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
    Apr 2005, 368 pages

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My grandparents on my mother's side were brought up in the Ch'an, or Zen, religion, a combination of Buddhism and Taoism. My mother was taught the Ch'an concept of happiness, which was to find satisfaction in small things. I was taught to appreciate the fresh air in the morning, the color of leaves turning red in autumn and the water's smoothness when I soaked my hands in the basin.

My mother didn't consider herself educated, but she adored Li Po, a Tang Dynasty poet. Each time she read his poems she would discover new meanings. She would put down her book and gaze out the window. Her goose-egg-shaped face was stunningly beautiful.

Mandarin Chinese was the language I spoke as a child. Once a month we had a tutor who came to teach us Manchu. I remember nothing about the classes but being bored. I wouldn't have sat through the lessons if it hadn't been to please my parents. Deep down I knew that my parents were not serious about having us master the Manchu language. It was only for the appearance, so my mother could say to her guests, "Oh, my children are taking Manchu." The truth was that Manchu was not useful. It was like a dead river that nobody drank from.

I was crazy about Peking operas. Again, it was my mother's influence. She was such an enthusiast that she saved for the entire year so she could hire a local troupe for an in-house performance during the Chinese New Year. Each year the troupe presented a different opera.My mother invited all the neighbors and their children to join us. When I turned twelve the troupe performed Hua Mulan.

I fell in love with the woman warrior, Hua Mulan. After the show I went to the back of our makeshift stage and emptied my wallet to tip the actress, who let me try on her costume. She even taught me the aria "Goodbye, My Dress." For the rest of the month people as far as a mile from the lake could hear me singing "Goodbye, My Dress."

My father took pleasure in telling the background to the operas. He loved to show off his knowledge. He reminded us that we were Manchus, the ruling class of China. "It is the Manchus who appreciate and promote Chinese art and culture." When liquor took hold of my father's spirit, he would become more animated. He would line up the children and quiz us on the details of the ancient Bannerman system. He wouldn't quit until every child knew how each Bannerman was identified by his rank, such as Bordered, Plain, White, Yellow, Red and Blue.

One day my father brought out a scroll map of China. China was like the crown of a hat ringed by countries eager and accustomed to pledging their fealty to the Son of Heaven, the Emperor. Among the countries were Laos, Siam and Burma to the south; Nepal to the west; Korea, the Ryukyu Islands and Sulu to the east and southeast; Mongolia and Turkestan to the north and northwest.

Years later, when I recalled the scene, I understood why my father showed us the map. The shape of China was soon to change. By the time my father met his fate, during the last few years of Emperor Tao Kuang, the peasant revolts had worsened. In the midst of a summer drought, my father didn't come home for months. My mother worried about his safety, for she had heard news from a neighboring province about angry peasants setting their governor's mansion on fire. My father had been living in his office and trying to control the rebels. One day an edict arrived. To everyone's shock the Emperor dismissed him.

Father came home deeply shamed. He shut himself in the study and refused visitors. Within a year his health broke down. It didn't take him long to die. Our doctor bills piled up even after his death. My mother sold all of the family possessions, but we still couldn't clear the debts. Yesterday Mother sold her last item: her wedding souvenir from my father, a butterfly hairpin made of green jade. Before leaving us, the footmen carried the coffin to the bank of the Grand Canal so we could see the passing boats, where we might get help. The heat worsened and the air grew still. The smell of decay from the coffin grew stronger. We spent the night under the open sky, tormented by the heat and mosquitoes. My siblings and I could hear one another's stomachs rumbling.

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

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