What made you suspect Empress Dowager Cixi was ripe for a biography?
When I was writing Wild Swans [Chang's memoir of three generations of Chinese women], I described my grandmother's bound feet as "three-inch golden lilies". I'd assumed foot-binding had been banned by the communists but discovered that it was, in 1902, the Empress Dowager who outlawed it. That got me interested in her. Also, researching my biography of Mao, I was astonished by the freedom he enjoyed growing up [he was born in 1893 when the Empress Dowager was in power – she died in 1908]. For example, he could travel with a girlfriend, checking into hotels. He had sexual freedom, along with other freedoms that I, growing up in China, couldn't dream of. There was press freedom too. I had thought the Empress Dowager a diehard conservative despot – her reputation in China is still as a vicious villain.
Why has that hung on?
Because as a woman she was not allowed to rule in her own right. She ruled from behind the throne of her son and adopted son. Without research and study, it is not straightforward to decide what her position was. Barely three years after she died, China became a republic. And later Mao and the communists wanted to accuse her of leaving China in a mess. Articulate foes abroad created lies against her.
How trapped was she?
When she came to power in 1861, China was medieval. She wasn't allowed to see her officials. She hated the Forbidden City but was not allowed out of it. She wanted to travel. Yet she had the acumen to judge what was possible. She did not let her personal wish for freedom divert her from reforms.
She got more radical as she got older…
When she came to power she was 25 and from a secluded environment. She didn't know what the west was like. But she had shrewd judgment. She knew an open-door policy would benefit China – her greatest contribution. She had an open mind and was attracted to western ways. She was semi-educated but because she hadn't spent 10 years imbibing incomprehensible classics, her intuitive intelligence wasn't smothered.
You make a fantastic case for her but cannot gloss over her murder of her adopted son. How can this be defensible?
That was not the most painful thing. After all, he had plotted to murder her. She realised that if he survived her, China would land in Japan's lap because they had a hold over him. There would be the nightmare scenario of Japan, which was developing towards being a fascist country, dominating east Asia. It would have been a nightmare for the world – an incredible moral dilemma. I forgave her this act.
How complex was the book to research?
In the Forbidden City there are 12 million documents about her and her dynasty. Teams of scholars and archivists have been analysing and digitising them. Her imperial decrees can now be downloaded. I could look at them from the comfort of my study.
Will the book be banned in China?
If it were, it would be because the regime would not want to promote me. And my conclusions are new, so the book is bound to create waves. But I hope it will be allowed in China.
I'm struck by your descriptions of the oppressive order of palace life. To what extent is ordinary feeling repressed by organised Chinese structures?
Very repressed. What appalled me was the ban on music. After the emperor's death there had to be four years of silence – unbelievable. She loved music. How would you live? There were books but they were classics.
When did you move to the UK and how Chinese do you feel now?
In 1978. My mother lives in China, and a brother and sister. I care deeply what happens there but London is home. I found things I loved here: flowers, grass, pretty clothes, people being nice to each other. In the Cultural Revolution, people were condemned for saying "thank you" too much – it was thought bourgeois, as were books. London was freedom and a lovely life.
Are clothes important? You dress beautifully…
Yes, they are. But the Empress Dowager would spend two hours dressing up… and I never… [she laughs]
You worked with your husband on the Mao book. Has it, though banned in China, made an impact there?
It is the most fantastic thing: a huge impact. The Chinese edition is published in Hong Kong, sold in Taiwan. Many copies have gone into China. Information from our book is on the web and people are debating it.
How did you and your husband meet?
In the 1980s I'd finished my doctorate at the University of York and was making a TV series about China. Jon [Halliday, an historian] was working on a documentary about the Korean war. He was told I might open doors in China. I did nothing of the sort.
What has your mother's influence been?
My mother is 82 and fearless, which gives me courage. She never cautions me. She lets me do whatever I see as right. And it is courageous because she could be affected by what I do.
What one thing would you change in China?
Say goodbye to Mao. Take down Mao's portrait from Tiananmen Square.
You were in the Red Guard at 14. Do you feel as if you were another person then?
No – I was very much me. When I go back to China, my schoolfriends say my personality has hardly changed. I never was a fanatic. Extreme actions make me afraid. I was a reluctant Red Guard. Like the Empress Dowager, I was radical but no extremist.
It sounds like you identify with her…
I admire her for bringing off an incredible revolution in China with minimum bloodshed. I empathise with her.
Jung Chang will be speaking at the London Lit Weekend at Kings Place, London N1 on Saturday