Book Review: Empress Orchid by Anchee Min
When Orchid’s father dies, her family have to take his coffin hundreds of miles to Peking for burial. By the time they arrive they are tired, ill and broke. On arrival in Peking, Orchid, her mother, brother and sister, stay at her uncle’s house but things get worse for Orchid when her uncle threatens to throw them out unless she marries her retarded, opium-addicted cousin Bottle. Orchid gets a job working for a woman who once was a maid for an Empress. She tells her all about the Forbidden City; the details, architecture, history and traditions and so when Orchid hears that that the Emperor, Hsien Feng, is looking for wives she competes with hundreds of others to enter the Forbidden City. She sees this as her only chance to provide for her family and to avoid the marriage to her cousin. Somehow she manages to meet all the impossibly high standards set for an Emperor and is eventually chosen amongst several others to enter as a low-ranking concubine.
Once inside the Forbidden City, Orchid quickly has learn how to survive in a world of scheming, deception and bribery as all the girls attempt to be the one to carry the Emperor’s first born son. She has to figure out who she can trust and who she can’t, and who really holds all the influence in the courts. As Orchid finds herself falling in love with the Emperor she realises that she has to go to great lengths in order to get him to notice her and as she seduces him and spends more time with him her enemies increase and will go to great lengths to stop her consuming all his time. Not content with just being essentially a pretty face, Orchid learns about the Chinese government and its problems in an attempt to help the Emperor save the collapsing country, but her determination to be involved could ultimately be her undoing.
I don’t know where to start reviewing this book ... in a good way. I really enjoyed it and felt like I learned a lot about a new culture. I’d heard of the Forbidden City before but I never knew anything about it but reading this book I’ve gained some insight into what life was like there. For example, with the exception of the Emperor, all men in the Forbidden City must be eunuchs so that the Emperor can be certain that any children born to his concubines/wives are undoubtedly his. It’s unsurprising that some many of the concubines practically went crazy living there. If they’re lucky they might be blessed with a child but they’re never going to have any kind of happy family. When Orchid decides to enter the Forbidden City she is thinking only of her mother and siblings and how she can provide for them but she quickly realises that she has to play the game or else she’s going to go crazy.Yes, the book is engrossing and gripping etc, but what stuck with me the most after reading Empress Orchid is the increasing sensation of feeling frustrated for her. I realise that this is the point, and I suppose that it is a testament to Anchee Min that she can write in such a way that the reader can feel the same emotions as the main character. It seems as though every positive decision Orchid makes to better her life ends up harming her in some way. She attempts to raise her son to actually know what he’s doing and not have everything done for him like Emperors in the past. She believes this is the reason why China is falling apart and wants him to be able to make intelligent informed decisions in the court rather than agreeing with those he likes best.
To write this review I did some research, as I always do, into what others have thought of the book and how it has been reviewed and was interested to find out that the Empress Orchid, known in Chinese as Cixi, has really bad write-ups throughout history. Orchid lived in a totally male-dominated world and made a lot of enemies during her life by speaking her mind and not living as a subdued wife should, so it wasn’t long before prominent writers began portraying her in a very negative light and since then almost all documentation has made her out to be a villain. Of course, I didn’t know all this when I read the book and I actually found I could relate to her a lot in certain ways. For example, as she learns about the Chinese government and the problems the Emperor is facing, the solutions all seem clear to her yet those around her are clouded with confusion, consumed by greed or simply just don’t want her to be right. She wasn’t brought up to become a wife of the Emperor as many of the other wives and concubines were. Everything she knows about etiquette and the correct ways to act did not come naturally to her and she had to learn them herself.I would recommend this book to anyone who is interested in learning about history and other cultures. It doesn’t read like a historical book, in fact it seems much more like fiction and I think that’s because it’s really only a snapshot of her life from the age of sixteen to some time in her thirties (I would guess) maybe younger. From what I understand her bad reputation comes from the days/years after when she had a real influence over the courts. The relationships between different characters are interesting and complex, like the relationship between Orchid and her chief eunuch, An-te-hai. I don’t know how much of this story is fact and how much is literary embellishment so I don’t know whether these intricate relationships can be credited to Anchee Min or if they really existed.
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