Chang’s skilful weaving of Empress Dowager Cixi life resembles the traditional robes she wore; her life as decorated as the intricate emblems which reflect her heritage, her past as colourful as the harlequin colours woven into the fabric, her will as indomitable as the symbols which demonstrated her power and wisdom and her ability to rise phoenix-like from the ashes of Chinese history, in a society which, despite its best efforts to deny her power because she was a woman, she was able to bend to her will via her inner potency, her sense of diplomacy and innate intelligence.
Unsurprisingly Cixi has been unfairly represented in history. All of the qualities which, if she were a man, would have been praised, from her commanding nature to her wilfulness in going to any length to ensure the prosperity of China and its royal family and court, are things she has been reviled for, for what is worse than a woman who demonstrates strength and purpose in the face of so many obstacles. Indeed Cixi’s rise, from an imperial concubine to empress is nothing short of remarkable. She was able to rule a court where, on the account of her being a woman, she was unable to set a foot in certain areas, where she had to issue commands via proxies, where she was often left in the dark and the subject of Machiavellian plots and yet still triumphed. Not only that but Cixi’s conciliatory approach, her ability to bring disparate groups or individuals round to her way of thinking and her desire for managed change and reform stood her out to be ahead of her time as a leader in a country where the emperor was considered a deity. Cixi’s greatest strength is, however, was her ability to not bear grudges. Although, at times she could be vengeful and ruthless, her ability to turn enemies into friends helped ensure her seat at the table was maintainedIndeed, the list of Cixi’s accomplishments is significant; from her ending of cruel practices such as female foot binding and death by a thousand cuts, to her spearheading of China’s modernisation, from opening up its borders to the world, democratising its archaic education system which kept 99% of the population illiterate and modernising its tax and customs system.
China prospered and changed under her reign, and although there were a number of missteps along the way, Cixi was able to revolutionise China via little bloodshed, was able to constantly rescue China from the drudgery the parochial, obstinate and mediocre men around her were hell-bent on dragging it to. Cixi was the catalyst which drove China into the modern age.