Empress Orchid

Empress Orchid

by Anchee Min

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Overview


From a master of the historical novel, Empress Orchid sweeps readers into the heart of the Forbidden City to tell the fascinating story of a young concubine who becomes China’s last empress. Min introduces the beautiful Tzu Hsi, known as Orchid, and weaves an epic of a country girl who seized power through seduction, murder, and endless intrigue. When China is threatened by enemies, she alone seems capable of holding the country together.
In this “absorbing companion piece to her novel Becoming Madame Mao” (New York Times), readers and reading groups will once again be transported by Min’s lavish evocation of the Forbidden City in its last days of imperial glory and by her brilliant portrait of a flawed yet utterly compelling woman who survived, and ultimately dominated, a male world.

Product Details

ISBN-13: 9780618562039
Publisher: Houghton Mifflin Harcourt
Publication date: 04/28/2005
Edition description: Reprint
Pages: 368
Sales rank: 339,091
Product dimensions: 5.50(w) x 8.25(h) x 0.92(d)

About the Author


Anchee Min was born in Shanghai in 1957. At seventeen she was sent to a labor collective, where a talent scout for Madame Mao’s Shanghai Film Studio recruited her to work as a movie actress. She came to the United States in 1984 with the help of actress Joan Chen. Her memoir, Red Azalea, was named one of the New York Times Notable Books of 1994 and was an international bestseller, with rights sold in twenty countries. Her novels Becoming Madame Mao and Empress Orchid were published to critical acclaim and were national bestsellers. Her two other novels, Katherine and Wild Ginger, were published to wonderful reviews and impressive foreign sales.

