The best Empress Dowager Cixi books

Many authors have picked their favorite books about Empress Dowager Cixi and why they recommend each book.

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Manchu Decadence

By Edmund Trelawny Backhouse,

Book cover of Manchu Decadence: The China Memoirs of Sir Edmund Trelawny Backhouse, Abridged and Unexpurgated

Decades before Carl Crow helped transform Old Shanghai into a playground for the Waspy rich, a young Brit named Edmund Backhouse was reveling in the brothels of Beijing. Backhouse first arrived in China in 1899, where he served as a linguist and, he claimed, as a consultant for the Manchu court (where he also claims to have bedded Empress Dowager Cixi). By night, however, Backhouse was prowling the filthy backstreets for lascivious same-sex encounters with the Chinese, which he chronicled in a secret diary that remained unpublished until 2011. Egregious and borderline pornographic, no China expat (not even Isham Cook, cited below) has ever come close to matching Backhouse’s salaciousness. Should be read in concert with Hugh Trevor-Roper’s Hermit of Peking, who hypothesizes that Backhouse was nothing more than a charlatan with a vivid imagination.

Who am I?

Peeking over the American fence, I found myself in China in 2004 as the nation was transitioning from its quaint 1980s/90s self into the futuristic “China 2.0” we know it today. My occupation, like many expats, was small-town English teacher. I later departed for what would become a two-year backpacking sojourn across all 33 Chinese provinces, the first foreigner on record to do so. Since then, I have published three books about China, with two specifically focusing on the expatriate experience. This quirky yet timeless subgenre is my guilty pleasure; the following are but five of five hundred I’d love to recommend.

I wrote...

An American Bum in China: Featuring the bumblingly brilliant escapades of expatriate Matthew Evans

By Tom Carter, John Dobson (illustrator),

Book cover of An American Bum in China: Featuring the bumblingly brilliant escapades of expatriate Matthew Evans

What is my book about?

Down on his luck and disabled, cancer survivor Matthew Evans had nothing to lose by fleeing the farmsteads of Muscatine, Iowa, at age 21 to pursue his Chinese Dream. With all the makings of a classic unAmerican folk tale, his curiosity became an epic five-year adventure that would find him homeless, stateless, posing as a professor, imprisoned, deported, and caught right in the middle of the 2014 Hong Kong protests, the only known foreigner present from beginning to end. Though it has all the form of great fiction – indeed, many a reviewer have referenced that old Mark Twain quote, “Truth is stranger than fiction” – An American Bum in China is indeed a true story...and all the crazier for it.

Empress Dowager Cixi

By Jung Chang,

Book cover of Empress Dowager Cixi: The Concubine who Launched Modern China

Jung Chang, best known as the author of Wild Swans: Three Daughters of China, here turns her considerable creative skill to the story of the woman who rose to the height of power in one of the world’s most important empires. Cixi’s trajectory from concubine to mother of the Tongzhi Emperor reminds us how sexual and reproductive labour are often critical to women’s access to power. 

Chang locates Cixi’s personal experiences, enjoying extreme luxury in secluded palaces yet displaying keen interest in the outside world that China was forced to confront, against a grand narrative of extraordinary changes to the empire Cixi was charged to safeguard. Chang presents a strongly sympathetic analysis of Cixi but the complex ambitions, many contradictions and perceived failures of this powerful woman ensure that she will remain the subject of continued debate.

Who am I?

I'm Professor and Director of the Gender and Women’s History Research Centre at the Australian Catholic University. I've always been interested in the power of ideologies about gender to shape people’s lives, and in the experiences of women in times past. I started off exploring these topics in early modern Europe and then looked at how women, and ideas about gender, shaped the ways European peoples engaged in the world at this period. This has helped me to see the very significant ways that the lives of women and men are always shaped by gender ideologies across the globe and across time, and the innovative ways that people respond to the challenges and opportunities that they encounter.

I wrote...

The Identities of Catherine de’ Medici

By Susan Broomhall,

Book cover of The Identities of Catherine de’ Medici

What is my book about?

In this book, I explore how the character of this famous sixteenth-century queen of France and influential mother of three French kings has been represented in different, sometimes contrasting, ways as people have tried to make sense of her behaviour and motivations, in her own time and since. I look at how Catherine de’ Medici herself, along with her allies, supporters, and clients, tried to project a particular story about who she was and why she acted as she did and how her contemporaries responded to this. Some did so positively, but others were deeply hostile to the queen and circulated their own, alternative, ideas about who Catherine was.

The legacy of this deeply contested woman who operated at the heart of French political life can only be understood if we can make sense of how her identity was ‘produced’ in writing, artworks, architecture, fashion, and ceremonies and how these forms had consequences for which aspects of Catherine de’ Medici’s identity have been remembered and reproduced right down to the present day.

Dragon Lady

By Sterling Seagrave,

Book cover of Dragon Lady: The Life and Legend of the Last Empress of China

This book takes what you think you know about China’s Last Empress, Cixi, and turns it upside down. Far from the monster created by puerile Western conquerors to justify their imperial domination over China, this historical account uncovers the reality behind the woman who held great power in China. This reality is core to the destruction of the Dragon Lady stereotype in Western culture that I lay out in my book.

Who am I?

