Empress Orchid by Anchee Min
My rating: 4 of 5 stars
“My sorrow for Hsien Feng and my country was beyond expression.”
This is a unique work of fiction. Empress Orchid defies all popular sentiments of Empress Dowager Cixi by depicting her as an almost regular woman who was driven to what she did through mere necessity. Initially, she applied for the position to become one of the many wives of Emperor Hsien Feng only to prevent her uncle from selling her. She acquired the art of seduction to please her Emperor to avoid being left in isolation her whole life. She ousted the men in power after Emperor Hsien Feng’s death to prevent them from killing her first. Creative as this point of view may be, it is utterly unconvincing that Orchid could be innocent and helpless to her circumstances yet able to climb up to the absolute top of China in an era when a woman’s opinion did not matter.
I have no doubt Empress Cixi was not born a scheming and malicious person. However, I cannot be sold on the idea that she survived and thrived without actively scheming to pre-empt her opponents, taking them down ruthlessly. Nonetheless, I am grateful that Anchee Min is able to present this enigmatic character in a different light, even if its sole purpose was to oppose the conventions of Chinese blaming the downfall of it’s Imperial Dynasty on one woman.
“This was my first time entering the heavenly ground after the foreigners has assaulted it. Lord Elgin was three hours late. He entered with two thousand men in a display of pomp. He rode in a crimson palanquin borne by sixteen men, knowing that this privilege was reserved only for the Emperor of China. I made an effort to be gracious, although I was disgusted beyond description. I bowed slightly and shook Elgin’s hands in the Chinese style. I struggled and succeeded in keeping my emotions from spilling.”
Through this book I also gained a very personal insight to the humiliation felt by the Manchurians and Chinese alike at the cusp of foreign invasion. Emperor Hsien Feng was slowly but surely losing the North of the country to the Russians. The looting of the Summer Palace by the British and French forces in 1860 devastate the Emperor so much his health deteriorated rapidly after. Like many rulers before him, they viewed non-Chinese as inferior and barbaric. To have them taking their country bit by bit is not merely mortifying, but leaves behind a painful mark that will not be erased for generations after.
Fast-forward 159 years later, China had risen in the contemporary era able to swallow up whole most nations in this world and go head to head with the present day superpower. Whilst there is much criticism on Chinese (and American) behaviour, only when one peeks into the past will they be able to comprehend China’s thirst for showing the world what it is capable of.
The book flows reasonably well, especially considering the challenges of describing ancient Chinese philosophy, practises and customs in English. I hope this book provokes interest in the understanding of the stupendous fall and rise of China over the past century and a half.
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Empress Orchid by Anchee Min