IN 1852, a delicate-looking young woman from southern China joined a select new crop of imperial concubines in Peking. Known as Orchid, she was thrust forward by her parents, who were willing to gamble their 17-year-old daughter’s well-being for a chance to get her inside the palace, known as the Forbidden City for its restrictive rules and clandestine manners.
“It was not a good time to enter the Forbidden City,” writes Anchee Min in “The Last Empress,” a novel that evokes the intrigue and opulence of 19th century China while telling the story of its improbably dominant ruler. "[T]he consequences of a misstep were often deadly.”
Orchid did not misstep. Starting at a low rank among the hundreds of concubines, she gradually befriended the eunuchs who ran the palace, then bribed her way into a tryst with the young emperor. They had one nocturnal encounter. She became pregnant and gave birth to a boy -- the first male heir to the throne. For Orchid, it was the equivalent of hitting the jackpot.
Yet she did not stop there. When the emperor died unexpectedly a few years later, Orchid vied to become regent for her son, the new emperor-to-be, until he came of age. She created secret alliances, outfoxed the leading minister and had him publicly beheaded. In the years that followed, Orchid bested every rival who came along, including her co-regent, her emperor son and her emperor nephew, each of whom died in mysterious circumstances. Incredibly, in a culture that generally subjugated women, Orchid ruled China for 47 years. She died in 1908.
Empress Dowager Tzu Hsi, as Orchid was formally known, is a standout even in the impressive pantheon of Chinese history. A political reactionary who blocked reform in an era that desperately needed it, she has been reviled by historians for her stubborn adherence to traditional ways, a recalcitrance that hastened the collapse of China’s imperial system. Her staunch secrecy made her the subject of wild rumors about bloodthirsty killings and voracious sexual appetite. What actually happened inside the walls of the Forbidden City in her day will never fully be known, yet Orchid’s ability to hold on to power suggests that, at the very least, she was one wily politician.
In “The Last Empress,” Min takes a provocative view, offering a sympathetic portrait of Orchid as a selfless woman striving to hold together a fractured nation. Orchid narrates the tale and is presented as kindhearted and uninterested in power but constantly forced to fend off the venal and small-minded noblemen of the Manchu court.
“The Last Empress” is the second volume in Min’s story, continuing where she left off with “Empress Orchid” (2004). In that earlier book, Min crafted a taut narrative that followed Orchid as she grew from a naive young woman into a capable and conscientious empress. The storytelling was absorbing, and Min used historical events and sensuous, textured descriptions of China to set the scene well.
This time, unfortunately, it is not a convincing portrayal. “The Last Empress” progressively loses coherence as Orchid rises in authority. When those around her fall away, she laments in not-too-believable fashion, nor do her justifications for seizing power at critical junctures ring true. Her personality is not particularly engaging, and secondary characters -- particularly her legendary top eunuchs, An-te-hai and Li Lien-ying -- are (contrary to all historical evidence) disappointingly dull.
As in her earlier book, Min effectively employs historical detail to enrich the narrative. The scarcity of firewood in Peking one winter, for example, inspires a description of the cold, noxious hallways of the palace, smoky from the burning of raw green wood. The Taiping Rebellion, war with Japan and the Boxer Rebellion serve as dramatic backdrops for Orchid’s personal odyssey. It would have been far more interesting, though, if the author had conveyed the inevitable conflict of ambition and doubt within Orchid herself, as she struggled to master diplomacy and court politics. Instead, Min gives us a good-hearted woman who responds to each crisis by trying to do the right thing. Yawn.
One cannot help but ponder Min’s motivations in creating this anodyne portrait. At first I wondered whether she might be succumbing to the common hankering for a benevolent dictator. After all, in every culture there are those who yearn for a powerful leader unfettered by bureaucracies or elections, who makes political decisions that are genuinely in the national interest. It is a perennial fantasy. Yet as I read, I came to think that Min was impelled by something more personal. Her first book, the memoir “Red Azalea,” beautifully captured her own fiery personality as an artistic rebel who hated to be told what to think and was singularly ill-suited to live under the totalitarian rule of China’s Cultural Revolution. Min now takes a historical character, reviled in the schoolbooks of Communist China as “a mastermind of pure evil and intrigue,” and presents her as a loving and generous soul. Min has said in interviews that she identifies with the Empress Dowager as a strong, independent-minded woman determined to beat the odds and that she wanted to rewrite the “lies” told by the Communists. They are indeed world-class liars, and they deserve to be challenged on history. But doing so effectively requires a more compelling and credible story.
Min herself has certainly beaten the odds, arriving in the United States in 1984 as a 27-year-old who did not speak English. Since then, she has emerged as a talented and widely acclaimed novelist in her adopted language, a remarkable feat. She is an evocative, bold writer who seems eager to take on a broad canvas. This effort is disappointing. But I suspect, and hope, that we will be hearing from her again. *