I have specialized in writing about Asia since first moving to Hong Kong as a journalist in 1989, and spent the past three decades trying to improve understandings between East and West. My Asian women friends repeatedly asked me why Western men expected them to pour their drinks and serve them food. I answered “because that’s what they saw in the movies.” The James Bond films perpetuating these images of servile Asian women scrubbing white mens’ backs in the bathtub were pervasive when they were growing up. I decided to uncover and explain where this history of imagery and the stereotypes they result in come from – and, as someone with an anthropological background, also explain cultural practices that foster misunderstandings. 

I wrote...

The Asian Mystique: Dragon Ladies, Geisha Girls, & Our Fantasies of the Exotic Orient

By Sheridan Prasso,

Book cover of The Asian Mystique: Dragon Ladies, Geisha Girls, & Our Fantasies of the Exotic Orient

What is my book about?

Why do stereotypes about Asian women persist in Western culture: as submissive and servile, or the opposite – as kick-ass, kung-fu Dragon Lady dominatrix? Despite recent progress in Hollywood, these images remain pervasive in film, TV, advertising, and other imagery. Where do they come from, and what are the realities behind them?

This important, acclaimed book tackles the perceptions and the realities, recounting the history of East-West interaction that led to these images and their persistence, and the cultural factors and market forces that help them persist. It is ideal for people looking for understanding, and for people looking to help others  – like guys with an Asian fetish– understand.

Wealth and Power

By Orville Schell, John Delury,

Book cover of Wealth and Power: China's Long March to the Twenty-First Century

This book is an excellent introduction to some of the most important characters in modern Chinese history, from nineteenth-century reformers to twentieth-century communist leaders. We meet some of the characters I write about in The Invention of China like the great journalist Liang Qichao and the revolutionary leader Sun Yat-sen, along with others such as Mao Zedong. The authors link their overlapping lives together showing how the old Qing Empire crumbled and was overthrown and replaced by a new Republic, which was itself overthrown within 40 years. It’s a great way to experience China’s journey from a time when it could be described as the ‘Sick Man of Asia’ to an era in which its ‘strength and power’ unsettled the world.

Who am I?

I’ve spent more than a decade exploring the historic roots of Asia’s modern political problems – and discovering the accidents and mistakes that got us where we are today. I spent 22 years with BBC News, including a year in Vietnam and another in Myanmar. I’ve written four books on East and Southeast Asia and I’m an Associate Fellow with the Asia-Pacific Programme at the London-based thinktank, Chatham House. I love breaking down old stereotypes and showing readers that the past is much more interesting than a series of clichés about ‘us’ and ‘them’. Perhaps through that, we can recognise that our future depends on collaboration and cooperation.

I wrote...

The Invention of China

By Bill Hayton,

Book cover of The Invention of China

What is my book about?

China’s current leadership lays claim to a 5,000-year-old civilization, but “China” as a unified country and people, Bill Hayton argues, was created far more recently by a small group of intellectuals.

In this compelling account, Hayton shows how China’s present-day geopolitical problems—the fates of Hong Kong, Taiwan, Tibet, Xinjiang, and the South China Sea—were born in the struggle to create a modern nation-state. In the late nineteenth and early twentieth centuries, reformers and revolutionaries adopted foreign ideas to “invent’ a new vision of China. By asserting a particular, politicized version of the past the government bolstered its claim to a vast territory stretching from the Pacific to Central Asia. Ranging across history, nationhood, language, and territory, Hayton shows how the Republic’s reworking of its past not only helped it to justify its right to rule a century ago—but continues to motivate and direct policy today.

Empress Orchid

By Anchee Min,

Book cover of Empress Orchid

Empress Wu, the protagonist of my historical duology The Empress of Bright Moon, was often mistaken for the Empress Cixi in this novel, which often prompted me to explain that Empress Wu lived in the seventh century and she was the only female who ruled China in her name. But Empress Cixi, perhaps, was the only equivalent to her, as Cixi wielded great power and ruled the country from behind a thick, embroidered curtain in the late nineteenth century. Well-researched, the novel chronicled the rise of a cunning concubine, a woman of the reigning ethnic group over the Han people, and offered a rare insight into the journey of the indomitable woman and China at the end of the nineteenth century. 

Who am I?

I was born and raised in China; at twenty-four, I immigrated to the US and switched to English, my second language, to write historical fiction featuring Chinese women. I published The Moon in the Palace and The Empress of Bright Moon, a historical novel series about Empress Wu, the first and only female ruler in China, in 2016. The Moon in the Palace won the RWA RITA Award, and the series has been translated into seven languages. I love writing novels with rich historical details, compelling descriptions of culture, and strong but flawed Chinese women who are not afraid to defy tradition to pursue their dreams.

I wrote...

The Last Rose of Shanghai

By Weina Dai Randel,

Book cover of The Last Rose of Shanghai

What is my book about?

The novel, set in Japanese-occupied Shanghai during WWII, tells an impossible love story between a wealthy Chinese woman, Aiyi Shao, and a penniless German Jew who fled to Shanghai from Nazi Germany, Ernest Reismann. When Aiyi, a woman from a well-bred family in Shanghai, hired Ernest to play the piano in her nightclub, the two forge an unbreakable bond that transcends race, class, and war. The novel reveals a little-known segment of history, the Jewish ghetto in Shanghai, and the resilience of both Chinese and Jewish people during WWII.

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