The Last Empress by Daniele Varè
The Empress Dowager Tzi-his (1835-1908) was a unique ruler unlike any other China had ever seen. She is considered to be one of the most influential people in Chinese history, a rarity in the male dominated Chinese world. The empress dowager exerted great power over the Chinese empire and influenced the political structure in ways it had never been influenced before, making many great reforms that she believed would help the Chinese people.
Born on November 29th, 1835, Tzi-hsi was named Yehonala after her tribe. Her father, Huei-cheng died when she was a child and her family took care of her until she was sent to Emperor Hsien-Feng’s court as a concubine. Although Hsien-Feng had many wives and concubines, Tzi-hsi was the only to bear him a son. In 1861, the Emperor died and his court was left to the son, who was not of age and thus Tzi-hsi was able to rule through her son, The Emperor Tung-chih. When he turned 17, she was forced to give up her immediate power to him. Tung-chih died in 1875. Through much controversy and manipulation, Tzi-hsi was able to convince the court to nominate her choice as successor, and when the Empress of the Eastern palace died, Tzi-hsi became the sole surviving regent of the empire (Varè).
Shortly after, Tzi-hsi was forced to give up her regency and retired to a summer palace, but she soon resumed rule over China. From that moment on until her death in 1908 she ruled China, instilling new policies and reforms into Chinese culture. There have been many assertions and assumptions about Tzi-hsi’s policies and their value to the history of China and her popularity among Chinese citizens (her tomb was raided and destroyed). Regardless of these opinions, Tzi-hsi’s character was strong and she stood up for what she believed in and what she thought was best for her country and her people.
The Last Empress by Daniele Varè does an excellent job of portraying these events in detail as well as providing cultural background in which to better understand the events and the circumstances of her life. The vivid depiction of the Empress Dowager gives intimate details of Tzi-his’s life, her personality and the motivations that drove her to propose the reforms and ideas that she did. It provides an in depth look into her life through social and political spheres in which she existed. The King’s College History Department in its review said:
Varè is successful in writing this primarily because she does not attempt to judge wherther the actions of the empress were good or bad. The strict reporting of the facts with very little speculation makes this book extremely useful…Her point of view is that even if she did do many things that were negative along with some that were positive this only goes to show she is human. (1)
Varè does do an excellent job of...