Feb 7, 2016

The Last Empress (2) - Anchee Min

2007, second part of the novel that chronicles the period of activity of the Empress Tzu Hsi in the Forbidden City; the saga continues from the moment Lady Yehonala and her counterpart the Empress Nuharoo assume the power of the empire, until her passing at the age of 72.

The sequel describes the most tragic and political events in history, Orchid must endure her loved ones’ deaths and get on governing with the shrewdness and the skill of a juggler so the empire does not collapse.

Her son’s erratic behavior, his apathy towards Chinese people and their political conflicts, and to top it all, the total indifference toward his mother, sum up the most excruciating sufferings in Orchid’s life; not to mention that in return the Empress had to give up the love of her life.

My score:

The book starts out with a devastating misfortune for the protagonist, which keeps the reader hooked for a while. Plus, the complicated relationship between Orchid and her son, who is being brought up by both empresses, this shared parenting will cause all sorts of difficulties that will be reflected in subsequent chapters, which altogether constitute only a prelude to the tragedy.

In this part of the story it is clearly shown the chaotic failures that bring about the succession of a throne that is granted to a new governor by inheritance rather than by his merits. Although this condition has already been overcome in many societies around the world, it is still prevalent in many social circles with similar results. Well, from now on disaster will happen one after another, a series of catastrophic events product of inexperience and lack of proper education, political skill and above all patriotism for one’s land; because to govern a nation the candidate must be able to meet the minimum standards.

Betrayal is one of the most poignant elements of the sequel (as if it hadn’t been enough with the first book), the trust the Empress puts on several of the characters only brings her disappointment and sadness. Sunk into a deep loneliness and resentment she barely succeeds in burying her loved ones. At this point it is understandable our heroine’s frustration and feelings. The impunity and the impudence that some characters get away with it is downright unbearable, especially considering that this story is presented as a collection of historical facts rather than as product of a writer’s invention.

It is worth mentioning that all these deaths and political disturbances in China’s twentieth century were attributed to the alleged widow Empress Tzu-Hsi wickedness and inability to govern, as she struggled to defend the empire from her most bitter enemy at court. Hence, this book seeks to reclaim her image and show the Empress as a more sensitive and humane person. At this stage it’s hard to determine what her real personality is and what her intentions, but it is certainly understandable that a person subject to treason, to the regiment of a court, to riots and invasions into her territory; makes decisions that are certainly not going to please everyone's interests.

With no reasons to keep on living the Lady Yehonala strives to prolong the existence of a governmental system despite the fact that it has been freefalling for generations into a disastrous and inevitable end. Depending on how you look at it, it is perhaps something to admire how someone who has lost everything still has the strength and spirit to defend a power that was already hopeless.

As it often happens in many biographies, the second part shows the tragedy, the loss, the cost of mistakes and the fall of the empire; gone are the romance, the festivals, the opera and the theater. I enjoyed Empress Orchid more than its sequel, perhaps because the arguments and political clashes followed one another throughout the second part of the story more frequently than in the first; relentless tension in this sequence comes to excess. Administrative disputes took more than half of the book which turns the story into an essentially historical narration; not that I do not find historical facts interesting but taking into account this book is about the biography of the Empress and not about the Empire per se I expected to get more personal details of her life as I did in the first book.

Finally, after having finished this book I recommend the reader to watch the movie 'The Last Emperor' which happens to be a sequel that shows the subsequent facts showing the resounding and conclusive fall endured by the empire during the period of the successor of Guang-hsu.

The Last Empress (2) - Anchee Min 

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