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Empress Orchid by Anchee Min: A Book Review

Empress Orchid
Author: Anchee Min
Genre: Historical Fiction
Publisher: Houghton Mifflin Company
Release Date: 2004
Pages: 364
Source: Personal Collection
Synopsis: The setting is China's Forbidden City in the last days of its imperial glory, a vast complex of palaces and gardens run by thousands of eunuchs and encircled by a wall in the center of Peking. In this highly ordered place -- tradition-bound, ruled by strict etiquette, rife with political and erotic tension -- the Emperor, "the Son of Heaven," performs two duties: he must rule the court and conceive an heir. To achieve the latter, tradition provides a stupendous hierarchy of hundreds of wives and concubines. It is as a minor concubine that the beautiful Tzu Hsi, known as Orchid as a girl, enters the Forbidden City at the age of seventeen. 

     It is not a good time to enter the city. The Ch'ing Dynasty in 1852 has lost its vitality, and the court has become an insular, xenophobic place. A few short decades earlier, China lost the Opium Wars, and it has done little since to strengthen its defenses or improve diplomatic ties. Instead, the inner circle has turned further inward, naively confident that its troubles are past and the glory of China will keep the "barbarians" -- the outsiders -- at bay. 

     Within the walls of the Forbidden City the consequences of a misstep are deadly. As one of hundreds of women vying for the attention of the Emperor, Orchid soon discovers that she must take matters into her own hands. After training herself in the art of pleasing a man, she bribes her way into the royal bedchamber and seduces the monarch. A grand love affair ensues; the Emperor is a troubled man, but their love is passionate and genuine. Orchid has the great good fortune to bear him a son. Elevated to the rank of Empress, she still must struggle to maintain her position and the right to raise her own child. With the death of the Emperor comes a palace coup that ultimately thrusts Orchid into power, although only as regent until her son's maturity. Now she must rule China as its walls tumble around her, and she alone seems capable of holding the country together. 

     This is an epic story firmly in the mold of Anchee Min's Becoming Madame Mao. Like that best-selling historical novel, the heroine of Empress Orchid comes down to us with a diabolical reputation -- a woman who seized power through sexual seduction, murder, and endless intrigue. But reality tells a different story. Based on copious research, this is a vivid portrait of a flawed yet utterly compelling woman who survived in a male world, a woman whose main struggle was not to hold on to power but to her own humanity. Richly detailed and completely gripping, Empress Orchid is a novel of high drama and lyricism and the first volume of a duology about the life of one of the most important women in history. 

     My Review: Empress Dowager Cixi is China’s last empress. She is known as the woman who destroyed the Chinese Dynasty. She is often portrayed as cold and ruthless. In this historical novel, the empress tells the story in her own words of the early years of how she became empress. This novel shows a young woman who is forced to make sacrifices for the good of the kingdom.

     After the death of her father, Yehonala and her family move into the city to live with her uncle. When she is forced to marry a disabled cousin, she decides to be a candidate for the Imperial Concubine Selection. She is chosen and is a fourth rank concubine. Yehonala is not prepared for what awaits her at the palace. She is naive and full of hope for her future prospects. She receives the best food, servants that obey her every whim, and gorgeous clothes. Yet, the luxury is only a facade to what she has to endure. She is lonely. She realizes that the only way she can succeed is to get to His Majesty’s bed. However, His Majesty does not even notice her, and she is forced to live her days in solitude. She realizes that maybe one day, she may never have her chance with the emperor. Yehonala is forced to bribe the chief eunuch so she can have one night with the king. Her night goes well, and the king calls for her every night. Soon, she bears him a son.

     Yehonala is a sympathetic character. She is at first a romantic. She believes that being an Imperial concubine will lead to a life of luxury and bliss. Yet, she is forced to see reality that the court is a dangerous place. She is lonely and often depressed. She feels that her life will not improve. Eventually, she is forced to make sacrifices. She is also a woman who craves love and affection. When her husband, the emperor, is full of stress over the country’s affairs, Yehonala becomes interested in politics and helps him with court affairs because she loves him and wants to see him happy. Yehonala is also a loving mother. She is strict with her child because she wants him to be a good ruler. Throughout Yehonala’s journey, I loved watching her grow into a strong, mature, and intelligent woman. She is a woman who is devoted entirely to her country, and she fights for China to be grand again.

     Overall, this book offers an in-depth psyche into one of China’s most powerful and controversial figures. Yehonala is a strong and complex woman who is forced to make hard decisions and sacrifices for the good of the nation. This novel is filled with court intrigue, suspense, and romance. This novel was very well-written and I loved the description of The Forbidden City. I also liked the author in how she portrayed her characters. Empress Orchid left me excited to read the sequel, and I cannot wait to read more about Yehonala’s journey. I recommend this book to those who are interested in Chinese royalty and Empress Dowager Cixi. I also recommend this novel to fans of C.W. Gortner, Philippa Gregory, and Allison Pataki.

Rating: 5 out of 5 stars

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