Summary and book reviews of Empress Orchid by Anchee Min

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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Book Summary

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.

Chapter 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.

...

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...
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Reviews

Media Reviews
San Francisco Chronicle - Irene Wanner

Min's efforts to do justice to both imaginative fiction and accurate history become strained. A huge cast of characters races through these pages, and keeping track of who's who, much less whose side they're on, grows difficult.

St. Louis Post-Dispatch - Repps Hudson

Min was aided greatly by her ability to read Chinese documents and to obtain records that outlined the basics of 19th-century court life. Writing in her second language of English, Min handles the development of this novel very smoothly and with dialogue that usually seems apt for court life.

Kirkus Reviews

Evocative, but underpowered in simple narrative.

Publishers Weekly

At times her writing is textbook-flat, and she sometimes loses track of her teeming cast of characters. But readers will be enthralled by the gorgeously woven cultural tapestry and the psychologically astute portrait of the empress - a talented girl from the provinces who married (way) up.

Library Journal - Edward Cone

This imaginative work should be welcome in all public libraries with a taste for history and the exotic.

Booklist - Donna Seaman

In her second powerful and brilliantly conceived fictionalized portrait of a strong and controversial woman intrinsic to Chinese culture, Min continues to fulfill her mission to tell the truth about her homeland, particularly China's long tradition of demonizing women.

The Guardian - Julia Lovell

Min keeps the melodrama under control with plenty of mind-improving history, while spicing up the stolid period detail with a few touches of romantic historical schlock: the evil, moneygrubbing uncle intent on marrying his beautiful niece off to his idiot opium-addict son, the will-they-won't-they sexual tension between Cixi and her bodyguard, Yung Lu.

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