Read an Excerpt


One

My imperial life began with a smell. A rotten smell that came from my father’s coffin—he had been dead for two months and we were still carrying him, trying to reach Peking, his birthplace, for burial. My mother was frustrated. “My husband was the governor of Wuhu,” she said to the footmen whom we had hired to bear the coffin. “Yes, madam,” the head footman answered humbly, “and we sincerely wish the governor a good journey home.” In my memory, my father was not a happy man. He had been repeatedly demoted because of his poor performance in the suppression of the Taiping peasant uprisings. Not until later did I learn that my father was not totally to blame. For years China had been dogged by famine and foreign aggression. Anyone who tried on my father’s shoes would understand that carrying out the Emperor’s order to restore peace in the countryside was impossible—peasants saw their lives as no better than death.
I witnessed my father’s struggles and sufferings at a young age. I was born and raised in Anhwei, the poorest province in China. We didn’t live in poverty, but I was aware that my neighbors had eaten earthworms for dinner and had sold their children to pay off debts. My father’s slow journey to hell and my mother’s effort to fight it occupied my childhood. Like a long- armed cricket my mother tried to block a carriage from running over her family.
The summer heat baked the path. The coffin was carried in a tilted position because the footmen were of different heights. Mother imagined how uncomfortable my father must be lying inside. We walked in silence and listened to the sound of our broken shoes tapping the dirt. Swarms of flies chased the coffin. Each time the footmen paused for a break the flies covered the lid like a blanket. Mother asked my sister Rong, my brother Kuei Hsiang and me to keep the flies away. But we were too exhausted to lift our arms. We had been traveling north along the Grand Canal on foot because we had no money to hire a boat. My feet were covered with blisters. The landscape on both sides of the path was bleak. The water in the canal was low and dirt- brown. Beyond it were barren hills, which extended mile after mile. There were fewer inns to be seen. The ones that we did come upon were infested with lice.
“You’d better pay us,” the head footman said to Mother when he heard her complaint that her wallet was near empty, “or you will have to carry the coffin yourselves, madam.” Mother began to sob again and said that her husband didn’t deserve this. She gained no sympathy. The next dawn the footmen abandoned the coffin.
Mother sat down on a rock by the road. She had a ring of sores sprouting around her mouth. Rong and Kuei Hsiang discussed burying our father where he was. I didn’t have the heart to leave him in a place without a tree in sight. Although I was not my father’s favorite at first —he was disappointed that I, his firstborn, was not a son—he did his best in raising me. It was he who insisted that I learn to read. I had no formal schooling, but I developed enough of a vocabulary to figure out the stories of the Ming and Ch’ing classics.
At the age of five I thought that being born in the Year of the Sheep was bad luck. I told my father that my friends in the village said that my birth sign was an inauspicious one. It meant that I would be slaughtered.
Father disagreed. “The sheep is a most adorable creature,” he said. “It is a symbol of modesty, harmony and devotion.” He explained that my birth sign was in fact strong. “You have a double ten in the numbers. You were born on the tenth day of the tenth moon, which fell on the twenty-ninth of November 1835. You can’t be luckier!” Also having doubts regarding my being a sheep, Mother brought in a local astrologer to consult. The astrologer believed that double ten was too strong. “Too full,” the old hag said, which meant “too easily spilled.” “Your daughter will grow up to be a stubborn sheep, which means a miserable end!” The astrologer talked excitedly as white spittle gathered at the corners of her mouth. “Even an emperor would avoid ten, in fear of its fullness!” Finally, at the suggestion of the astrologer, my parents gave me a name that promised I would “bend.” This was how I was called Orchid.
Mother told me later that orchids had also been the favorite subject of my father’s ink paintings. He liked the fact that the plant stood green in all seasons and its flower was elegant in color, graceful in form and sweet in scent.
My father’s name was Hui Cheng Yehonala. When I close my eyes, I can see my old man standing in a gray cotton gown. He was slender with Confucian features. It is hard to imagine from his gentle look that his Yehoonala ancestors were Manchu Bannermen who lived on horseback. Father told me that they were originally from the Nu Cheng people in the state of Manchuria, in northern China between Mongolia and Korea. The name Yehonala meant that our roots could be traced to the Yeho tribe of the Nala clan in the sixteenth century. My ancestors fought shoulder to shoulder with the Bannerman leader Nurhachi, who conquered China in 1644 and became the first Emperor of the Ch’ing Dynasty. The Ch’ing had now entered its seventh generation. My father inherited the title of Manchu Bannerman of the Blue Rank, although the title gave him little but honor.
When I was ten years old my father became the taotai, or governor, of a small town called Wuhu, in Anhwei province. I have fond memories of that time, although many consider Wuhu a terrible place. During the summer months the temperature stayed above one hundred degrees, day and night. Other governors hired coolies to fan their children, but my parents couldn’t afford one. Each morning my sheet would be soaked with sweat. “You wet the bed!” my brother would tease.
