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Empress Orchidby Anchee Min
Synopses & Reviews
From a master of the historical novel, Empress Orchid sweeps readers into the heart of the Forbidden City to tell the fascinating story of a young concubine who becomes China's last empress. Min introduces the beautiful Tzu Hsi, known as Orchid, and weaves an epic of a country girl who seized power through seduction, murder, and endless intrigue. When China is threatened by enemies, she alone seems capable of holding the country together.
In this "absorbing companion piece to her novel Becoming Madame Mao" (New York Times), readers and reading groups will once again be transported by Min's lavish evocation of the Forbidden City in its last days of imperial glory and by her brilliant portrait of a flawed yet utterly compelling woman who survived, and ultimately dominated, a male world.
"[R]eaders will be enthralled by the gorgeously woven cultural tapestry and the psychologically astute portrait of the empress — a talented girl from the provinces who married (way) up." Publishers Weekly
"Min has a talent for entering into the character of notorious Chinese women and presenting their lives in a sympathetic but judicious light." Library Journal
"Steeped in the Forbidden City's elaborate mythology, etiquette, and ritual, Min evokes a doomed realm so opulent, complex, and bizarre that it seems as fantastic as an alternative world in science fiction, but Orchid is 100 percent human, and her earthy story is true and significant." Booklist
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 Mins 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 trilogy about the life of one of the most important women in history.
About the Author
Anchee Min who was born in Shanghai in 1957 has a personal connection to the story of Madame Mao. At seventeen, she was sent to a labor collective, where after a number of years a talent scout recruited her for Madame Mao's Shanghai Film Studio. There she was trained to play the protagonists in Madame Mao's propaganda films and personally met Jiang Ching and others in her circle, who later provided Min with stories and insights. Min came to the United States in 1984 with the help of the actress Joan Chen. Her memoir, Red Azalear, was named a New York Times Notable Book of 1994 and was an international bestseller, with rights sold in twenty countries. Her first novel, Katherine, was published in 1997. She resides in New York.
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