Friday, July 27, 2012

Empress Orchid

Empress Orchid is a 2004 fictional novel by Anchee Min on the life of Dowager Empress Cixi from her humble beginnings her rise as Empress Dowager.

The novel begins with the death of a Manchu blue bannerman of the Yehonara clan, the Commissioner of Anhui Province. After his death, his widow and their three children move to Peking where they are taken in by his Brother. His eldest daughter, Orchid, takes a job with the wife of a Eunuch, Sister Feng, to help keep her family afloat. Along with work, Orchid gains an inside look into the Forbidden City and the story of the suicide of Empress Xiaoquancheng. It is also sister Feng who suggests that Orchid enter in the selection process to become an Imperial Consort to Xiaoquancheng's son, Emperor Xianfeng.

Orchid is created Imperial Consort Yehonara of the Fifth Rank. Xianfeng selects, or morely his foster Mother, Imperial Noble Dowager Consort Kangci, Niuhuru as his official Empress. Yehonara lives a life of opulence in the Forbidden City but beneath the splendor of it all, her life is marred by extreme boredom. Without the Emperor's favor, she is slowly slipping into obscurity. With the help of her loyal eunuch, An De Hai, she bribes Head Eunuch Shim into procuring a night in the Emperor's bed and spends her time preparing for that night learning the art of seduction in a brothel. When the Emperor finally calls her, it is Orchid's bold personality that wins Xianfeng's affections.

While Xianfeng opens up his heart to Orchid, he also opens up on the sorry state of China. Taxed by foreign powers, China has become an empty shell of its former glory. Exhausted by the demands of the western "barbarians", Xianfeng begins to seek Yehonara's advice on what to do. Yehonara takes her first steps into  the deadly world of court politics.

In 1855, Imperial Consort Yehonara becomes pregnant. Despite attempts by other concubines to cause Yehonara a miscarriage, she safely delivers a healthy baby boy on Apirl 27, 1856. She is raised to the title of Noble Consort making her second only to Empress Niuhuru. After the birth of his son, Emperor Xianfeng loses interest in Orchid, something that happens in part due to Nuihuru.

The Emperor grows ill as the political situation in China worsens. The Westerners begin demanding that he open more ports for trade with the West and when the Emperor refuses their request, they take up arms and invade China. Unable to protect his empire or his family, Xianfeng and the court flee Peking. He dies while in exile. As he lays dying, Xianfeng names his son as the heir to the throne and gives him the name "Tongzhi", playing Orchid and Niuhuru on the regency council with his advisor Su shun at its head.

Differences between Orchid, now created Empress Cixi, and Su shun were made obvious to all even while the Emperor was alive. Now that Xianfeng is dead the two duke it out for control over the Regency Council, coming to a head with Su shun attempting to assassinated the two Empresses. They are saved by the dashing Ronglu and with the help of the Xianfeng's brother, Prince Gong, they arrest Su shun and have him arrested for attempting to stage a coup d'etat.

As the book comes to its end, Xianfeng is buried in Peking and Orchid comes to terms with her feelings for Ronglu, realizing that they can never be together.

I give this book 4.5/5. Let me start off by saying that this is the first book that I have reviewed that I listened to as an audiobook so I had the experience of listening to Alexandra O'Karma for over 18 hours (Seeing as the car ride from Edmonton to Jasper is roughly 5 hours, I decided why not?). She has a good speaking voice and does a wonderful job at differentiating between the character. One thing that you should be aware of if you decide to listen to the audiobook is that you are able to hear O'Karma lick her lips several times in the recording. I understand that reading an entire book that your lips would be a little dry, however, the editing staff should have done a better job on that because at times it was quite unnerving.  
If there is one big con to listening to it versus reading it, it's that you have no idea how to write the names of the characters (which is essential if you intend to write a review on the book). Not only that but Anchee Min use a different spelling with the names so I had an incredibly fun time looking for their wikipedia articles. For example: The character of Yonglu, as is spelled in the novel, is in reality better known as Ronglu. How do you get one from the other, I have no idea so you can understand it was a nightmare to do.
Anchee Min's writing is fabulous and she does an amazing job of telling the story. I did notice that she put quite a few poems in the book - not that it takes away from the writing but it is something that I did notice. The thing I had to penalize Min on were the inaccuracies I found in the novel and there were quite a bit i.e. In the novel, Kurun Princess Rong'an's Mother, Consort Li, commits suicide after an attempt on Cixi's life but if you know anything about the Qing Dynasty (or read the wikipedia article) then you will know that she died in the fifties of an illness. It's the one thing I can criticize in an otherwise good book. 
Anyone who knows anything about Cixi is that she is most often portrayed as a ruthless, mastermind that will do anything to achieve and maintain power so this book is a very, very very sympathetic account of her life. But "Empress Orchid" was my first look into the controversial character that was Dowager Empress Cixi and it does leave an impression in my mind that Cixi wasn't just this heartless enigma but rather a human being with human emotions. 

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