Empress Orchid, the first of Anchee
Min's two novels about Empress Tzu Hsi the reader
meets the young girl, later to be known as Orchid,
and her impoverished mother, on their way to Beijing
to bury Orchid's recently deceased father. Once in
Beijing, Orchid learns that the young Emperor Hsien
Feng is looking for brides who, to preserve the
purity of the Imperial line, must be Manchurian,
which she is. She is chosen and exchanges a life of
poverty for the restricted life of a third-grade
concubine in the Forbidden City.
Through wily maneuvering she seduces the Emperor and bares him his first son, who is five years old when declared Emperor on the death of his father. To ensure that both she and her son stay alive, Orchid, who now takes the name Tzu Hsi (meaning "kindly and virtuous"), forms an alliance with the dead Emperor's first wife so that they rule as joint regents, but Orchid must use all her skill to counter the rivals and treachery that lie behind every bamboo screen.
The Last Empress, which opens where Empress Orchid ends, lacks the compelling rags-to-riches/love story elements of Empress Orchid and tends to read like a series of vignettes not a continuous novel - probably the result of trying to squeeze nearly half a century of turbulent history into less than 300 pages. The result is a strangely dry and emotionless novel which makes it difficult to feel a connection with any of the many secondary characters because their time on stage is so short
Having said that, Empress Orchid and The Last Empress have much to offer. Not least of which are vivid details of Imperial court life and an enlightening revisionist portrait of the woman that the Western press maligned as the "Dragon Lady". If you have read and enjoyed Empress Orchid, then you should certainly continue the story in The Last Empress. If you have not read the first book it will probably take you a few chapters to orientate yourself. As usual, you can "test drive" Empress Orchid and The Last Empress to decide whether they're books for you by reading an excerpt of both at BookBrowse.
Anchee Min was born in Shanghai in 1957 during the rule of communist leader Mao Zedong. At the age of 17, she was sent to a labor camp near the East China Sea, where she endured mental and physical hardships leading to a severe spinal cord injury. She worked for three years before talent scouts spotted her toiling in a cotton field. Madame Mao, preparing to take over China, was looking for a leading actress for a propaganda film. Min was selected for having the ideal "proletarian" look. Mao died before the film was complete, and Madame Mao, blamed for the disaster of the revolution, was sentenced to death. Min was labeled a political outcast by association. She was disgraced, punished, and forced to perform menial tasks in order to reform herself. In 1984, with the help of actress Joan Chen, Min left China for America. She spoke no English when she arrived in Chicago, but within six months had taught herself the language in part by watching "Sesame Street" and "Mr. Roger's Neighborhood" on American television.
Her bestselling memoir, Red Azalea was published in 1994. Since then she has written five works of historical fiction: Katherine, Becoming Madame Mao, Wild Ginger, Empress Orchid and The Last Empress. The books attempt to re-record histories that, in Min's view, have been falsely written. "If my own history is recorded falsely, how about other people?" she asks.
This review was originally published in May 2007, and has been updated for the April 2008 paperback release. Click here to go to this issue.
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