Excerpt from Empress Orchid by Anchee Min, plus links to reviews, author biography & more

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Empress Orchid

by Anchee Min

Empress Orchid
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  • First Published:
    Feb 2004, 352 pages
    Paperback:
    Apr 2005, 368 pages

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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.

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."

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

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