Nevertheless, I loved Wuhu as a child. The lake there was part of the great Yangtze River, which drove through China carving out gorges, shaggy crags, and valleys thick with ferns and grasses. It descended into a bright, broad, richly watered plain where vegetables, rice and mosquitoes all thrived. It flowed on until it met the East China Sea at Shanghai. Wuhu meant “the lake of a luxuriant growth of weeds.” Our house, the governor’s mansion, had a gray ceramic-tile roof with the figures of gods standing at the four corners of the tilted eaves. Every morning I would walk to the lake to wash my face and brush my hair. My reflection in the water was mirror-clear. We drank from and bathed in the river. I played with my siblings and neighbors on the slick backs of buffalo. We did fish-and-frog jumps. The long bushy weeds were our favorite hiding places. We snacked on the hearts of sweet water plants called chiao-pai.
In the afternoon, when the heat became unbearable, I would organize the children to help cool the house. My sister and brother would fill buckets, and I would pull them up to the roof where I poured the water over the tiles. We would go back to the water afterward. P’ieh, bamboo rafts, floated by. They came down the river like a giant loose necklace. My friends and I would hop onto the rafts for rides. We joined the raft men singing songs. My favorite tune was “Wuhu Is a Wonderful Place.” At sunset Mother would call us home. Dinner was set on a table in the yard under a trellis covered with purple wisteria.
My mother was raised the Chinese way, although she was a Manchu by blood. According to Mother, after the Manchus conquered China they discovered that the Chinese system of ruling was more benevolent and efficient, and they adopted it fully. The Manchu emperors learned to speak Mandarin. Emperor Tao Kuang ate with chopsticks. He was an admirer of Peking opera and he hired Chinese tutors to teach his children. The Manchus also adopted the Chinese way of dressing. The only thing that stayed Manchu was the hairstyle. The Emperor had a shaved forehead and a rope- like braid of black hair down his back called a queue. The Empress wore her hair with a thin black board fastened on top of her head displaying ornaments.
My grandparents on my mother’s side were brought up in the Ch’an, or Zen, religion, a combination of Buddhism and Taoism. My mother was taught the Ch’an concept of happiness, which was to find satisfaction in small things. I was taught to appreciate the fresh air in the morning, the color of leaves turning red in autumn and the water’s smoothness when I soaked my hands in the basin.
My mother didn’t consider herself educated, but she adored Li Po, a Tang Dynasty poet. Each time she read his poems she would discover new meanings. She would put down her book and gaze out the window. Her goose-egg-shaped face was stunningly beautiful.
Mandarin Chinese was the language I spoke as a child. Once a month we had a tutor who came to teach us Manchu. I remember nothing about the classes but being bored. I wouldn’t have sat through the lessons if it hadn’t been to please my parents. Deep down I knew that my parents were not serious about having us master the Manchu language. It was only for the appearance, so my mother could say to her guests, “Oh, my children are taking Manchu.” The truth was that Manchu was not useful. It was like a dead river that nobody drank from.
I was crazy about Peking operas. Again, it was my mother’s influence. She was such an enthusiast that she saved for the entire year so she could hire a local troupe for an in-house performance during the Chinese New Year. Each year the troupe presented a different opera.My mother invited all the neighbors and their children to join us. When I turned twelve the troupe performed Hua Mulan.
I fell in love with the woman warrior, Hua Mulan. After the show I went to the back of our makeshift stage and emptied my wallet to tip the actress, who let me try on her costume. She even taught me the aria “Goodbye, My Dress.” For the rest of the month people as far as a mile from the lake could hear me singing “Goodbye, My Dress.” My father took pleasure in telling the background to the operas. He loved to show off his knowledge. He reminded us that we were Manchus, the ruling class of China. “It is the Manchus who appreciate and promote Chinese art and culture.” When liquor took hold of my father’s spirit, he would become more animated. He would line up the children and quiz us on the details of the ancient Bannerman system. He wouldn’t quit until every child knew how each Bannerman was identified by his rank, such as Bordered, Plain, White, Yellow, Red and Blue.
One day my father brought out a scroll map of China. China was like the crown of a hat ringed by countries eager and accustomed to pledging their fealty to the Son of Heaven, the Emperor. Among the countries were Laos, Siam and Burma to the south; Nepal to the west; Korea, the Ryukyu Islands and Sulu to the east and southeast; Mongolia and Turkestan to the north and northwest.
Years later, when I recalled the scene, I understood why my father showed us the map. The shape of China was soon to change. By the time my father met his fate, during the last few years of Emperor Tao Kuang, the peasant revolts had worsened. In the midst of a summer drought, my father didn’t come home for months. My mother worried about his safety, for she had heard news from a neighboring province about angry peasants setting their governor’s mansion on fire. My father had been living in his office and trying to control the rebels. One day an edict arrived. To everyone’s shock the Emperor dismissed him.
Father came home deeply shamed. He shut himself in the study and refused visitors. Within a year his health broke down. It didn’t take him long to die. Our doctor bills piled up even after his death. My mother sold all of the family possessions, but we still couldn’t clear the debts. Yesterday Mother sold her last item: her wedding souvenir from my father, a butterfly hairpin made of green jade.

