Jung Chang reveals the truth of another chapter in Chinese history

The Empress Cixi's reputation as a cruel despot masks her contribution to China's modernisation says the author

Author Jung Chang admits she always thought it was China's communists who outlawed the once widespread and barbaric practice of foot binding, where a girl's bones were crushed by a large stone and permanently bound so that only the big toe could grow.

It was in fact banned far earlier: by the 19th-century Empress Dowager Cixi – a fact that immediately drew Chang, one of the world's bestselling authors, to a woman who has had a terrible press.

"Her reputation was and today still is as this cruel despot and arch-conservative who resisted all change," Chang told the Guardian-sponsored Edinburgh international book festival on Sunday. In fact she was a moderniser who espoused women's liberation, looked to the west and fundamentally changed China for the better, Chang said.

Chang has been responsible for two global publishing sensations. Her 1991 memoir Wild Swans, describing the lives of her grandmother, her mother and herself as China underwent convulsions, is the biggest grossing non-fiction paperback in history, translated into 37 languages and with global sales in excess of 13m copies. Then she spent 12 years researching and writing Mao: The Unknown Story with her husband, the historian Jon Halliday. Again, it was a sensation, vividly portraying Mao as a sadistic, merciless monster rather than a champion of the people.

Chang was in Edinburgh to discuss her third book, which tells the fascinating story of Cixi, who was the absolute ruler of a third of the world's population for nearly 50 years until her death in 1908.

She was also drawn to Cixi when she was researching Mao. Chang realised he had so many opportunities – to go to college, travel abroad and to write for a free press. "The kind of freedoms that I, growing up under Mao, couldn't dream of."

The reason Mao had the freedoms was Cixi. She brought in electricity, modern mining, the railways, telegrams, new business methods, diplomacy, a navy with ironclads and a modern education system whose legacy exists today. Cixi also banned practices such as death by a thousand cuts – execution by slowly slicing someone to death.

Cixi's rise to power was remarkable given she was one of the emperor's lowest-ranking concubines. But, crucially, she was also the mother of his only son and when he died she staged a coup to get rid of the eight male regents meant to be supervising the five-year-old emperor.

Three were killed, said Chang, with one beheaded and the other two sent "long white silk scarves to hang themselves with … it was considered an imperial favour". Cixi spent her reign giving instructions behind a curtain because it was forbidden to have face-to-face contact with the men doing her bidding.

When the boy emperor grew up he had no interest in reigning and was more interested in sex, Chang said, with both male and female prostitutes outside the Forbidden City.

He died aged 18 so Cixi adopted her sister's three-year-old and made him emperor.

Chang's book covers many fascinating episodes – how Cixi fell in love with a eunuch who was then publicly executed, how she employed one of Abraham Lincoln's key diplomats as her ambassador to the west and how on the day before she died she ordered the death by poisoning of her adopted son because he was too close to Japan.

Chang said one reason Cixi modernised China so dramatically was because she was a woman, a leader forced to rule in the background because of her sex.

"She had a personal stake in making China more like the west. When she sent her envoys abroad they wrote back reports which said women don't have to bind their feet, they can go out arm in arm with their husbands, they can dance, they can travel, they can even be ruled by a woman [Victoria]."

Chang said she inevitably compared Cixi's rule to Mao's and, yes, Cixi had people murdered but "don't be shocked … but she had remarkably few people killed." Chang said she had spent much of the past year working on the Chinese translation of her book, which is now complete and due to come out next month.

Unfortunately it will not be read in China, where her books are banned. Even the internet will not be much help, she told the festival audience, with China's "army of censors" deleting her books or references to them within days of them going up. "They just sit there diligently deleting everything they are ordered to delete."

Contributor

Mark Brown, arts correspondent

The GuardianTramp

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