Best-selling Chinese author Jung Chang talks to Time Out about her new book.
The book Wild Swans remains the bestselling story about China. Jung Chang followed it with a biography of Mao co-written with her husband, and has now published the story of a little-known concubine-turned-ruler of China, the Empress Dowager Cixi. She chews over tradition, censorship and Sichuan food in London’s Chinatown with Time Out’s Guy Dimond.
Cixi has been dead since 1908, and many people won’t have heard of the name. Why pick her?
She ruled one-third of the world’s population and was a moderniser. She saw that the country needed to adjust its relationship with the West and that China could benefit from the change. That was her greatness. She wanted to preserve China’s traditions. Mao said destroy the ‘four olds’ – old customs, old culture, old habits, old ideas – which has done untold damage: Chinese people now believe in nothing except money.
Mao is still portrayed in a heroic light in China
Of course, but that is a communist regime. They are not open to reason. Truth or lies don’t matter to them. Some new people in the regime are determined to turn back the clock to Mao’s time and stifle aspirations.
Aren’t you interested in writing about contemporary China?
It’s not my expertise. I never wrote about Tiananmen Square, for example. But I do know that after Tiananmen the regime blocked people wanting to be involved in politics and encouraged [the public’s] talent into doing business – which is partly why China is doing so economically well. But even the Empress Dowager understood this. The ruler and the people need to be connected. I hope the book answers some of the puzzles of China’s relationship with the West, and how China evolved.
We’re dining on ‘man-and-wife offal slice’ in a London Sichuan restaurant, Barshu. Did you eat this food when you were young?
When I was 14, my parents were communist officials, so I lived in the privileged environment of the communist elite. We had a special kitchen and the food was very good. I grew up taking hierarchy and privilege for granted. When I came to Britain one of my first impressions was that it was wonderfully classless. My views have been modified over the years!
Empress Dowager Cixi: The Concubine Who Launched Modern China is available from www.amazon.com, priced Dhs66.