Before leaving us, the footmen carried the coffin to the bank of the Grand Canal so we could see the passing boats, where we might get help. The heat worsened and the air grew still. The smell of decay from the coffin grew stronger. We spent the night under the open sky, tormented by the heat and mosquitoes. My siblings and I could hear one another’s stomachs rumbling.
I woke at dawn and heard the clattering of a horse’s hooves in the distance. I thought I was dreaming. In no time a rider appeared in front of me. I felt dizzy with fatigue and hunger. The man dismounted and walked straight toward me. Without saying a word he presented me with a package tied with ribbon. He said it was from the taotai of the local town. Startled, I ran to my mother, who opened the package. Inside were three hundred taels of silver.
“The taotai must be a friend of your father’s!” Mother cried. With the help of the rider we hired back our footmen. But our good luck didn’t last. A few miles down the canal we were stopped by a group of men on horses led by the taotai himself. “A mistake has been made,” he said. “My rider delivered the taels to the wrong family.” Hearing this, Mother fell to her knees.
The taotai’s men took back the taels.
Exhaustion suddenly overwhelmed me and I fell on my father’s coffin.
The taotai walked to the coffin and squatted as if studying the grains of the wood. He was a stocky man with rough features. A moment later he turned to me. I expected him to speak but he didn’t.
“You are not a Chinese, are you?” he finally asked. His eyes were on my unbound feet.
“No, sir,” I replied. “I am Manchu.” “How old are you? Fifteen?” “Seventeen.” He nodded. His eyes continued to travel up and down, examining me.
“The road is filled with bandits,” he said. “A pretty girl like you should not be walking.” “But my father needs to go home.” My tears ran.
The taotai took my hand and placed the silver taels in my palm. “My respects to your father.” I never forgot about the taotai. After I became the Empress of China I sought him out. I made an exception to promote him. I made him a provincial governor, and he was given a handsome pension for the rest of his life.

