My Reading Antlers

Empress Orchid by Anchee Min

"The years inside the Forbidden City had formed a shell over her and the shell had hardened. Historians would describe her as cruel and heartless. Her iron will was said to have carried her through one crisis after another."

Genre: Historical Fiction
Setting: China
Timeline: Qing Dynasty (Mid to Late 1800's)
Summary: A compelling story about the humble beginnings of Orchid, (also known as Empress Dowager CiXi) who eventually becomes the last empress of China.

For the most part I thoroughly enjoyed reading Empress Orchid. I've been meaning to read more of works after reading her memoir Red Azalea several years ago. The first part of the novel mainly focuses upon the traditions and dangers of imperial court life and the budding romance between Orchid and the Emperor. One can't help but root for our heroine as she stumbles into her own actualized Peking Opera from her impoverished beginnings in the countryside. The story itself starts off with her being unable to pay workers to carry her father's coffin to his burial ground, already framing the story in a sort of tragedy. A rags to riches story, Orchid comes from having nothing to all to everything she could need, and then more than she can handle.

The reason why I am always a little dubious about reading novels set during this time is because you know that there are no happy endings, but I suppose that's historical fiction for you--you sort of have a general idea of how it's all going to fall apart. Already during that time period you have civil unrest, invasions, widespread famine, and of course, the infamous Opium Wars part one and two. From dodging potential assassinations and executions to keeping China afloat by pleading her partially hysterical husband to do something about it, she certainly has her work cut out for her. All in all, the novel is an entertaining read. The prose flows well and you become really invested in the characters, even if you disagree with them at times, or find them a bit overdramatic.

One thing that I greatly appreciated about this novel were the glimpses into the lives of eunuchs. Honestly, instead of reading about more concubines, I would love to read a story from the perspective of a eunuch living in the palace. Although the theme of the novel does take a feminist slant, it also briefly expounds upon what it means to be a castrated male living in a world populated by thousands of female concubines. Seriously.

Anyway, like I said before, I always feel a little uneasy reading these kinds of novels about China. The reason for China's downfall, as historians have pointed out, is how they increasingly withdrew from the rest of the world. They thought their way of life was infallible. A few words about tradition. Confucius, for those of you who aren't familiar, was all about tradition. Tradition was what kept society functioning. If you don't know your place in the world or what you were supposed to do, then there would be mass chaos and confusion. Sometimes the tradition seems inhibiting and overcomplicated, but it was all about putting order to the chaos. Confucius was an incredibly well-learned scholar (a bit like Su Shun in the novel) and drew from the vast history of China all the things that worked and put them all in a pot of adhesive that would mend the fractured country. For awhile, this adherence to tradition worked. It was so effective that the invading Manchu who took over kept it and adopted Chinese language and customs.

Anchee Min does a great job portraying how that tradition becomes China's undoing, but how it is necessary to give hope to the people. It is the distance that the wealth creates that gives the peasants, whose lives are pretty miserable during this time period, something to look up to, "He emphasized that I was not to express my feelings. I must not remind people that I was as ordinary as they were". Life for Orchid had become like the Peking operas she so dearly loves. This sort of stubborn tenacity to cling to customs is persistent throughout the whole novel. When Orchid is advising her sister about the pain of a loveless marriage, she replies, "If it is the way things have been for hundreds of years, I don't see why I should be the one to have problems."

For anyone who wants to really wants a basic understanding of Chinese culture and where they were coming from right before the era of the People's Republic, Empress Orchid, is a very good read. It gives you a general idea of what it was like during the Qing dynasty. What it means to be nobility, what it means to be in power, what it means to be a woman in power, are all themes explored in the novel. It is a fascinating story about a woman who has to bend like a river through all the obstacles in order to do what she feels is necessary for the collapse of what was once a great and powerful nation.

So why did it collapse? There are some remarks in the novel itself. The Manchu officials had become lazy and corrupt because of their privilege, and corruption was unattended to. There was a lot of problems with policy, and of course, China, believing themselves to be invincible due to being favored by God, didn't feel the need to strengthen their armies. I believe that during one of my history classes, it was said that China once had one of the most powerful naval fleets, but it was greatly weakened because there was thought to be no need for it. Well... obviously that didn't turn out to be a good idea.

Now onto the factual accuracy of the novel. All in all, it is an interpretation of events and should be taken with a grain of salt. However, I'm not a historian so I cannot point out what is true or what is false. There is a disclaimer from Anchee Min herself about it. "All the characters in the book are based on real people. I tried my best to keep the events the way they were in history. I translated the decrees, edicts and poems from the original documents. Whenever there were differences in interpretation, I based my judgement on my research and overall perspective."

My quick glance at wikipedia tells me that Empress Cixi was actually considered a despot who ruined China, but if you read the novel and look at dates, you'll see that China was already in the decline before Orchid had even entered the palace. She was blamed for a lot of things that had already been taking place before her reign. I can't really comment on the truth of the matter, but I did see an article by Julia Lovell from The Guardian.

Cixi, the last empress of China from 1856 to 1908, is one of those historical figures people love to be nasty about. Soon after her death, Edmund Blackhouse, a charlatan foreign correspondent, forged Chinese court documents portraying her as a psychopathic nymphomaniac; ever since, Cixi's many western biographers have gleefully wallowed in allegations of her badness: her extravagance (she splurged the fund for modernising the navy on a marble pleasure boat), her conservatism (she crushed the westernising reform movement of 1898), her ruthless disposal of inconvenient political opponents (including her nephew, whom she placed under house arrest for a decade and perhaps poisoned). This very partial version of events swallows whole the Confucian Chinese male view of history, which, wherever possible, deflects blame for monumental historical catastrophes - such as the collapse of the Qing dynasty in 1911 - on to women.

But the tide of opinion now seems to be turning for the last empress. Last year, Chinese television aired a hit drama series about the last years of the Qing dynasty, in which viewers were flabbergasted to see Cixi portrayed as "a nice person". (Deeply perturbed, China's rulers - all of them men - soon weighed in to criticise the show's historical heresies.) Empress Orchid is a further, feminist step on the road to her rehabilitation. Written by a woman, narrated by Cixi herself, the novel turns the last empress into a dignified, discreet sovereign, holding her country together in the face of foreign invasion, dissolute emperors and scheming courtiers.

So with that, my conclusion is that Empress Orchid is definitely worth reading. The book won the 2006 nominee for the Richard and Judy Best Read of the Year Award, and is generally praised by critics and reviewers. I enjoyed the book and look forward to the second part of the series


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