Sunday 16 April 2017

Brona's Salon

Brona's Salon is a newish meme which aims to gather a group of like-minded bookish people 'under the roof of an inspiring host, held partly to amuse one another and partly to refine the taste and increase the knowledge of the participants through conversation.'

I will provide a bookish prompt or two to inspire our conversation.
However please feel free to discuss your current read or join in the conversation in any way that you see fit.
Amusement, refinement and knowledge will surely follow!

I'm so glad that I have a stock pile of picture book drafts tucked away for a rainy day.
This past month has been pretty hectic, with review writing being the main casualty.

I'm hoping the Easter weekend will be catch up time.

Over the years, my reading interests have gone through many, many phases (obsessions).
 However there are a few that keep returning.

  1. - Holocaust literature (one day I will understand man's inhumanity to man!)
  2. - the French Revolution (all those Louis' & Napoleon's, the brutality, and man's inhumanity to man).
  3. - Russia, especially pre-revolution (the beauty, the poverty, the literature & man's inhumanity to man).
  4. - Chinese history (the power, the philosophy, the inventions & man's inhumanity to man).
  5. - Indian literature (the colour, the religions, the art & man's inhumanity to man).
After reading and loving Do Not Say We Have Nothing last year, it would seem that Chinese history is firmly back in my gaze. Which segues nicely into what am I reading now...

What are you currently reading?

Empress Dowager Cixi: The Concubine Who Launched Modern China by Jung Chang

Empress Dowager Cixi (1835–1908) is the most important woman in Chinese history. She ruled China for decades and brought a medieval empire into the modern age.
At the age of sixteen, in a nationwide selection for royal consorts, Cixi was chosen as one of the emperor’s numerous concubines. When he died in 1861, their five-year-old son succeeded to the throne. Cixi at once launched a palace coup against the regents appointed by her husband and made herself the real ruler of China—behind the throne, literally, with a silk screen separating her from her officials who were all male.

In this groundbreaking biography, Jung Chang vividly describes how Cixi fought against monumental obstacles to change China. Under her the ancient country attained virtually all the attributes of a modern state: industries, railways, electricity, the telegraph and an army and navy with up-to-date weaponry. It was she who abolished gruesome punishments like “death by a thousand cuts” and put an end to foot-binding. She inaugurated women’s liberation and embarked on the path to introduce parliamentary elections to China. Chang comprehensively overturns the conventional view of Cixi as a diehard conservative and cruel despot.

Cixi reigned during extraordinary times and had to deal with a host of major national crises: the Taiping and Boxer rebellions, wars with France and Japan—and an invasion by eight allied powers including Britain, Germany, Russia and the United States. Jung Chang not only records the Empress Dowager’s conduct of domestic and foreign affairs, but also takes the reader into the depths of her splendid Summer Palace and the harem of Beijing’s Forbidden City, where she lived surrounded by eunuchs—one of whom she fell in love, with tragic consequences. The world Chang describes here, in fascinating detail, seems almost unbelievable in its extraordinary mixture of the very old and the very new.

Based on newly available, mostly Chinese, historical documents such as court records, official and private correspondence, diaries and eyewitness accounts, this biography will revolutionize historical thinking about a crucial period in China’s—and the world’s—history. Packed with drama, fast paced and gripping, it is both a panoramic depiction of the birth of modern China and an intimate portrait of a woman: as the concubine to a monarch, as the absolute ruler of a third of the world’s population, and as a unique stateswoman.

How did you find out about this book?

When Empress Dowager Cixi first came out it in 2013 it attracted a lot of media.
It has been on my radar ever since.

Why are you reading it now? 

We ended up with a reading copy of Cixi at work recently.
One rainy lunch time I needed something to pass the time, Cixi was my first choice.

First impressions? 

I loved it.

But where does the truth lie? Is this a biography or historical fiction?
It almost reads like fictionalised history and although I'm loving the story a little niggle is growing. Something is not quite right with the historical sources or the authors interpretations.
It feels like Chang wanted to write a certain story and she's making the historical record fit her agenda.

Now it could be said that all history books are guilty of that charge, it's just that some authors carefully disguise what they're doing.
Chang has not been subtle about her agenda.
She is clearly writing herstory, not history.

Which character do you relate to so far?

I do not relate to any of the main players, but I am fascinated by their story.

I'm also thrilled that many of the places that Cixi lived in or visited are also places that I visited and explored during my time in China in 1996. Being able to picture the palaces and towns being referenced adds to my reading pleasure.

1996 Little Potala Palace, Chengde

Are you happy to continue?

But I feel more cautious about my initial enthusiasm.

Where do you think the story will go? 

As a biography, I have to assume that we will go all the way to 1908 and Cixi's death, with some commentary about the immediate after effects of her reign.

I hope there is also a discussion about the new Chinese sources that Chang has had access to and how they influenced her.

If you'd like to join in #BronasSalon tell us about the book you're reading right now and how it relates to one of your reading obsessions.
Or tell us about the genre or period in history that you obsess about? 


  1. Pearl S. Buck's novel Imperial Woman also tells the story of Empress Dowager Cixi. I loved it on audio and have wanted to read a biography ever since. This one is on the nonfiction shelf at the library, but your comments about Chang's interpretation make me wary. I've enjoyed other books by Chang and will be very interested in your final thoughts on this one.

    1. I'm only a third of the way through the book & I am enjoying it a lot. I'm not sure what I'm basing my wariness on, but I'm hoping to do some googling this long weekend to see what I can see.


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