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

Summary |  Excerpt |  Reviews |  Beyond the Book |  Readalikes |  Genres & Themes |  Author Bio

The Last Empress

by Anchee Min

The Last Empress by Anchee Min X
The Last Empress by Anchee Min
  • Critics' Opinion:

    Readers' Opinion:

     Not Yet Rated
  • First Published:
    Mar 2007, 320 pages
    Paperback:
    Apr 2008, 336 pages

  • Rate this book


Book Reviewed by:
BookBrowse Review Team

Buy This Book

About this Book

Print Excerpt


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.

Membership Advantages
  • Reviews
  • "Beyond the Book" backstories
  • Free books to read and review (US only)
  • Find books by time period, setting & theme
  • Read-alike suggestions by book and author
  • Book club discussions
  • and much more!
  • Just $10 for 3 months or $35 for a year
  • More about membership!

Editor's Choice

  • Book Jacket
    Love and Other Consolation Prizes
    by Jamie Ford
    Love and Other Consolation Prizes was read and reviewed by 22 BookBrowse members for First ...
  • Book Jacket: The Judge Hunter
    The Judge Hunter
    by Christopher Buckley
    In London 1664, Balthasar de St. Michel or "Balty" has no discernable skills besides pestering his ...
  • Book Jacket: Star of the North
    Star of the North
    by D.B. John
    It's summertime. You're looking for an absorbing thriller while you flop at the beach. ...
  • Book Jacket: The Abbot's Tale
    The Abbot's Tale
    by Conn Iggulden
    The Abbot's Tale purports to be a re-discovered manuscript written by a real historical figure,...

Book Discussion
Book Jacket
Mississippi Blood by Greg Iles

New York Times bestselling author Greg Iles illuminates the brutal history of the American South.

About the book
Join the discussion!

Readers Recommend

  • Book Jacket

    The Summer Wives
    by Beatriz Williams

    An electrifying postwar fable of love, class, power and redemption set on an island off the New England coast.
    Reader Reviews

Win this book!
Win A Place for Us

A Place For Us

A deeply moving story of love, identity and belonging--the first novel from Sarah Jessica Parker's new imprint.

Enter

Word Play

Solve this clue:

H, W H A Problem

and be entered to win..

Books that     
entertain,
     engage

 & enlighten

Visitors can view some of BookBrowse for free. Full access is for members only.

Join Today!

Your guide toexceptional          books

BookBrowse seeks out and recommends books that we believe to be best in class. Books that will whisk you to faraway places and times, that will expand your mind and challenge you -- the kinds of books you just can't wait to tell your friends about.