Friday, May 04, 2007

Empress Orchid

Empress Orchid, Anchee Min. A fictional account of the life of Tsu Hsi, also known as Orchid, who rose from a poor but noble family to become a powerful ruler. Empress Orchid follows Orchid's ascent from a country girl living in poverty through her selection and life as Emperor Hsien Fung's fourth-ranked wife, living in the Forbidden Palace surrounded by jealousy and politics. The story ends shortly after Hsien Fung's death with the establishment of Orchid's role as a ruler as regent for her child, Hsien Fung's only son and heir, Tung Chih.

Tsu Hsi as envisioned by Min is a complex and interesting woman, and the novel seems to be very well researched. I know next to nothing about Chinese history. I did read short articles like this one about Tsu Hsi, but most address her reign as regent and offer very little information about her earlier life as an emperor's, so I have no way to judge the historical accuracy of Empress Orchid. What I found fascinating was the ways that Min wove the historical details of life in the Forbidden City, and what it must have been like to live the privileged and restricted daily life of the Chinese emperor's fourth wife. The descriptions of exquisite clothing and decor and jewelry, beautiful gardens, and elaborate court rituals are stunning, and parts of Min's descriptions of what it might have been like look beyond the glamor at a daily life so restricted by policy, politics, influence and intrigue are almost painful to read at times. In that regard I was reminded a little of reading Antoinette Frasier's biography of Marie Antoinette (I wrote a brief review of Marie Antoinette: The Journey in this post) with its descriptions of the elaborate clothing, ritual and political intrigue in Louis the XVI's French court. Toward the end of Empress Orchid, I felt that Min was straying a bit from a portrait that rang true into a more romanticized version of her character, particularly during the scene with Yung Lu in Hsein Feng's tomb. But overall Empress Orchid was more interesting and intelligently written than I'd initially expected.

Min has planned a sequel to Empress Orchid, titled The Last Empress, covering Orchid's forty-six-year reign. In an interview at the end of Empress Orchid, Min states that The Last Empress will show more about Orchid's "private character." I'm not convinced that's a good thing. I suppose that historical fiction is just that, fiction. It's still make-believe. But I find myself a bit skeptical. The greatest strengths in Empress Orchid were the accounts of Orchid's life as a wife of an emperor in a very different culture and time from our own. Trying to convincingly write the inner life of a character so thoroughly steeped in a society so culturally and historically different from our own, without straying into either idealization of values that we hold dear or placement of our own modern judgements on ideas and practices of which we disapprove, is a daunting task. I found Min's potrayal of Orchid in Empress Orchid a compelling one, however, and I found this period in Chinese history to be fascinating, so I'm looking forward to reading more.


sage said...

good review--years ago I read a "short history of China" the country's history is long with many twist and it's hard to keep everyone straight. This book sounds interesting. I assume the author is Chinese?

nina said...

This is a great review. I should be reading more Chinese historical novels but I am daunted by the long and foreign history. Your review entices me to put it on my long list of books to read. Thanks. Have you read Snow Flower and the Secret Fan? It was interesting to read about the interior life of the women as well. It is much different than in the Forbidden City. Snow Flower was incredibly easy to read. I think that is why so many have enjoyed it.