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The Last Empress Hardcover – March 21, 2007
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Power is a here-today, gone-tomorrow concept in Chinese history, especially for women. In her previous novel, Empress Orchid, Anchee Min covered the first part of the life of Tzu Hsi, or Empress Orchid. Now, in The Last Empress, the empress is a widow, mother of the only male heir of the now-deceased emperor, and in a formidable position. Still, she must contend with palace intrigue on all fronts; even her eunuchs are bribed. She must put up with the smiling faces of men and women who mean her great harm, and, worst of all, her son takes up with prostitutes and dies of veneral disease. She adopts her nephew to be emperor, treats him like a son, and despairs of his weakness. Constant deceit is not the only difficulty which must be faced: incursions of foreigners and domestic rebellion are also part of this violent period at the end of the 19th century. There is the love-hate relationship with the Japanese, the Boxer Rebellion, and widespread mistrust of Western foreigners. Yet Empress Orchid believes that they must appease these factions in order to preserve the dynasty and the throne. All these problems converge to bring the Ch'ing Dynasty to its eventual demise.
A disclaimer: do not read The Last Empress as straight historical fact. Anchee Min makes no bones about the fact that her writing is meant to "rehabilitate" crucial female figures in Chinese history. Whichever account of Tzu Hsi is correct, the historical tradition that she was an overbearing harridan, selfish, greedy, and bloodthirsty or Min's portrayal of her as a loving mother, trying to protect her country and longing to step down but prevented from doing so by her wishy-washy son, The Last Empress is an endlessly interesting look at palace life, that hermetically sealed world that once existed in China. --Valerie Ryan
From Publishers Weekly
Min's Empress Orchid tracked the concubine Orchid's path to becoming Empress Dowager Tzu Hsi; this revisionist look at her long years behind her son Tung Chih's throne (1863–1908) won't disappoint Orchid's fans. Recounted through Tzu Hsi's first-person, the early chapters encompass her trials as a young "widow," as co-regent with the late emperor's wife and as a mother. An engaging domestic drama gives way to pedestrian political history; Tzu Hsi lectures like a popular historian on palace intrigue, military coups, the Boxer Rebellion and conflicts with Russia, France and Japan. Though tears flow, there is little passion (save Tzu Hsi's erotic but chaste longing for Yung Lu, commander of the emperor's troops). Min's empress adopts a notably modern psychologizing tone ("How much was Guang-hsu affected when he was wrenched from the family nest?"), earthy language ("You are the most wretched fucking demon I know!") and notes of historical prescience (including what "future critics" will say). Min attacks the popular conception of Tzu Hsi as a corrupt, ruthless, power-hungry assassin, but the results read less like a novel than a didactic memoir. (Mar.)
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In Min's version, the empress navigates between competing conservative and reform forces as well as the demands of foreign powers. During much of her reign, China is beset by foreign demands, attacks and wars from Great Britain, France, Germany, the US, and perhaps most ominously, Japan. China is repeatedly forced to grant trade and territorial concessions. China's economy is feeble and its military archaic and ineffectual.
Through it all, in Min's telling, the empress only wants her sons to take the levers of power so that she can fade into the background. Neither is remotely capable of doing so. Someone in the imperial family has to rule and the empress reluctantly gathers the reins to herself. She gradually becomes politically adept at deflecting her enemies and supporting her allies.
Her ability to rule, however, is severely hampered because she is a woman but, even if she wasn't the Manchu are absurdly isolated and weak. They almost never leave the Forbidden City and know very little about the country they rule, let alone the outside world.Late in the book, the empress holds a dinner for the wives of foreign ambassadors, but she sits on a dais without being able to speak a single word to any of them. Nonetheless, this occasion is regarded as a great step forward. Tradition denies her a meeting with China's great friend, Robert Hart until they are both near the end of their careers and lives.
Min's work is no doubt a strong corrective to the previously held view of the empress as a cunning, blood-thirsty, perhaps drug-addled, sex fiend and ruthless tyrant. Whether the empress was really as reluctant to rule as Min portrays her or not, the portrait of her as a ruler in extraordinarily difficult and isolated circumstances forced to exercise her often limited powers through indirection seems highly plausible.
The real problem with The Last Empress book, however, was that the central actors are all tedious, shallow, and tiresome, while nearly all of the really interesting action takes place off-stage, whether it is war with Japan or the Boxer Rebellion. The empress knows little of the details of these events and consequently, neither does the reader. The Manchu dynasty is an out-of-touch empty shell, China will be dominated by outsiders, and whether the empress rules or one of a succession of pretenders makes no difference. The endless court intrigue, the empress' obsession with her appearance becomes tedious. And it is hard to empathize with the worldly sufferings of a woman who is after all an empress. One wonders whether there has ever been a less important ruler over such a long period.
The total result is only moderately interesting and a disappointment after Empress Orchid, which seemed to set the stage for a much more compelling sequel.
To think that Cixi learnt sexual skills in a brothel is ludicrous and insulting to the subject.
Cixi's sister was not called Rong. For someone who purports to have researched the topic, such a basic error is inexcusable. Her brother did not achieve imperial ministerial rank. In fact, he achieved no rank at all and played no part in the Qing government. Li Lien Ying was not employed until years after Cixi became Empress Dowager. Cixi was not the imperial favorite. A different lady named Li Fei was. Cixi's son was not called Tung Chih (which was his honorific title) but Zai Chun. Cixi's father did not die before she entered the palace as the emperor's concubine.
