EMPRESS DOWAGER CIXI: The Concubine Who Launched Modern China. By Jung Chang. Knopf. 373 pages. $30.

When Empress Dowager Cixi arrived at Beijing's Forbidden City as a concubine in 1852, it contained one of the most secretive, enigmatic and claustrophobic governing bodies in the world. Cixi herself, who began her life there in a harem, gained influence after providing a son and heir to Emperor Xianfeng.

Over some four decades, with an exquisitely balanced combination of patience and ruthlessness, she achieved the apogee of power and almost never, except when forced by rebellion or war, left her palaces. Until the day of her death in 1908, she was not, as a woman, allowed to approach the compound through the front entrance.

Born in 1835 into the ruling Manchu minority, Cixi was encouraged from adolescence by a loving father to think for herself and pursue her interest in state affairs and politics, according to her biographer Jung Chang. This was not the sort of rearing that was likely to produce the modest, obedient wife and mother considered ideal in a deeply patriarchal society. It also doesn't explain how a sheltered, rather uneducated young woman in her 20s developed the raw courage, shrewdness and cunning to engineer the coup that allowed her to rule for her son, and later take on the Taipings, the Boxers, the Japanese, much of western Europe and her own xenophobic counselors.

The results were decidedly mixed. In the years of her reign (she returned to the harem twice), China's national power was severely undercut by outsiders hungry for trade and dominance in the region. But those years also saw marked advances in transportation, industry, communication and the military, a result in part of Cixi's insistence that China must Westernize in order to survive.

Jung Chang, the best-selling author of "Wild Swans" and "Mao: The Unknown Story" (both banned in China), has utilized materials that have been made available since the death of Mao to challenge the image of Cixi as the sinister "Old Buddha," a sort of female Dr. Fu Manchu, and upgrade her into an all-too-human ruler. Despite her limited exposure to the world outside the walls of the Forbidden City, she saw further than most of the men around her, was adored by the peasantry and besmirched by the Chinese rulers who came after her.

"Those who hated her were more articulate than those who loved her," said author Pearl Buck, who grew up in China.

It is probably not off the mark to say that this book is an apologia, even a kind of paean to Cixi, which at its most extreme, calls forth from the author an intensity of tone that borders on the hagiographic. This can be off-putting and may send some readers in search of other sources of information on the empress.

Cixi was doubtless better than her worst detractors claimed, but she was also someone who was not above poisoning her adopted son, or having a troublesome concubine thrown down a well.

What Cixi seems to have possessed in abundance was the ability to determine both the motives and abilities of those around her, the key moment to take action and when to hold her fire. She could appear appealingly vulnerable at times, but she never forgave and could wait years to punish an opponent.

Jung Chang effectively describes the stunning beauty of Chinese art and ceremony, as well as Chinese society's powerful sense of family and respect for elders. She does not attempt to prettify, however, the more disturbing cultural practices, some of which continued past the turn of the 19th century, like "death by a thousand cuts" and the excruciatingly painful binding of women's feet. China did modernize dramatically in Cixi's time, but it was often a halting process, with as many steps backward as forward.

Whether the Empress Dowager Cixi was the chief catalyst for her country's transformation remains very much open to question. The 268-year-old Great Qing dynasty, along with some of her more liberal political initiatives, effectively died with her and were replaced first by a republic and then Mao's brutal regime.

With this absorbing but slightly flawed book, Jung Chang has provided useful groundwork for an understanding of the China that is now emerging a century after the death of one of its most influential figures.

Reviewer Rosemary Michaud is a writer in Charleston.