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April 9, 2013 / ljbradburn-Smith

Empress Orchid

Empress Orchid

by Anchee Min is a delectable feast for the mind. Orchid, a young Manchu girl, competes to become one of Emperor Hsein Feng’s wives in the hope to improve the life of her struggling family after her father’s death. She is chosen as an imperial consort, of the fourth rank, and leaves her family home to live within the walls of the Forbidden City, which is riddled with beauty, jealousy and political rivalries.

Orchid soon realises that being one of the Emperor’s wives is not as interesting or rewarding as it sounds and resolves to do something to stand out from her competition and save herself from the unbearable loneliness that she feels. With the help of her trusty eunuch and sidekick, An-te-hai, she goes about bribing and seducing her way in to the royal bed, which leads to her becoming the Emperor’s favourite wife, confidante and secret political advisor. That’s some impressive bedroom skills!

This novel is based on the life of the late Empress Dowager Cixi, who challenged the traditional role of a royal woman and unofficially ruled the Manchu Quing Dynasty for 47 years between 1861 and 1908. Despite successfully running the dynasty, for many years, after its collapse Cixi’s reputation took a battering as she was labelled, amongst other things, as financially frivolous, mentally disturbed and as being the root cause of the fall.

Anchee challenges this view of Empress Cixi and instead of villanising her, as the male version of history has done for so long, she gives Cixi a voice and gives the reader a strong heroine, in Orchid, who possesses both integrity and strength of character. Through her retelling of history Anchee taught me about a world that I had never glimpsed before and allowed me to immerse myself in another culture. It wasn’t a quick read (and I don’t only mean that I have had it on loan for about 3 years – sorry Lou!) but the density of the subject matter meant that I had to be in a mood to concentrate when reading this novel so that I took it all in.

Anchee’s descriptions are so rich and vibrant that I not only felt like I could visualise the Forbidden City but that I could feel the gentle breeze of the exquisite gardens and touch the luxurious fabrics, of the royal finery. Anchee does not only depict the beauty of this world in her imagery but also, through exploring and pushing the boundaries of language, the vulgarity of life in the Forbidden City. This contrast of the beauty and the beastly could be representative of Anchee’s aim to tell Cixi’s side of the story and what she believes to be the revelation of the true role that Cixi played in a society in which she refused to be suppressed or corrupted despite the opposition she faced.

Anchee’s writing not only appeals to the physical senses of the reader, by escaping the confines of its pages, but also perfectly captures Orchid’s personal struggle to unravel the intricate web of untruths, rivalry and manipulation, that exists in the Royal City, as she fights for the future of China.

An unusual and brave book – If this novel was a colour it would be gold, if it was a food it would be an extravagant banquet and if it was a trait it would be pride.

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3 Comments

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  1. Bookworm / Jan 6 2014 6:49 am

    I was happily surprised to see that you had read Empress Orchid via your ‘My year in books- 2013’ post. Simply because I haven’t come across anyone else who’s read it (and I read it many years ago). I didn’t remember much about it apart from the fact I liked it but your review has reminded me of just how strong the imagery was and how the plot really captured the overall feel of that period. Thus, I have to agree with you and share your appreciation of this book!

    • ljbradburn / Jan 19 2014 9:21 pm

      Thank you 🙂 Glad you enjoyed the review. It is a beautiful book isn’t it! Have you read the second one? I have it on my ‘to read’ shelf 🙂 x

      • Bookworm / Feb 6 2014 2:48 pm

        I didn’t know there was a second one. Will have to get my hands on it asap! I hope it’s as good as the first x

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