Excerpt of The Last Empress by Anchee Min
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In 1852, a beautiful seventeen-year-old girl from an important but
impoverished family of the Yehonala clan arrived in Peking as a minor
concubine to the young Emperor, Hsien Feng. Tzu Hsi, known as Orchid as
a girl, was one among hundreds of concubines whose sole purpose was to
bear the Emperor a son.
It was not a good time to enter the Forbidden City, a vast complex
of palaces and gardens run by thousands of eunuchs and encircled by a wall
in the center of Peking. The Ching Dynasty was losing its vitality and the
court had become an insular, xenophobic place. A few decades earlier, China
had lost the first Opium War, and it had done little since to strengthen its
defenses or improve its diplomatic ties to other nations.
Within the walls of the Forbidden City the consequences of a
misstep were often deadly. As one of hundreds of women vying for the
attention of the Emperor, Orchid discovered that she must take matters into
her own hands. After training herself in the art of pleasing a man, she risked
everything by bribing her way into the royal bedchamber and seducing the
monarch. Hsien Feng was a troubled man, but for a time their love was
passionate and genuine, and soon she had the great fortune to bear him his
only son and heir. Elevated to the rank of Empress, Orchid still had to
struggle to maintain her position as the Emperor took new lovers. The right to
raise her own child, who was under the control of Empress Nuharoo, the
Emperors senior wife, was constantly at issue.
The invasion by Britain, France, and Russia in 1860, and the
subsequent occupation of Peking, forced the Chinese court into exile in the
distant hunting reserve of Jehol, beyond the Great Wall. There the humiliating
news of the harsh terms for peace contributed to the decline of the Emperors
health. With the death of Hsien Feng came a palace coup, which Orchid
helped to foil with the help of her brother-in-law Prince Kung and General
Yung Lu. The handsome Yung Lu reignited romantic feelings in the still
young Orchid, but in her new position of power there was little opportunity for
a personal life. As coregent with Empress Nuharoo until her sons maturity,
Empress Orchid was at the beginning of a long and tumultuous reign that
would last into the next century.
Mothers eyes were closed when she died. But a moment later they cracked
open and remained open.
Your Majesty, please hold the eyelids and try your best to close
them, Doctor Sun Pao-tien instructed.
My hands trembled as I tried.
Rong, my sister, said that Mother meant to close her eyes. She
had waited for me for too long. Mother did not want to interrupt my audience.
Try not to trouble people was Mothers philosophy. She would
have been disappointed to know that she needed help to close her eyes. I
wished that I could disregard Nuharoos order and bring my son to bid a final
goodbye. It shouldnt matter that Tung Chih is the Emperor of China, I would
have argued. He is my mothers grandson first.
I turned to my brother, Kuei Hsiang, and asked if Mother had left
any words for me.
Yes. Kuei Hsiang nodded, stepping back to stand on the other
side of Mothers bed. All is well.
My tears came.
What kind of burial ceremony do you have in mind for Mother?
I cant think right now, I replied. We will discuss it later.
No, Orchid, Rong protested. It will be impossible to reach you
once you leave here. I would like to know your intentions. Mother deserves
the same honor as Grand Empress Lady Jin.
Copyright © 2007 by Anchee Min. Reprinted by permission of Houghton