Copyright © 2004 by Anchee Min. Reprinted by permission of Houghton Mifflin Company.

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Empress Orchid 4.3 out of 5 based on 0 ratings. 105 reviews.
yeni More than 1 year ago
In regards to the last anonomous reviwer, this book is classified as a fiction. Min has every right to express or portay Empress Orchid in her view. However, you seemed almost convinced (maybe even brainwashed from Chinese history which tends to blame everything on the women) that it is Empress Orchid is a negative person. For example, how many thousands of years has the women been responsible to bring sons to the family and it is still going on today!!! Look at all the babies girls being thrown away just so families can have a son to bear their last name! Yet, it was never the sons fault!!! Bound by tradition, Orchid fought her way to save China, and try to help her son become Emperor. Perhaps it was ShunShim that poisoned Guang-Xsu? How was it provened it was Empress Orchid? Please enlighten us with your fact!!! Dont forget, its a fictional novel! Either you enjoy it for its sensitivity, or you are just ONE-Minded!
Guest More than 1 year ago
The elaborate details of the Qing Dynasty¿s court life and etiquette made this book extremely enjoyable as I have been very interested in this particular dynasty since I was young. Moreover, this book was written in the form of Cixi¿s autobiography, making it even more intriguing as you can imagine yourself to be in her shoes and think the same thoughts as she did. However, there are some inaccurate historical details in this book that left me quite fustrated such as how Lin Zhe Xu destroyed opium after the Opium Wars. In Anchee Min¿s book, he set fire to 20000 cases of opium and that the burning pit was as large as a lake. That is the most common misconception anyone can ever have about the Opium Wars. Commissioner Lin did not set fire to the opium cases, he in fact dissolved the opium into sea after chemically treating it with sulphur, etc such that it could no longer serve as an addicitve drug. That was the biggest sorepoint of the entire book.
rtpana More than 1 year ago
I gave this book 3 stars because it did keep me entertained and was a fast read at the airport. However, many story lines were left without a conclusion - for example: I spanked the Emperor and now I would be punished - then nothing - was she punished? How? There are also some unjustified pseudo-passions that lead to nothing. An admirer risks getting sealed in the Emperor's grave while she is deciding whether to live or die. Really silly.
HistorianIL More than 1 year ago
This is an interesting peek into the life of what it must have been like for a woman chosen as a concubine - or wife - of a Chinese Emperor. She has to bend with the whims of her husband, who is shared amongst as many partners as he pleases. She may not even be able to raise her own son, if she is not the #1 wife, designated as Empress. Also a very intriguing historical read of the frustrations of the Chinese court and the inability of the emperor in the mid-1800s to stop the invasion economic control of foreigners into his own domain.
Anonymous More than 1 year ago
entertaining and easy to read, great to learn more about imperial life in the XIX century China.
Guest More than 1 year ago
I love to read a book that transports you into the story. This book does that beautifully. I was no longer in my humble home in south east Texas, I was walking in lavish gardens and gilded halls of the Forbidden City. Anchee Min holds her readers captive from the first page to the last. I never wanted this book to end. One of my new favorites.
karen.collins on LibraryThing More than 1 year ago
Very well written! Many fascinating historical points but also a well-written and entertaining character base and story.
cestovatela on LibraryThing More than 1 year ago
In Empress Orchid, Anchee Min sets out to restore the reputation Empress Tsu Hsi, the last and longest-reigning female ruler of China. The book's outstanding feature is its attention to detail. Min spent months in Beijing researching the furnishings, rituals and personalities of the Forbidden City and her vivid descriptions are what makes the book so absorbing. Equally important is Min's careful depiction of the political situation of the time. Faced with gradually more outrageous encroachments by foreign powers, the 5,000-year-old Imperial system teetered on the edge of collapse and Min's careful depiction of this historical period grounds the book in reality. Tsu Hsi herself is a compelling character and Min avoids portraying her as a saint. The Empress is a fair and even-handed ruler not because of her heart of gold but because her keen intellect allows her to recognize the good of the people is in her own best interest. And if the Empress-to-be rises above the brutal intrigues of her fellow concubines, she does so out of fear rather than innate goodness. Min strikes the right balance between moving and schmaltzy, so I had few reasons to complain till the final scene of the book. If the Emperess had been a slightly more ambiguous character, this might have been a great novel rather than a really good one; still, I don't hesitate to recommend it to anyone looking for some high-brow escapism.
Sovranty on LibraryThing More than 1 year ago
This historical fiction vividly introduces you into the last empress' world. It affords an emotional and personal point of view that is often masked from the public. I would read more from this author.
joririchardson on LibraryThing More than 1 year ago
