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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Standing next to Nuharoo, I marveled that we had finally found some measure of harmony. The differences between us had been clear from the moment we entered the Forbidden City as young girls. She — elegant, confident, of the royal bloodline — was chosen as the Emperor’s senior wife, the Empress; I — from a good family and no more, from the country and unsure — was a concubine of the fourth rank. Our differences became conflicts as I found a way into Hsien Feng’s heart and bore my son, his only male child and heir. My elevation in rank had only made matters worse. But in the chaos of the foreigners’ invasion, our husband’s death during our exile at the ancient hunting retreat of Jehol, and the crisis of the coup, we had been forced to find ways to work together.

All these years later, my relationship with Nuharoo was best expressed in the saying “The water in the well does not disturb the water in the river.” To survive, it had been necessary for us to watch out for each other. At times this seemed impossible, especially regarding Tung Chih. Nuharoo’s status as senior wife gave her authority over his upbringing and education, something that rankled me. Our fight over how to raise Tung Chih had stopped after he ascended the throne, but my bitterness over how ill prepared the boy had been continued to poison our relationship.

Nuharoo pursued contentment in Buddhism while my own discontentment followed me like a shadow. My spirit kept escaping my will. I read the book Nuharoo had sent me, The Proper Conduct of an Imperial Widow, but it did little to bring me peace. After all, I was from Wuhu, “the lake of luxurious weeds.” I couldn’t be who I was not, although I spent my life trying.

“Learn to be the soft kind of wood, Orchid,” Mother taught me when I was a young girl. “The soft blocks are carved into statues of Buddha and goddesses. The hard ones are made into coffin boards.”

I had a drawing table in my room, with ink, freshly mixed paint, brushes and rice paper. After each day’s audience I came here to work.

My paintings were for my son — they were given as gifts in his name. They served as his ambassadors and spoke for him whenever a situation became too humiliating. China was forced to beg for extensions on payments of so-called war compensation, imposed on us by foreign powers.

The paintings also helped to ease the resentment toward my son over land taxes. The governors of several states had been sending messages that their people were poor and couldn’t afford to pay.

“The Imperial tael storehouse has long been empty,” I cried in decrees issued in my son’s name. “The taxes we have collected have gone to the foreign powers so that their fleets will not set anchor in our waters.”

My brother-in-law Prince Kung, complained that his new Board of Foreign Affairs had run out of space in which to store the debt seekers’ dunning letters. “The foreign fleets have repeatedly threatened to reenter our waters,” he warned.

It was my eunuch An-te-hai’s idea to use my paintings as gifts, to buy time, money and understanding.

An-te-hai had served me since my first day in the Forbidden City, when, as a boy of just thirteen, he’d surreptitiously offered me a drink of water for my parched throat. It was a brave act, and he had my loyalty and trust ever since.

His idea for the paintings was brilliant, and I couldn’t paint fast enough.

I sent one as a birthday gift to General Tseng Kuo-fan, the biggest warlord in China, who dominated the country’s military. I wanted the general to know that I appreciated him, although I recently demoted him in my son’s name, under pressure from the court’s pro-Manchu conservatives, who called themselves Ironhats. The Ironhats could not stand the fact that the Han Chinese, through hard work, were gaining power. I wanted General Tseng to know that I meant him no harm and that I was aware that I had wronged him. “My son Tung Chih could not rule without you” was the message my painting sent.

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

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