The Pearl Concubine did not commit suicide but was drowned on Cixi's orders. These sorts of historical mistakes are inexcusable even for fiction. Cixi's story is too well known - at least to Sinologists and Chinese people. The prose is too girlish.
Revisionist history is all well and fine but the main character in Anchee Min's books bears little resemblance to the real Empress Dowager Cixi. She also does not did not do her research on the cultural practices of the Qing imperial family. Perhaps Ms Min might have done better if she had read Sterling Seagrave and Evelyn Rawski.
"It was not a good time to enter the Forbidden City," writes Anchee Min in "The Last Empress," evoking the intrigue and opulence of 19th century China while telling the story of its improbably dominant ruler. "[T]he consequences of a misstep were often deadly."
Orchid did not misstep. Starting at a low rank among the hundreds of concubines, she gradually befriended the eunuchs who ran the palace, then bribed her way into a tryst with the young emperor. They had one nocturnal encounter. She became pregnant and gave birth to a boy -- the first male heir to the throne. For Orchid, it was the equivalent of hitting the jackpot.
Yet she did not stop there. When the emperor died unexpectedly a few years later, Orchid vied to become regent for her son, the new emperor-to-be, until he came of age. She created secret alliances, outfoxed the leading minister and had him publicly beheaded. In the years that followed, Orchid bested every rival who came along, including her co-regent, her emperor son and her emperor nephew, each of whom died in mysterious circumstances. Incredibly, in a culture that generally subjugated women, Orchid ruled China for 47 years. She died in 1908.
Empress Dowager Tzu Hsi, as Orchid was formally known, is a standout even in the impressive pantheon of Chinese history. A political reactionary who blocked reform in an era that desperately needed it, she has been reviled by historians for her stubborn adherence to traditional ways, a recalcitrance that hastened the collapse of China's imperial system. Her staunch secrecy made her the subject of wild rumors about bloodthirsty killings and voracious sexual appetite. What actually happened inside the walls of the Forbidden City in her day will never fully be known, yet Orchid's ability to hold on to power suggests that, at the very least, she was one wily politician.
In "The Last Empress," Min takes a provocative view, offering a sympathetic portrait of Orchid as a selfless woman striving to hold together a fractured nation. Orchid narrates the tale and is presented as kindhearted and uninterested in power but constantly forced to fend off the venal and small-minded noblemen of the Manchu court.
"The Last Empress" is the second volume in Min's story, continuing where she left off with "Empress Orchid" (2004). In that earlier book, Min crafted a taut narrative that followed Orchid as she grew from a naive young woman into a capable and conscientious empress. The storytelling was absorbing, and Min used historical events and sensuous, textured descriptions of China to set the scene well.
This time, unfortunately, it is not a convincing portrayal. "The Last Empress" progressively loses coherence as Orchid rises in authority. When those around her fall away, she laments in not-too-believable fashion, nor do her justifications for seizing power at critical junctures ring true. Her personality is not particularly engaging, and secondary characters -- particularly her legendary top eunuchs, An-te-hai and Li Lien-ying -- are (contrary to all historical evidence) disappointingly dull.
As in her earlier book, Min effectively employs historical detail to enrich the narrative. The scarcity of firewood in Peking one winter, for example, inspires a description of the cold, noxious hallways of the palace, smoky from the burning of raw green wood. The Taiping Rebellion, war with Japan and the Boxer Rebellion serve as dramatic backdrops for Orchid's personal odyssey. It would have been far more interesting, though, if the author had conveyed the inevitable conflict of ambition and doubt within Orchid herself, as she struggled to master diplomacy and court politics. Instead, Min gives us a good-hearted woman who responds to each crisis by trying to do the right thing. Yawn.
One cannot help but ponder Min's motivations in creating this anodyne portrait. At first I wondered whether she might be succumbing to the common hankering for a benevolent dictator. After all, in every culture there are those who yearn for a powerful leader unfettered by bureaucracies or elections, who makes political decisions that are genuinely in the national interest. It is a perennial fantasy. Yet as I read, I came to think that Min was impelled by something more personal. Her first book, the memoir "Red Azalea," beautifully captured her own fiery personality as an artistic rebel who hated to be told what to think and was singularly ill-suited to live under the totalitarian rule of China's Cultural Revolution. Min now takes a historical character, reviled in the schoolbooks of Communist China as "a mastermind of pure evil and intrigue," and presents her as a loving and generous soul. Min has said in interviews that she identifies with the Empress Dowager as a strong, independent-minded woman determined to beat the odds and that she wanted to rewrite the "lies" told by the Communists. They are indeed world-class liars, and they deserve to be challenged on history. But doing so effectively requires a more compelling and credible story.
Min herself has certainly beaten the odds, arriving in the United States in 1984 as a 27-year-old who did not speak English. Since then, she has emerged as a talented and widely acclaimed novelist in her adopted language, a remarkable feat. She is an evocative, bold writer who seems eager to take on a broad canvas. This effort is disappointing. But I suspect, and hope, that we will be hearing from her again.