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.
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?
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?
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
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?
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?
Orchid comments that Emperor Hsien Feng "was his own
captive" (119). Does Orchid escape a similar fate?
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?
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?
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
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?
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?
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?
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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