Feb 1, 2016

Empress Orchid (1) - Anchee Min

Published in 2004, this is the first part of the historical novel that tells the biography of the last Empress of China, since her teenage years when she moved in to the Forbidden City as one of the concubines of Emperor Hsien Feng, until she becomes one of the Widows Empresses of the throne.

This story recreates all the torments and vicissitudes that Lady Yehonala had to cope with in a fierce competition among 3000 concubines, (not to mention, seven imperial consorts, including Nuharoo the first Empress of China), to win the affection and the protection of the Emperor.

A rivalry caused by the desire to give a descendant to the throne (the heir to the empire) and the struggle to survive in a chaotic and risky environment ruled by extreme measures that led to execution to anyone who dared commit the slightest indiscretion.

My score:

Nineteenth century, Orchid, daughter of former governor of the province of Wuhu in China; the family fell from grace once his father died, but thanks to her rank the young lady could run for the selection process of concubines, wives and consorts of the future emperor of the Qing Dynasty.

Overwhelmed by an urgent situation, a degrading poverty and an inequitable proposal, Orchid has no choice but to attempt to become one of the concubines of Emperor Hsien Feng. Thus her family would get free from the oppression of daunting relatives and she would become a member of the imperial family as well.

Once there, the Lady Yehonala (title she was given in the palace) had to get used to a completely new and strict lifestyle, even to the most banal act. This part of the book describes in detail the old-fashion way that prevailed in the palace, how each one was expected to behave according to their gender and rank in the hierarchy of the court. Everyday tasks such as using the toilet was witnessed by the closest lackeys. Exhaustive hours of grooming and elaborate headdresses assisted by eunuchs reflected a difficult and stressful chore.

The purpose of all concubines was therefore to catch the aloof Emperor’s attention and thereby emerge from the anonymity to take a place at court and in the kingdom. However, much to her dismay, all this long and meticulous preparation could become a test of endless patience, since not all of them managed to reach the desired position in the eyes of the emperor, for it was a complex task to stand out in a sea of concubines and wives consorts of the court, who as well made every effort to win the Emperor over and become his favorite. At times only bribery made it possible.

Once the title of Empress was reached, she was responsible of giving birth a child who perpetuated the lineage of the royal family. The responsibility was such that if a concubine failed she could be promptly executed.

This narrative whose invaluable historical content shows us how everyday life in Beijing's Forbidden City took place, the ancient customs of the empire and its inhabitants; occasionally turned out to be disturbing with its continuous violations of the human rights.

The sacrifices and renunciations of Empress Tzu Hsi to smooth the way for the future successor to the throne, and her efforts to keep surviving after the stampede and exile during the Opium War, show the courage, determination and intelligence of a woman who emerged of nowhere pushing her way through a maze full of deadly traps and concepts that borders on misogyny; to ascend to a position of leadership and influence in the decisions of the court; in contrast to her opponent who always played a purely decorative role, with no relevance.

The noble exercise of waiting was never my strong point, so I think the book narrates the events with a fair amount of frequency and duration; that is, the reader will never feel bored as it takes only ten minutes of reading for a surprising and decisive fact to come about. The interest is kept throughout the story maintaining the reader in suspense until the end.

No question I will go for the second part of the saga: The Last Empress!

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