"Empress Orchid," which combines a tale of a powerful empire crumbling and a powerful empress rising, transported me back in time to 1852 China, and provided sharp insight into the life of Empress Dowager Cixi.Orchid is just an ordinary girl in China, dreading her upcoming arranged marriage, until she makes it into a very selective group of girls who will have a chance to become royal concubines, or perhaps even Empress. After passing, Orchid's life changes forever. She learns that beneath the mask of beauty in the Forbidden City lies treachery and betrayal. As she makes her way in and out of danger, Orchid observes and takes part in the politics of her country, and finds herself rising to power.This book was absolutely fascinating - one of my favorite books that I have ever read on historical China. I knew little of the infamous empress Cixi, so I came away from this feeling like I had learned much.Anchee Min describes the setting of the Forbidden City, which is present-day Beijing, in wondrous, lush detail. I felt that I could picture the gardens Orchid walks in, the fat koi in her ponds, the chambers filled with unimaginable wealth. I also felt the dark undertone to such ostentatious beauty as Orchid learns about the complex, unforgiving undercurrent of her new home. Betrayal, deceit, and spies are everywhere. The customs of the Chinese people at this time were very interesting to me as well. There is a sense of honor to some, arrogance to others, and utter frivolity to others. Min truly gives you a sense of the culture, and she takes the time to explain customs that would no doubt seem confusing or pointless to modern day, Western readers.And besides a setting and a culture, the author also weaves strong, memorable characters for us.There is the emperor, of course, a blatantly proud and spoiled man who has been handed an entire nation when he is so entirely undeserving of such power. He exercises his absolute influence with harsh punishments and decrees, but we see through Orchid's eyes that he is in fact simply a frightened, simple, and altogether weak man. Even though the author did not delve into his story all that much, she did a good job of making the reader both hate and sympathize with him.Niuhuru (spelled Nuharoo in the book, which is how her name is pronounced) was a character that I also found interesting. She is the beautiful, high born queen, the first chosen of the emperor, and therefore a rank above Orchid. She is stunningly beautiful, and while for most of the story she was a sweet, compassionate, and timid creature, there is a dark side to her as well. For example, a day after she speaks jealously with Orchid, Orchid's beloved cat is murdered. She schemes to take the Emperor away from Orchid, and she even attempts to have Orchid whipped while pregnant, which would most certainly have resulted in the unborn child's death. I wondered how much Niuhuru pretended, and what her nature truly was. And then there was An-te-hai, Orchid's forever faithful eunuch and personal attendant. His unwavering, selfless loyalty to his mistress is touching and at times heartbreaking, and the relationship between them is a very well written one. They depend on each other, and they love each other. Toward the end, when he tells Orchid about his dreams, we see further into his pain. He was a well written character without having to be mentioned all that much.There were other strong characters as well, but above them all stands our narrator, Orchid herself. She is a strong, intelligent, and insightful woman who at time seems wiser than all of the other governors and advisers and emperors. The phases of her life were recounted eloquently - her adjustment to the newfound wealth of being a royal concubine, her agonizing wait to be noticed by her husband, her love and loss of a king, her painful love for her son even after he is taken from her and raised to be everything she despises, and her desperate longing for someone to love her. I
jolerie on LibraryThing More than 1 year ago
China is being raped by foreigners. Her ports are being thrown open to trades with countries that hold a sword to her throat, and she is helpless to make any kind of reform that would protect her economy and her people. Within this tumultuous period of China's history is the story of a concubine called Orchid. History will remember her as the manipulative, scheming, power hungry, and ruthless Empress Tzu Hsi, but in Empress Orchid, she shares with us a story of desperation, of the shattering of innocence, of sharing a man with thousands of other woman who are also vying for attention and love, of helplessly watching a once proud and powerful country being torn apart, one traitorous breath after another. The Forbidden City is a fortress with walls that are meant to keep the outside world at arms length. Through Empress Orchid we are able to experience the culture and customs of a world thousands of years old and whom few have access. The historical richness from the descriptions of the grand palatial residents to the decadent costumes, invites us to enter into a world of unparallel luxury and grandeur. Tzu Hsi may forever be immortalized as the wicked ruler who brought an end to the last dynasty of Imperial China, but at the heart of it all is still a woman who navigated her way through an arena that has long served to be the battle ground for men, and men alone. Regardless of the means or method, undoubtably her legacy as the last Empress has been imprinted upon the annals of China's glorious past.
LampOfPan on LibraryThing More than 1 year ago
I really enjoyed this book. A very interesting look into chinese history and culture. the imagery created paints a beautiful picture of the forbidden city. Empress Orchid is portrayed as a strong woman who becomes a great ruler.
amandacb on LibraryThing More than 1 year ago
I adored this book and it began me on a spate of historical fiction novels set in China. Min creates a fully-developed, sympathetic (most of the time) portrait of Empress Orchid, a powerful and yet ultimately very human ruler of China. I look forward to reading Min's next book.
