Review: The Last Empress [2006]

The Last EmpressAuthor: Anchee Min
Year: 2006 [1st]
Publisher: Mariner Books

About (goodreads):
The last decades of the nineteenth century were a violent period in China’s history, marked by humiliating foreign incursions and domestic rebellions and ending in the demise of the Ch’ing Dynasty. The only constant during this tumultuous time was the power wielded by one woman, the resilient, ever-resourceful Tsu Hsi — or Empress Orchid, as readers came to know her in Anchee Min’s critically acclaimed, best-selling novel covering her rise to power.

The Last Empress is the story of Orchid’s dramatic transition from a strong-willed, instinctive young woman to a wise and politically savvy leader who ruled China for more than four decades. In this concluding volume Min gives us a compelling, very human leader who assumed power reluctantly and sacrificed all to protect those she loved and an empire that was doomed to die.

I Say…

If you are a mother, sister, wife or daughter, you can’t resist loving the ruthless Tzu-hsi, because of Anchee Min’s take on her life as one of history’s toughest woman ever.

Although this book was written based on China’s historical account, I want to think the dialogue and drama really took place during the Qing dynasty. It simply carried me away. Empress Orchid, now Tzu-hsi, had more to bear compared to her agony of just longing to be the apple of the Emperor’s eye. In this final installment The Last Empress, she suffered, loss after loss while maintaining her composure… no matter how painful each decision may seem. She was misunderstood and ridiculed during her reign, when she should’ve gained empathy from the people who live outside the Forbidden City. After all, she is just a woman, with a family to bind together in one piece. This being her weakness, she tends to make the worst decisions. And these decisions lead to recurring history as she witness her husband, son and adopted son’s failure as worthy sons of heaven.

It’s like you’re holding a history book, while reading. The Last Empress tackled more of China’s issues and how it became part of the rich Asian history. A lot of names might ring a bell, if you remember your Asian History well enough.

Fact or fiction, I think a woman’s got to do what a woman’s got to do.


Review: Empress Orchid [2004]


Empress OrchidAuthor: Anchee Min
Year: 2004
Publisher: Bloomsbury

About (goodreads):

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.

I Say…

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”.