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The power behind a dying dynasty

Special to The Times

Living in China during the final days of the Ching Dynasty, a reign devastated by the Opium Wars and invasions by European “barbarians,” Tzu Hsi -- called Orchid -- is a 17-year-old girl whose family, though of royal Manchu descent, has hit hard times.

It’s the mid-1800s and poverty has wiped out most traces of Orchid’s aristocratic heritage. The only opportunity to raise her family from destitution and to save herself from an unwanted marriage to an undesirable cousin is to audition to be one of the Emperor Hsien Feng’s future mates. She has the requisite noble bloodline and, with a little help, her beauty might save her from the mean streets of Peking.

Thus begins “Empress Orchid,” a novel by Anchee Min narrated by the historical figure who becomes the final empress of China and gives birth to the last emperor.

After a battery of exhaustive tests to weed out those who lack the requisite grace or beauty, Orchid is selected as one of the 2,000 royal concubines. She is exalted when the emperor -- “the Son of Heaven” -- chooses her to be one of his seven wives. Assuming the title Lady Yehonala, she morphs from a hardscrabble life to opulence in the blink of an eye. As an imperial wife, she must live hidden from public view in the Forbidden City, where thousands of eunuchs, ladies-in-waiting and concubines reside in sumptuousness, serving the emperor and keeping up royal appearances.

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Life in the Forbidden City, though, isn’t as pleasant as she’d anticipated. She’s bored to tears most of the time and has to look over her shoulder constantly lest one of the rival wives or concubines discredits her or succeeds in giving the emperor a son before she does. Waited on by countless eunuchs, Orchid is dressed to perfection though no one will see her, and she hopes for an invitation to the royal bedchamber. “I felt I had been pushed into a sealed room where my breathing became difficult,” she tells us of her early days in the Forbidden City. “It was not true that I would be happy once my stomach was full. I couldn’t escape who I was, a woman who sensed that she lived to love. Being an Imperial wife offered me everything but that.”

To her delight, she is soon singled out by the emperor. Not only does he begin to spend evenings with her, he’s also taken by her sharp intellect and curiosity about the issues of state. As a ruler, he is weak and frail, unable to govern with authority because he’s been so spoiled. Like the emperor’s main wife, Nuharoo, who believes that the secret to achieving internal harmony is to "[l]ie in the bed others have made, and walk in the shoes others have cobbled,” the emperor has never worked hard and is unprepared for the struggles of leading the empire through difficult times. “After two hundred years in power,” Orchid tells readers, the entire ruling class “had degenerated into decadence.”

The novel follows Orchid from her inauspicious beginnings until she assumes the power behind the throne when the emperor dies and she is named regent until her son, the sole male heir, then 5 years old, will come of age.

Throughout, the novel celebrates the lavishness of courtly life while showing the real-life disadvantages of such luxury. The emperor, for example, who’d been raised to think he could control the world, is utterly unable to deal with the foreign forces invading China. Before dying, the emperor nearly fails to name his only son as his successor and doesn’t move to protect Orchid’s future. Orchid must scheme for her son’s and her own royal survival, while working to wrest control of her son from the pampering hands that would doom him to a life and reign as weak as his father’s.

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“I saw how my son was being taught to misread reality. He couldn’t distinguish fact from fantasy. The false notions packed into his little brain made him vulnerable. He believed that he could tell the sky when to rain and the sun when to shine.” Intrigue pulses through the story as, en route to the emperor’s burial, a coup is planned against Orchid and the boy.

Rich in detail and historical background, the novel drenches readers in the colors, textures and affluence of the Forbidden City, a splendor keenly juxtaposed against the crumbling reality outside its walls. At times, the story turns on implausible particulars; it’s hard, for example, to believe that the strong-willed Orchid really has fallen in love with the ineffectual emperor. Still the lavishness of the historical setting and the author’s strong use of research to flesh out the tale make for a stirring, exotic novel that is a treat for the senses and intellect alike.


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