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 often wondered what kept General Tseng Kuo-fan from rebelling. A coup wouldn’t be hard — he had the money and the army. I used to think that it was just a matter of time. “Enough is enough,” I could imagine Tseng saying one day, and my son would be out of luck.

I signed my name in fine calligraphy. Above it I put my signature stamp in red ink. I had stone stamps of different sizes and shapes. Besides the stamp, which was given to me by my husband, the rest described my titles: “Empress of China,” “Empress of Holy Kindness,” “Empress of the Western Palace.” “Empress Tzu Hsi” was the one I used most often. These stamps were important to collectors. To make the artwork easier to sell later, I would leave out the name in my dedication, unless otherwise requested.

Yesterday An-te-hai reported that my paintings had risen in value. The news brought me little joy. I would much rather spend time with Tung Chih than feel forced to paint.

Anyone who examined my paintings could see their flaws. My brushstrokes showed that I lacked practice, if not talent. My handling of ink revealed that I was merely a beginner. The nature of rice-paper painting allowed no mistakes, which meant that I could be spending hours on a piece, work late into the night, and one lousy stroke would ruin the entire thing. After months of working on my own, I hired an artist-tutor whose job was to cover my flaws.

Landscapes and flowers were my subjects. I also painted birds, usually in pairs. I would place them in the center of the frame. They would perch on the same or separate branches, as if having a chat. In vertical compositions, one bird would sit on the top branch and look down, and the other would be on the bottom branch looking up.

I spent the most time on feathers. Pink, orange and lime green were my favorite feather colors. The tone was always warm and cheerful. Ante- hai suggested that I paint peonies, lotus blossoms and chrysanthemums. He said that I was good at painting these, but I knew he meant they were easier to sell.

A tip I learned from my artist-tutor was that the stamps could be used to cover flaws. Since I had fl aws everywhere, I applied a number of stamps to each painting. When I was dissatisfied and wanted to start over again An-te-hai reminded me that quantity should be my objective. He helped to make the stampings look interesting. When I felt there was nothing I could do to save a work, my tutor would take over.

My tutor worked mostly on backgrounds. She would add leaves and branches to cover my bad parts and would add accents to my birds and flowers. One would think that her fi ne strokes would make mine an embarrassment, but she applied her skill only to “harmonize the music.” Her artistry saved my worst paintings. It was amusing to watch her painstakingly try to match my amateur strokes.

My mind often wandered to my son while I was painting. At night it became difficult to concentrate. I would imagine Tung Chih’s face as he lay in bed and wonder what he was dreaming. When my desire to be with him became desperate, I would put down my brush and run to Tung Chih’s palace, four courtyards from my own. Too impatient to wait for An-te-hai to light the lanterns, I would rush through the darkness, bumping and bruising myself on walls and arches until I arrived at my child’s bedside. There beside my sleeping son, I would check his breathing and stroke his head with my ink-stained hand. When the servant lit the candles I would take one and hold it close to my son’s face. My eyes would trace his lovely forehead, eyelids, nose and lips. I would bend over and kiss him. My eyes would grow moist as I saw his father’s likeness. I would remember when Emperor Hsien Feng and I were in love. My favorite moment was still the time when I sweetly tortured him by demanding that he memorize my name. I wouldn’t leave Tung Chih until An-te-hai found me, his long procession of eunuchs trailing behind him, each carrying a giant red lantern.

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

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