reads4pleasure on LibraryThing More than 1 year ago
Anchee Min's Empress Orchid gives the reader a glimpse into the life of an ordinary girl picked to become one of the seven wives of Emperor Hsien Feng in 1852. Though initially picked because of her beauty, and forgotten by the emperor after the newness wears off, Orchid becomes the emperor's most important wife because of her ability to comprehend official documents when the emperor cannot. This book follows Orchid's rise to power through her son, while serving as his advisor when the emperor becomes sick. With her faithful eunuch, Antehai at her side, Orchid deals with betrayal by her brother-in-law and the upcoming battle with the British. Orchid truly triumphs in a story that's rarely told from the female point of view of the Forbidden City.
qarae on LibraryThing More than 1 year ago
A beautifully written account of the life of Orchid Yehonala. Written in first person, the reader is taken on this journey of pain, desperation, happiness and fear as Orchid becomes the favored consort of Emperor Hsien Feng. As a child, Orchid had a decent life until her father, the governor of Wuhu dies, and leaves the family in poverty. Living with an uncle, Orchid is intended to marry a mentally challenged cousin named 'Bottle' when the decree is issued that his is looking for mates. She soon discovers that life within the Forbidden City is nothing as she expected. And only gets harder as China begins to fall victim to outside forces attempting to take control of the country.
autumnesf on LibraryThing More than 1 year ago
This is a fiction novel based on the last Empress of China. I don't read alot of fiction books lately, but this was the book of the month for the online China books group I am a member of. So, I read it. I LOVED it! It was a really good read. And I must say, I would never want to be the Emperors wife or concubine! I'm surprised they all didn't go nuts!
rayski on LibraryThing More than 1 year ago
A young almost peasant girl becomes concubine, Empress and ultimately the favorite of the Emperor of China. The book¿s value is in the insights to life in the forbidden palace and the ignorance of an emperor¿s life when sheltered and led to believe from birth that they are the living god on earth.
mimiwi on LibraryThing More than 1 year ago
What a great story!!! And a great uncompromising ending. For those who like to immerse themselves into foreign cultures, this is a great read.
jennchem on LibraryThing More than 1 year ago
This book held my attention quite well, though it suffered slightly from telling more than showing. The writing was beautiful anyway. I'll definitely read the sequel, in any case.
jennjb on LibraryThing More than 1 year ago
An interesting perspective on this period of Chinese history. An easy read....I am looking forward to the sequels.
dougwood57 on LibraryThing More than 1 year ago
'Empress Orchid' begins Anchee Min's two-part story of the life of the remarkable 19th Chinese dowager empress, Tzu Hsi, also known as Lady Yehonala and Empress Orchid. I profess no expertise in Chinese history, but Min's portrayal of Tzu Hsi is decidedly revisionist and more favorable than the standard history, which was apparently originated by English writers wishing to portray the empress and China in a negative light. Empress Orchid describes Tzu Hsi's sudden rise from low, but poverty-stricken nobility when she was chosen as a wife and one of the numerous concubines of emperor Hsien Feng. Orchid avoids fading into anonymity with the help of her eunuch slave who arranges for the emperor to visit her bed. Having prepared herself carefully for such a visit, she wins the emperor's attention long enough to bear him his only son. This event gives her the opportunity, but no more, to move near the reins of power. Anchee Min describes court customs and costumes in great detail, but the heart of the book focuses on Orchid's attempts to outwit her competition and ensure her son's place as heir to the title of emperor. While the court intrigue dominates the front story, China is under assault from the West and from the Tai Ping rebellion. The imperial party must flee the Forbidden City. As the story closes, Orchid's son is named emperor and she outmaneuvers her internal enemies in the regency. A humiliating peace is negotiated with the British and French to end the Second Opium War. One knows that Empress Orchid must have been a remarkable woman to achieve long-lasting political power in imperial China. Anchee Min's Orchid demonstrates persistence in fighting for her son's power (and thus her own as well). She is not portrayed as a sharp political operator, but rather a somewhat reluctant one. While this book was enjoyable and interesting in its own right, it mainly serves to set the table for the main course, the story of the long reign of the dowager empress which Min continues in The Last Empress: A Novel. As good historical fiction does, 'Empress Orchid' whets the appetite for more information. Some related works that appear quite interesting, which I have not yet read myself, include Dragon Lady: The Life and Legend of the Last Empress of China by Sterling Seagrave and "Flashman ; the Dragon from the Flashman Papers, 1860" featuring the irrepressible Harry Flashman.
lorrainelibrarian on LibraryThing More than 1 year ago
This story of the last Empress of China attempts to clarify the myth of the evil woman portrayed in the British press at the time of her reign. Having subsequently read a new non-fiction treatise on her history, it seems that once again, political greed and sensational newspapers seriously altered the truth. Both the fiction and non-fiction works were a bit tedious at times, but worth the time in that I feel enlightened about this period of history. Enjoy.
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Anonymous More than 1 year ago
One of my favorites