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.
Orchid’s journey to success is too overwhelming, she has indeed proven herself worthy to be called an Empress. Her wit and unconditional love became her strength to thwart China from falling apart that easy. The primary wife, Empress Nuharoo is also an admirable woman although you might hate her. She gave Empress Orchid enough challenge that broke her and made her as well. Another favorite character of mine is the faithful eunuch An-te-hai. He is such a wise man. Orchid will never be Empress Orchid without him.
I don’t know if the efforts to finish the book as soon as I can contributed to my confusion, or is it just my lack of knowledge about China’s history. Or was my imagination too limited? Somewhere in the later chapters, was Empress Yehonala feverish, or was she making love to someone else other than the Emperor? See.. the book is too poetic and it’s quite unavoidable for me to lose some sense. But each detail is carefully defined and described for one’s imagination to digest… every scent, shape and color detailed to perfection. The almost perfect union of fact and fiction made it hard to tell which is which. Again, a woman in love unconditionally is more powerful than a man who calls himself the “Son of Heaven”.