VIDEO - Author Jung Chang at Off The Shelf festival tonight

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Empress Dowager Cixi is the most important woman in Chinese history. She ruled China for forty seven years, and transformed China from a medieval state into a modern society.

Selected when she was fifteen as one of Emperor Xianfeng’s 3,000 concubines, she rose rapidly through their ranks, cementing her position by producing an heir, Tongzhi. When Xianfeng died in 1861, Tongzhi was only five. Cixi at once launched a palace coup and made herself sole regent for her son.

Jung Chang

Jung Chang

In this ground-breaking biography, Jung Chang shows that under Cixi’s rule China acquired virtually all the attributes of a modern state: industries, railways, cars, electricity, telephones, Western medicine, an army and navy with modern weaponry. She developed foreign trade and diplomacy, and revolutionised the education system. She abolished foot-binding and gruesome medieval punishments like ‘death by a thousand cuts’. Jung Chang comprehensively overturns the conventional view of Cixi as a conservative, cruel despot.

Cixi reigned over extraordinary times and had to deal with a host of major national crises: the Taiping and Boxer Rebellions, wars with Britain, France and Japan. Jung Chang looks in detail at her conduct of domestic and foreign affairs, but also takes us into Cixi’s splendid Summer Palace, where she lived surrounded by eunuchs. The world Jung Chang describes, in fascinating detail, seems almost incredible, a unique mixture of the very old and the very new.

Fast-paced, gripping, based on thorough research in newly opened Chinese and Western archives, this biography will revolutionise historical thinking about a crucial period in China’s – and the world’s – history.

Jung Chang is the author of Wild Swans, which has been translated into thirty languages and sold 10 million copies, and (with her husband Jon Halliday) Mao: The Unknown Story. She was born in China and came to Britain in 1978.

Jung Chang will be at Pennine Lecture Theatre tonight from 7pm to talk about her books and her work.