Book Reads: Empress Orchid (Anchee Min) [☝]

August 29, 2013

It's been a long time since I got hooked reading a book, and this one succeeded in keeping my interest to read on until the last page. I saw the book at Booksale and upon reading the synopsis at the back cover, I got interested enough to purchase it.

The book's cover

The story is set in Ancient China, giving a vivid description of Chinese royalty and the strict etiquette that their tradition requires. The main character is Orchid, a girl who entered the Forbidden City and became one of China's most powerful female figure in its history.

A Glimpse of the China's History
The events in the book got me thinking that it was all fictional because it has a perfect plot for a movie. But upon researching online, I found out that the book is a romanticized version of the life of Empress Dowager Cixi, one of China's most powerful female figure. Her life is like a fairy tale (at least in the first parts). From a simple girl from China's countryside, she decided to apply as a concubine for the Emperor to help her poor family. She successfully got in as one of the imperial wives of the Emperor. She then gave birth to the Emperor's only son which elevated her to a ranking second only to the Emperor's first-ranking Imperial wife.

Orchid is an educated woman. She knows how to read and write, unlike most of the women in the Forbidden City. When the Emperor got sick, Orchid assisted him in replying to letters and in reading out evicts to the court. Through that, Orchid learned the art of politics and government. When the Emperor died, his imperial wife, Nuharoo, together with Orchid, were given power to rule the court officials that the Emperor handpicked before he died. This is to prepare the young heir (the Emperor's and Orchid's son) in ascending the throne. The book ends in the burial of the Emperor.

Female Power in the Government
The narration is from the point of view of Orchid. I really salute Orchid's character and is very amazed that these events truly happened in China more than a century ago. After finishing the book, I researched about Empress Dowager Cixi and was surprised that she is an infamous political figure in China. The Chinese culture is a very conservative one, strict in all its traditions, and their etiquette forbids women to hold power. This is why many of the government officials were against the ruling of Dowager Cixi. However upon reading the book, it looks like all the negative opinions about the Empress was purposely feeded to the international media to serve her as a scapegoat to all their own wrongdoings. With that book's version of the inside story in the Forbidden City, I can't help but sympathize on the Empress. I have this conspiracy theory that Empress Cixi is truly a good person as described in the book and all the bad news about her are all the doings of her enemies in the government. There are a number of published books that support this theory which are written by people who actually got to serve the Empress during her rule in China. 

Corruption and Other Dirt of Politics
Greed truly brings out the worst from people. Even in the Chinese government, corruption is still ever present. The story tackled how their people's own wrongdoings led to the slow but painful fall of the imperial government of China. From appointing of allies to high positions and bribery, the Chinese government officials thought only of their own good as most of them took significant amounts of taels from the public fund. But the story is not just about the crimes within the Chinese government. The wickedness of the foreigners who wanted to take over China was also evident in the story. The strategies that each country implemented in "negotiating" with China reeks with greediness for territory. The story tells us how loyalty to the wrong people can lead a nation to go astray.

Etiquette at the Royal Court
Chinese royalty has such rich culture - from the costumes, wigs, and accessories, to the decorations and ornaments present in the Forbidden City. It's up to your own imagination how you would picture the luxurious life of the royalties in China. Aside from that, the very detailed etiquette, like in greetings and other ceremonial activities, are described in the book. It's great that it's up to the reader's imagination to picture out the intricate details of the events described in the book and for sure every one who gets to read this will have their own versions of how the ceremonies looked like. Also the rules implemented not just within the Forbidden City but also in China in general are very strict. Either you get promoted and rewarded for great achievements or you get severely punished by whipping, or worst by beheading, as price for your misconduct or failure of duty.

Battle for the Emperor's Affection
What also fascinated me most about the book is the imperial concubines in the Forbidden City. From the selection of the candidates (the method of elimination is mind-blowing), to the wedding of the selected ladies, up to the lives that they lead inside the Forbidden City. With one male contested by hundreds of females, every concubine must find a way to attract the Emperor's attention. Here goes the lessons on seduction, treachery, and survival.

I love all the elements that comprised the story, even to the side stories of Orchid's loyal eunuch, An-te-hai and her secret love to a general named Yung Lu. I haven't read anything about these characters in historical anicdotes of Empress Cixi's life so I am assuming that they are just fictional characters that Anchee Min decided to write about in her novel, so as to add spice to the story.

There's a second book actually, and I've already read it too. I'll post my review of that in the blog soon. Look forward to it!

Some Interesting trivias about Empress Dowager Cixi 

-- An animated series entitled Twins of Destiny has Empress Cixi as the main antagonist of the story. I remember watching this anime as a kid. This is better known as Julio at Julia: Kambal ng Tadhana here in the Philippines

The Twins of Destiny

 -- A musical from Singapore, called Forbidden City: Portrait of An Empress was produced that tell the story of the life of Empress Cixi.



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