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Summary and book reviews of The Last Empress by Anchee Min

The Last Empress

by Anchee Min

The Last Empress
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  • First Published:
    Mar 2007, 320 pages
    Paperback:
    Apr 2008, 336 pages

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Book Summary

The last decades of the nineteenth century were a violent period in China’s history, ultimately ending in the demise of the Ch’ing dynasty. The only constant during this tumultuous time was the power wielded by the resilient, ever-resourceful Tzu Hsi, Lady Yehonala -- or Empress Orchid.

The last decades of the nineteenth century were a violent period in China’s history marked by humiliating foreign incursions and domestic rebellion, ultimately ending in the demise of the Ch’ing dynasty. The only constant during this tumultuous time was the power wielded by one person, the resilient, ever-resourceful Tzu Hsi, Lady Yehonala -- or Empress Orchid, as readers came to know her in Anchee Min’s critically acclaimed novel covering the first part of her life.

The Last Empress is the story of Orchid’s dramatic transition from a strong-willed, instinctive young woman to a wise and politically savvy leader who ruled China for more than four decades. Moving from the intimacy of the concubine quarters into the spotlight of the world stage, Orchid must face not only the perilous condition of her empire but also a series of devastating personal losses, as first her son and then her adopted son succumb to early death. Yearning only to step aside, and yet growing constantly into her role, only she—allied with the progressives, but loyal to the conservative Manchu clan of her dynasty—can hold the nation’s rival factions together.

Anchee Min offers a powerful revisionist portrait based on extensive research of one of the most important figures in Chinese history. Viciously maligned by the western press of the time as the “Dragon Lady,” a manipulative, blood-thirsty woman who held onto power at all costs, the woman Min gives us is a compelling, very human leader who assumed power reluctantly, and who sacrificed all she had to protect those she loved and an empire that was doomed to die.

The Beginning

In 1852, a beautiful seventeen-year-old girl from an important but impoverished family of the Yehonala clan arrived in Peking as a minor concubine to the young Emperor, Hsien Feng. Tzu Hsi, known as Orchid as a girl, was one among hundreds of concubines whose sole purpose was to bear the Emperor a son.

It was not a good time to enter the Forbidden City, a vast complex of palaces and gardens run by thousands of eunuchs and encircled by a wall in the center of Peking. The Ch’ing Dynasty was losing its vitality and the court had become an insular, xenophobic place. A few decades earlier, China had lost the first Opium War, and it had done little since to strengthen its defenses or improve its diplomatic ties to other nations.

Within the walls of the Forbidden City the consequences of a misstep were often deadly. As one of hundreds of women vying for the attention of the Emperor, Orchid discovered that she must take matters into her own ...

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Reviews

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.... 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, The Last Empress has 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".   (Reviewed by BookBrowse Review Team).

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Media Reviews
Los Angeles Times - Seth Faison

In Empress Orchid (2004) ...Min crafted a taut narrative that followed Orchid as she grew from a naive young woman into a capable and conscientious empress. The storytelling was absorbing, and Min used historical events and sensuous, textured descriptions of China to set the scene well.

This time, unfortunately, it is not a convincing portrayal. The Last Empress progressively loses coherence as Orchid rises in authority. When those around her fall away, she laments in not-too-believable fashion, nor do her justifications for seizing power at critical junctures ring true. Her personality is not particularly engaging, and secondary characters — particularly her legendary top eunuchs, An-te-hai and Li Lien-ying — are (contrary to all historical evidence) disappointingly dull.

Washington Post - Donna Riftkind

Today's Tzu Hsi, as Min's revisionist pair of novels imagines her, suits a contemporary Western audience as the vision of an empress who very nearly had it all: vulnerability and strength, motherhood and power, earthiness and dignity, compassion and ambition.

Kirkus Reviews

The great swatches of historical detail will enlighten readers who generally view history from a Western perspective, but with Orchid so busy explaining herself, the human story of a woman who denies her instincts never quite emerges.

Publishers Weekly

Min attacks the popular conception of Tzu Hsi as a corrupt, ruthless, power-hungry assassin, but the results read less like a novel than a didactic memoir.

Library Journal

Min consistently blends meticulous historical research with firsthand knowledge of Chinese culture and the female perspective to bring to readers a unique look at women in Chinese history.

Reader Reviews
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Beyond the Book

Dowager Empress Tzu Hsi (spelled Cixi in Pinyin; pronouced Tsoo Shee) had a bad reputation while she lived and after she died. However, in recent decades the tide of historical opinion has been shifting. Much of the West's view of Cixi comes from the writings of Edmund Backhouse (1873-1944) who claimed to have had close contact with the Empress over many years and portrayed her as a ruthless, extravagant, psychopathic nymphomaniac. However, in 1974 Backhouse was revealed to be an unmitigated ...

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