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Anchee Min's second novel, "Empress Orchid" provides a new and opposing portrayal of a Chinese Empress who rose to power not by seduction, but by her forthrightness and intelligence.
Critically acclaimed author Anchee Min (Red Azalea, Katherine) brings her readers another vivid yet poignant portrait about one of China's most misconstrued heroines, Tsu Hsi, in her novel Empress Orchid. What seems to be at first another Cinderella story about a poor girl who is selected to enter the Forbidden City to become the fourth wife of the emperor, turns into a fascinating account of the psychological and emotional effects that can take hold on a woman who is willing to rebel against the stereotypical roles dictated to her, and who is instead determined to create her own destiny.
Orchid begins her life as the daughter of a governor of a small province in the Manchurian region of China. Unlike the upbringing of most young ladies during this time period, her parents never force her to learn about the protocol of how to 'act like a lady'. This freedom she is allowed in her youth fosters within her a sense of independence and determination, charateristics that grow stronger as she matures. Her idyllic youth is soon shattered when her father is relinquished from his position as governor and falls ill. With the medical bills slowly accumlating, her family soon finds itself poverty stricken. Unable to support the family after her husband's death, Orchid's mother moves everyone to Peking to live with her relatives.
After the move, Orchid is forced into the position of the family breadwinner when her mother's health also begins to dwindle. Her mother urges her to marry the mentally retarded son of her uncle so that they will be able to live off of his family, but she refuses and instead sees an opportunity when she hears that the newly anointed emperor is holding a pageant to choose wives for his reign. She soon finds herself entering the pageant to be selected as a concubine, and before she can even realize the type of life she is choosing for herself, she is carried off into the walls of the Forbidden City to begin her life as one of the Son of Heaven's concubines.
With her sharp use of imagery, Min creates a picture of the Forbidden City as a place that is highly ordered, tradition bound, ruled by strict etiquette, and overflowing with political and erotic tension. Min's heroine discovers to her shock and dismay that she is but one of hundreds of women vying for the attention of the Emperor. It is during this beginning stage of Orchid's life as a concubine, when she is sitting alone in the palace for months on end- her only human contact being with servants who are not allowed to speak to her- that the reader begins to understand how lonely and utterly confused this young teenage girl must have been with her new role in life.
Craving human companionship and finding herself wasting away in her inane life as a forgotten concubine, Orchid realizes she must take matters into her own hands. She trains herself in the art of pleasing a man, bribes her way into the royal bedchamber, and seduces the monarch. In an ironic twist, the emperor finds solace in his relationship with Orchid because of her forthrightness and lack of deference towards him. Unlike what most history books have written about this union, Min's novel portrays a genuine love and understanding between the two with no manipulation or deception on Orchid's part.
Min weaves an intricate balance between the inner conflicts of her protagonist, conveying to the reader that this is not a woman who is consumed by her desire for power, but a woman who becomes a figurehead of power by default. Unwilling to stand back while a power-crazed politician tries to eliminate her and her son after the death of the emperor, she deals out her own hand of fate. Defying the traditional rules of conduct for women, her behavior is considered malicious. But Orchid redefines for the country what the role of a female can and should be.
Even though the book is loaded with Chinese history, Min's casual writing style and the manner in which she sets up the history with the storyline makes the novel a fast read. It is an insightful view into the life of a woman who is constantly battling with her own inner turmoils as the world surrounding her contorts into a maze of contradictions that she must somehow overcome.
Much has been said in history books about Orchid's real life counterpart; how she is a woman who seized power through sexual seduction, murder, and endless intrigue. However, from start to finish, Min's portrayal of her heroine entices the reader to silently root for Empress Orchid. It is a compelling story about a flawed woman whose main struggle was not to hold on to power but to her own sanity and humanity.
Date Posted: 6/4/2004