Book Reads: The Last Empress (Anchee Min) [☝]

September 09, 2013

The life story of one of the greatest Empresses China had in its history continues in this second book by Anchee Min (read my review of the first installment, Empress Orchid). Compared to the first one, this part of her life, beginning after the death of her Emperor husband Hsien Feng, is more tragic and full of heartaches as it centers on the problems that the dynasty faced before its fall signifying the end of the imperial reign in China. 

*note: spoilers ahead*

Internal Government Conflicts
Prince Tung Chih, the only son of Emperor Hsien Feng with Empress Orchid, was still too young to ascend the throne when his father died. Because of this situation, the two principal Imperial Empresses had to take over some of his responsibilities, together with the royal court that the Emperor assembled. Empress Nuharoo, the late Emperor's highest-ranking concubine and the more powerful Empress of the two, did not really have an interest in the government affairs. She believed that politics should be left with men to handle. She focused more on her commitment to Buddhism. However, Empress Orchid was the exact opposite. She knew most of the royal court officials are traitors to the dynasty and will find ways to impede the ascension to the throne of the young emperor to have the power to themselves. They were nothing but greedy officials that want the wealth and fame of the Chinese government. Empress Orchid made all efforts to protect the dynasty. It was not an easy process on her. She barely escaped death when someone plotted an assault against her. Good thing she still had loyal officials with her whom she wholly trusted and helped her a lot during her hardest times in the government.

Worsening Foreign Affairs
While the government was slowly crumbling down because of internal conflict of interests, foreigners who have been taking over the shores of China continued to broaden their territories, giving threats of war if the government would not sign their petitions. Some of these countries are Japan, Russia, and France. However, these so-called "petitions" only benefited the foreigners. It was a deceitful strategy of the foreign nations to grab more land and gain more power over China. This caused a lot of tension in the countryside resulting to a lot of rebellious uprisings. The local rebels did not trust the Chinese government anymore and wanted to handle the affairs with the foreigners themselves. They wanted to take the bloody path of driving away the foreign forces. Empress Orchid, with the help of her trusted officials, negotiated with these rebels to avoid the declaration of war between the countries. 

Death of the Emperors
With all the unfortunate events that happened to Empress Orchid, I can't help but think that her life is cursed in some way. When her young son, Tung Chih, died of a disease, she appointed her nephew Guang-hsu as the next heir of the throne. This was done in spite of violating an imperial rule against appointing an indirect heir, because they had limited choices for the next Emperor. Years after, Guang-hsu was inflicted also with a terminal disease causing another burden to the Empress and the dynasty. 

Reform Plans and the Infamous Image of the Empress
Before Emperor Guang-hsu became gravely sick, he became a reform advocate. He wanted to follow the examples of western countries on how they established their government. However, Empress Orchid was hugely opposed to the idea because she knew the young Emperor was just being influenced by his mentors whom she accused of being spies of the Japanese government who wanted to take over China. They were tricking the innocent-minded Emperor to destroy the imperial government from inside. In the end, the imperial mentors' true colors surfaced. However, the spies escaped and were successfully taken by the Japanese soldiers. The spies were able to travel to Japan, and soon to different countries. While they were travelling, they told lies about the Empress and the Chinese government which they feeded to the international media. 

Negative headlines about the imperial dynasty scattered and became known not just across countries but also within the local community. To prove the rumors false, Empress Orchid held a gathering with the wives of the political figures from a number of countries.

Empress Dowager Cixi and the wives of the diplomatic corps. Holding her hand
is Sarah Conger, wife of the American minister to China. (source: wikipedia)

After this meeting, the wives gave accounts about their impression of the infamous Empress Dowager. Only a few people see the Empress personally that's why everything that is speculated about her are just indirect accounts and experiences. This is one event wherein I really believe that the Empress is a good person, opposite of how history describes her now, because everyone who attended the gathering described the Empress as a kind-hearted yet strong woman.

All the events that led to the fall of the imperial Chinese government are contained in the second book. It's heartbreaking to read fascinating characters die in the story (I'll save this info so as not to spoil the story for those who have not read it!) I admit the first book was a more fascinating read, because it involved the fairy tale part of the life of Empress Tzu-hsi (actual name of the Empress in history). However, reading the second book further shows why Empress Orchid deserved the title of Greatest Empress of China in its history. 

Lessons of lifetime loyalty, selfless love, and pure determination can be learned from the life of the Empress Orchid. Be amazed on how majestic the Empress was, until her last breath as the sole female ruling leader of China.


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