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The Last Empress Hardcover – March 21, 2007

3.9 out of 5 stars 88 customer reviews
Book 2 of 2 in the Empress Orchid Series

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Editorial Reviews

Amazon.com Review

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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Product Details

  • Hardcover: 320 pages
  • Publisher: Houghton Mifflin Harcourt; First Edition edition (March 21, 2007)
  • Language: English
  • ISBN-10: 0618531467
  • ISBN-13: 978-0618531462
  • Product Dimensions: 6 x 0.8 x 9 inches
  • Shipping Weight: 1.2 pounds
  • Average Customer Review: 3.9 out of 5 stars  See all reviews (88 customer reviews)
  • Amazon Best Sellers Rank: #1,380,991 in Books (See Top 100 in Books)

Customer Reviews

Top Customer Reviews

By Seth Faison on March 25, 2007
Format: Hardcover
The story here is pretty riveting: In 1852, a delicate-looking young woman from southern China joined a select new crop of imperial concubines in Peking. Known as Orchid, she was thrust forward by her parents, who were willing to gamble their 17-year-old daughter's well-being for a chance to get her inside the palace, known as the Forbidden City for its restrictive rules and clandestine manners.

"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.
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Format: Hardcover
In much the same way Su Tong presented imperial life in MY LIFE AS EMPEROR, Anchee Min in THE LAST EMPRESS gives the lie to Mel Brooks's oft-cited, tongue-in-cheek remark in the movie "History of the World, Part I" that "It's good to be king!" In this sequel to EMPRESS ORCHID, Ms. Min continues her novelistic, and novel, retelling of the life of Lady Yehonala, the imperial concubine who rose to become (Dowager) Empress Tsu Hsi.

Known now in the modern English (pinyin) transliteration as Ci Xi, the last Empress of China has long been reviled in China as the Dragon Lady. Portrayed as the manipulative power behind the throne of the last four Emperors of China (her husband and then her own son, followed by a nephew and finally by the infamously impotent Pu Yi), Ci Xi has been portrayed in official Chinese history as evil, power-crazed, and the proximate cause of imperial China's downfall. THE LAST EMPRESS tackles Ci Xi's life from a quite different angle. Based on extensive research Ms. Min conducted in Beijing's archives, she portrays the Dragon Lady as an empathetic figure, a loving wife and perhaps misguided mother, a woman who yearned to be released from the bondage of imperial rule over a nation in rapid decline but for the lack of intellectual capacity and political competence of her husband's successors. Thus, we are presented with an "Empress in handcuffs," chained to her position of power and wealth by the exigencies of China's late 19th Century moment.

For readers like myself not deeply schooled in Chinese imperial history, it is difficult to assess the historical veracity of Ms. Min's interpretation.
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Format: Paperback
In this sequel to Empress Orchid, Anchee Min continues her revisionist portrait of the Lady Yehonala, aka, Tzu Hsi, Ci Xi, the Dowager Empress, and the Dragon Lady. Min portrays the Empress as a reluctant ruler who worked the levers of power indirectly through her emperor sons Tung Chih and Guang Hsu (who was actually the son of her deranged sister) as well as various Manchu princes and generals.

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.
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