Jung Chang to talk about her contentious book on the Empress Dowager Cixi

Historian Jung Chang comes to Dubai's Emirates Airline Festival of Literature to shed light on a misunderstood Chinese empress.

On Friday, March 6, Jung Chang will discuss her latest work, Empress Dowager Cixi: The Concubine Who Launched Modern China. Brent Lewin / Bloomberg
Powered by automated translation

It is the questions rather than the subjects that drive Jung Chang.

The renowned Chinese author has spent nearly three decades chronicling some of her homeland’s most controversial figures, in addition to writing a best-selling family memoir.

Chang is certainly well-versed in the topics she writes about – she was born to parents who were Communist Party officials and she grew up during the disastrous Cultural Revolution.

While tackling Chinese history and political developments can be daunting even to the most seasoned writers, Chang, 64, says her books are born from questions that snowball into deep investigations.

“I just love the research,” she says. “That’s the thing with me. I love getting things right and going to the archive and digging out bits of material. Whenever I am working on a book, I often feel like a historical detective.”

History is the major theme of Chang’s work.

Her debut, the 1992 family memoir Wild Swans, sold more than 10 million copies worldwide. In it Chang surveyed China's rapid and often violent developments through the eyes of her grandmother, mother and herself.

The follow up, 2005's Mao: The Unknown Story, written with her Irish historian husband Jon Halliday, focused on the late Chinese dictator's brutality.

Chang returns to the Emirates Airline Festival of Literature this week to discuss her latest work, Empress Dowager Cixi: The Concubine Who Launched Modern China.

Published in 2013, the biography of the 19th century leader sheds light on Cixi’s political cunning and intellect – aspects the writer thinks have been whitewashed by western and Eastern historians.

“She was the person who brought modernisation to China,” says Chang. “She outlawed foot-binding and banned medieval forms of punishment such as death by a thousand cuts, and brought women out of their houses and gave them education.

“During my research, I was astonished repeatedly by her achievement and how she was unjustly treated by history.”

Chang’s latest work has divided public opinion. While Chinese readers seem to value the fresh insights, western academics accused her of revisionism, suggesting that she had airbrushed many of Cixi’s ruthless and tyrannical tendencies.

Chang dismisses these, insisting such reviews reflect an old and less-nuanced view of Chinese history.

“In the western world, people know very little about Empress Dowager and the real experts are few,” she says.

“Some reviewers, I feel, are stuck to this old version that she was a diehard despot and that’s because they based their knowledge on general sources and they are not real specialists on her. They probably found my book difficult because they were not in a position to evaluate all the documents because they are all in Chinese.”

While history is often used to glean lessons for modern life, Chang says she consciously avoids that approach when working.

“I block my mind of any relevance for today because I think it doesn’t work,” she says. “I just treat history for what it is and I don’t stretch it.

“Once the book is published, then it is up to readers to find that relevance – but that is never my intention with a book.”

More important to Chang, however, is that people enjoy reading her works. Despite the heavy topics on offer, her books are always written in accessible prose and she shies away from jargon.

“Although I can be considered an academic because of my qualifications, I am just allergic to any form of bland dissertation or jargon,” she says.

“I myself am a general reader and I basically like to write books that I would read. When a book is full of convoluted writing, it generally shows the writer is not on top of the subject itself.”

• Jung Chang will appear on Friday, March 6, at 6.30pm at the InterContinental Hotel, Dubai Festival City. Tickets, Dh70, are available at www.emirateslitfest.com