Jung Chang’s Dowager Empress Cixi and other books

Despite my resolution *not* to buy more books in anticipation of shipping my considerable collection over to London, I ended up with these two books after half an hour’s browsing at Popular


Reading was and still is a great passion of mine. I like books, both as objects and subjects. The bookshelves in my room easily hold about 100 books and many are more than a decade old and falling apart at the bindings. I have an expressed preference for English literature, social history and historical biographies. An odd nod to Mary Higgins Clark, John Grisham, and those GBP10 books at Tesco and Waitrose that make for light bedtime reading with a packet of crisps. Otherwise my shelves are filled with 18th to early 20th C books. I have been given many funny stares by friends, who can’t understand how I can plow through the ostensibly boring minutiae of life depicted in Pride and Prejudice, the sheer cynicism and human cruelty portrayed in Brighton Rocks, the hyperbole of Great Expectations, or the depressing lilt of The Remains of the Day. The greatest novel in my opinion? Anna Karenina, Leo Tolstoy. Best autobiography? Out of Place, Edward Said. Historical biography? Nicholas and Alexandra, Robert K Massie.

Even worse, or so it seems, is my love for social history. What value is there in reading about what people wore in the 18th century? Who cares how they cussed in those days…The irony is that I was never a history student. I studied geography right through to my A levels and even contemplated majoring in it at university. But then I ended up in government and this annoying little concept of path dependency arose during policy formulation.

Why do we undertake historical analysis? No doubt for its own sake, but also to understand the roots of today’s policy, as well as to serve as a comparator. I have the greatest respect for authors of history/social history/biographies because they have a tough job of triangulating views and voices, as well as distinguishing between primary and secondary sources. On hearing that I had bought Jung Chang’s Dowager Empress Cixi, a friend dryly remarked that “the author has written works of fiction”. My knowledge of Chinese history is sufficient, but not robust enough to have studied the original records of the Qing court to decrypt the scholarship. But it’s quite clear from the outset, that the portrait painted of Cixi by Jung Chang is revisionist. I have no quibble about Jung Chang’s attempt to rehabilitate Cixi’s image as a power-mad tyrant who ran a corrupt court filled with evil eunuchs thriving with poisonings and executions. But there is considerable airbrushing in this book. My own personal view is that Cixi was no more ruthless than other rulers. She introduced some reforms in the last years of her life; getting rid of foot binding, understanding the need for industrialisation and military reforms. But then again resentment against the Qing dynasty was so strong it collapsed 3 years after her death. She had political instinct, but within the confines of the Forbidden City. She was no stateswoman, and put a stop to sending children abroad for study after the British Warships fiasco.

So this brings me to the big question. What happens to all my books, in addition to the Other Half’s equally considerable book collection !? Well of course we hope that Boop will pick up reading as a habit. And by reading, we mean good old hard-copy books. Not e-books, as the tendency for young children to quickly skip the page to ipad game apps and what not is just too tempting. For now, Boop’s book collection consists of the usual nursery rhymes, fairy tales, sensory books, and the Children’s bible. He has a bed time reading routine, and is beginning to learn how to turn the pages.


It will be interesting to see where Boop’s reading will veer towards as a teenager. The Other Half’s reading is similar to mine only where the Booker Prize shortlist is concerned, as well as the odd text from the secondary school English Literature curriculum. [ Duchess of Malfi, anyone!? 🙂 ]The Other Half likes to read and used to write poetry. Apart from a brief schoolgirl crush on Emily Bronte and her poetry, I do not. We both, however, buy copious amounts of recipe books and intend to buy more from this list http://www.independent.co.uk/life-style/food-and-drink/features/the-10-best-childrens-cookbooks-8588949.html, especially the Roald Dahl one for Boop to join us in the kitchen! For now, however, he is our little supermarket mascot 🙂


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