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

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The Last Empress

by Anchee Min

The Last Empress
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  • First Published:
    Mar 2007, 320 pages
    Apr 2008, 336 pages

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“I wish that I could simply say yes, but I can’t. Rong, we are watched by millions. We must set an example.”

“Orchid,” Rong burst out, “you are the ruler of China!”

“Rong, please. I believe Mother would understand.”

“No, she wouldn’t, because I can’t. You are a terrible daughter, selfish and heartless!”

“Excuse me,” Doctor Sun Pao-tien interrupted. “Your Majesty, may I have you concentrate on your fingers? Your mother’s eyes will remain forever open if you stop pressing.”

“Yes, Doctor.”

“Harder, and steady,” the doctor instructed. “Now hold it. You are almost there. Don’t move.”

My sister helped to hold my arms.

Mother’s face in repose was deep and distant.

“It’s Orchid, Mother,” I whispered, weeping.

I couldn’t believe she was dead. My fingers caressed her smooth and still-warm skin. I had missed touching her. Ever since I had entered the Forbidden City, Mother was forced to get down on her knees to greet me when she visited. She insisted on following the etiquette. “It is the respect you deserve as the Empress of China,” she said.

We rarely had privacy. Eunuchs and ladies in waiting surrounded me constantly. I doubted Mother could hear me from where she had to sit, ten feet away from me. It didn’t seem to bother her, though. She pretended that she could hear. She would answer questions I hadn’t asked.

“Gently, release the eyelids,” Doctor Sun Pao-tien said.

Mother’s eyes remained closed. Her wrinkles seemed to have disappeared, and her expression was restful.

I am the mountain behind you. Mother’s voice came to my mind:

Like a singing river
You break out to flow freely.
Happily I watch you,
The memory of us Full and sweet.

I had to be strong for my son. Although Tung Chih, who was seven, had been Emperor for two years, since ascending the throne in 1861, his regime had been chaotic. Foreign powers continued to gain leverage in China, especially in the coastal ports; at home, peasant rebels called Taipings had spread through the interior and overrun province after province. I had struggled to find a way to raise Tung Chih properly. Yet he seemed to be so terribly shattered by his father’s early death. I could only wish to raise him the way my parents had raised me.

“I am a lucky woman,” Mother used to say. I believed her when she said that she had no regrets in life. She had achieved a dream: two daughters married into royal families and a son who was a high-ranking Imperial minister. “We were practically beggars back in 1852,” Mother often reminded her children. “I will never forget that afternoon at the Grand Canal when the footmen deserted your father’s coffin.”

The heat of that day and the smell of rot that came from my father’s corpse stayed with me as well. The expression on Mother’s face when she was forced to sell her last possession, a jade hairpin that was a wedding gift from our father, was the saddest I had ever seen.

As Emperor Hsien Feng’s senior wife, Empress Nuharoo attended my mother’s funeral. It was considered a great honor for my family. As a devout Buddhist, Nuharoo disregarded tradition in accepting my invitation.

Dressed in white silk like a tall ice-tree, Nuharoo was the picture of grace. I walked behind her, careful not to step on the long train of her robe. Chanting Tibetan lamas and Taoist and Buddhist priests followed us. Making our way through the Forbidden City, we stopped to perform one ritual after another, passing through gate after gate and hall after hall.

Copyright © 2007 by Anchee Min. Reprinted by permission of Houghton Mifflin Company.

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