Reading guide for Empress Orchid by Anchee Min

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Empress Orchid

By Anchee Min

Empress Orchid
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  • Hardcover: Feb 2004,
    352 pages.
    Paperback: Apr 2005,
    368 pages.

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Please be aware that this discussion guide may contain spoilers!

We hope the following questions will stimulate discussion for reading groups and provide a deeper understanding of Empress Orchid for every reader.
  1. Orchid's character is based on Tzu Hsi, China's longest-reigning female ruler and its last empress. In what ways does Min develop a convincing voice in Orchid? How does Min make the Forbidden City come to life?
  2. Early in the novel, Orchid hears a beggar singing: "To give it up is to accept your fate. / To give it up is to create peace. / To give it up is to gain the upper hand, and / To give it up is to have it all" (16). How does this song set the tone for the rest of the book?
  3. Success in the Forbidden City rests heavily on loyalty. How does Orchid ensure that those around her are loyal? Can anyone truly be trusted within the walls of the city? How does this affect the society as a whole?
  4. Eunuchs play a vital role in the Forbidden City, and An-te-hai quickly becomes a guide for Orchid. Why do you think An-te-hai is so eager to devote himself to her?
  5. Orchid is willing to go to any lengths to gain the Emperor's attention. What drives her determination to succeed? Do boundaries exist for how far the characters will go to secure attention, power, and affection? Why does Orchid risk her life to visit Big Sister Faun? Does she have anything to lose?
  6. Orchid comments that Emperor Hsien Feng "was his own captive" (119). Does Orchid escape a similar fate?
  7. What enables Orchid to be such a powerful ruler in a society dominated by men? How does she gain respect and remain strong amid the opposition she faces?
  8. Orchid comments: "The Emperor once told me that the Forbidden City was nothing more than a burning straw hut in a vast wilderness" (151). What does the Emperor mean by this? How is this statement illustrated throughout the novel?
  9. Min paints a picture of foreigners imposing their views on another culture. What light does she shed on Western interference with the Chinese imperial family structure? How does this relate to more recent times?
  10. The Forbidden City is a highly ordered place, tradition-bound and ruled by strict etiquette. How would you handle such restrictions? In what ways do you relate to Orchid? What confines exist in your own life and society in general?
  11. Nuharoo tells Orchid: "To truly have something is to not have it at all" (312). Do you agree with this statement? How does it apply to Orchid? To the other characters in the book?
  12. Min's purpose is to show Empress Orchid's heroic effort to revive China. Although Orchid failed, she's courageous in Min's eyes. In what ways is Orchid a heroine?

Copyright © 2007 Houghton Mifflin Company. All rights reserved.

Unless otherwise stated, this discussion guide is reprinted with the permission of Mariner Books. Any page references refer to a USA edition of the book, usually the trade paperback version, and may vary in other editions.

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