see a Chinese girl no matter how well you speak English.  You’ll always be  expected to know Chinese, and if you don’t, I’m afraid they will not respect you as much” (Mah, 1999, pg. 151).

Her setting later allowed her to split from the boundaries women face in China, leading her to a successful career in London and America as a bilingual physician (Ford, 2003, pg. 66).

Fact or fiction is a statement that demands truth over false within historical fiction or nonfiction.  In Mah’s nonfiction biography, Chinese Cinderella, the elements of fact become determined by the historic events that take place within the story.  Two examples that relay how her material becomes based on fact are her mention of China’s divide with foreign territories or concessions while the Japanese ruled the country beyond these foreign territories.  Because Mah’s family was wealthy and with clout (particularly her French and Chinese stepmother), her family lived well within the territories of the French.  Mah express this piece of fact stating that “Tianjin’s French concession was like a little piece of Paris transplanted into this center of this big Chinese city” (Mah, 1999, pg. 5-6).  During the late 1930s and early 1940s, the Japanese and other foreigner territories did reside in China during the period of the Opium War and World War II. 

Another example of fact within Mah’s novel arises in the political stains the country faced after the Japanese fled the country at the end of World War II.  This period of Communists and Nationalists became the cause of civil war within the country, as the exchange of ideas erupted in Chinese communities, concerning the progression of the country after the wars.  When Mah became pushed into a boarding school, the teachers, and administrating staff questioned: “Didn’t your parents tell you the Communist don’t believe in God and hate foreigners?” (Mah, 1999, pg. 129-130).

Each example furthers the theme of Mah’s story as she continued to wrestling with inner and outer wars to establish her separation from many elements that created a corrupted China.  These elements brought envisions of freedom from tradition as well as freedom from her family.  Mah was the perfect student and remained partly, such as mistreatment from family and wars proceeded to damage her mentality.  Had she not continued to pursue excellence, she would have never escaped the hardships of her past (Ford, 2003, pg. 66).

Even as humans try to remove themselves from his or her past, it is the past that makes the individual.  Mah learned this through the development of her autobiography, aimed to teach children how one’s past does not onset a negative future unless and individual chooses to allow it to be so.  Much of the events Mah faced, from war to political ruling, shaped her determination to exceed beyond her past.  How these elements also contributed to the destructive behavior of her stepmother furthered Mah’s resolve, as toward the end of her true story, when her father’s will is read, Mah decides to no longer fight with her abusive stepmother.  Instead, Mah walks away to continue creating the life she desired with her newfound power of freedom of mind.

Ford, Kim. Voices From the Middle 10.3 (March, 2003): 66.

Mah, A. Y. (1999). Chinese Cinderella. New York City: Dell Laurel Leaf.

Russell, D.L. (2009). Literature for Children: A short introduction (6th Edition). Boston,
MA Pearson/Allyn & Bacon.

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 cliché.  Which brings me to another point as to why I liked this book.  Crazy Rich Asians moved away from those stereotypical/cliché 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.


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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