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Author Anchee Min (Photo/Lei Q. Min)
From The Asian Reporter, V14, #22 (May 25, 2004), page 20.
Muscular women, weak history
By Anchee Min
Houghton Mifflin, 2004
Hardcover, 336 pages, $24.00
Imperial China — her heavenly gates, her Forbidden City, her unfathomable exoticism and untold eroticism — has been good earth for all sorts of Western writers from staid historians to pulp producers for a long-long time. All that interest notwithstanding, the truth about the subject of their intense interest is still hard to find.
In the epigraph of her latest novel, Empress Orchid, author Anchee Min sets out several contrasting stakes on the truth about the Ch’ing Dynasty’s last Empress, Tzu Hsi.
"One of the ancient sages of China foretold that ‘China will be destroyed by a woman.’ That prophecy is approaching fulfillment," wrote London Times correspondent (1892-1912) Dr. George Ernest Morrison. His American contemporary, envoy Charles Denby, took the opposite tack, "(Dowager Empress Tzu Hsi) has shown herself to be benevolent and economical. Her private character has been spotless."
A quote cut from a current Communist-Party-approved school book wastes not a pretty word: "She was a mastermind of pure evil and intrigue."
So who was the Middle Kingdom’s last monarch; was she really as tidy or as cut-throat as all that? Since the Empress, her friends and foes alike, are long gone — since Sir Edmund Backhouse, one of the West’s seminal Tzu Hsi scholars, was more recently exposed as having fabricated his long intimate association with the Empress and her court — what are we going to do about the historical record?
The answer author Anchee Min suggests is literary fiction. Fiction carefully researched, both in the hopelessly revisionist historical record and in our rich human experience. Empress Orchid, like Ms. Anchee’s earlier creative biography, the internationally acclaimed Becoming Madam Mao (2000), seems to draw generously from her own intriguing Mao-era ups and downs as well as from archetypal characters and conflicts, ancient East and Shakespearean West.
Empress Orchid is therefore many things, but at bottom the book is the story of a minor Manchu official’s daughter who makes her way through bad times ("a tragedy foreshadows good luck") and good times to be selected from among 5,000 beautiful young women to become one of child-emperor Hsien Feng’s seven new concubines.
Author Anchee’s first-person narrative is engaging. Her descriptions of Orchid’s humble beginnings working for seamstress Big Sister Fann are homey — "a heavy-set lady who liked to apply her face paint as thick as an opera singer’s. Her makeup flaked off in bits as she talked … She was known to have a scorpion mouth but a tofu heart." Her images of Imperial largesse are wonderful. After her selection to the court, "huge boxes from the Imperial palace arrived. Every inch of our house was filled … the neighbors were ordered to lend us their homes for storage … large pits were dug … as coolers, to stock meat and vegetables for the coming celebration banquet. Hundreds of jars of century-old wine … eighty lambs, sixty pigs and two hundred chicken and ducks."
However, aside from the occasional over- whelming ceremony and the constant politics among courtiers, palace life for Orchid is lonely. She is not allowed to see her mother, her dear sister or dopey brother. When Orchid finally gets her chance to consort with the inept young Emperor Hsien Feng, China is reeling from battlefield losses and diplomatic humiliation at the hands of French and British Imperial forces.
Through persistence and guile, Orchid shifts from being the emperor’s sexual favorite to his close political advisor. Orchid succeeds in conceiving a royal heir, while the First Wife fails. Both successes give birth to intense palace rivalries. Sickly Emperor Hsien Feng passes away at age 31, putting Orchid in the crumbling empire’s driver’s seat and pitting her in a classical power struggle with other powerful people and forces from China’s real and mythical history.
Empress Orchid’s reign lasts 46 years, while the Middle Kingdom goes to hell. "Heaven’s grace! Ten thousand years of health! Long live Your Majesty!" her ten thousand kowtowing eunuchs, her conniving ministers, and incompetent generals, exclaim, knocking their wooden heads on the polished stone floor of The Hall of Supreme Harmony.