The Long Ascent to the Throne

Beijing’s Forbidden City is one of the most sacred royal halls in the world. It is also one of the most fabled and the most storied. In the present, it is one of the most visited tourist spots in the Chinese capital but it has a very long and colorful history that is pervaded by different personalities. Its grand palaces were once homes to the Emperor and to wife and concubines. The official seat of the Chinese Empire, it laid witness to many victorious returns. Beyond its grandiose facade, its long and cavernous halls echoes the painful screams of execution, witnesses to the harrowing passage of time. As scarlet as its fabled halls is the blood that they are bathed in.

The last Chinese monarch to hold residence in the grandiose Forbidden City is Empress Dowager Cixi whose story was captured by Anchee Min in her novel Empress Orchid. The ascent to the throne is a long and arduous journey. Young Manchu girl Orchid Yehonala’s story begun in the far flung village of Wuhu where her father was assigned as governor, a demotion resulting from his failure to temper the Taiping Revolution. His disappointment ate him, inevitably leading to his untimely demise and leaving Orchid, her mother and two siblings in destitution. To bury their father, they returned to Beijing, his birthplace.

After the burial rites, the family moved in with a distant relative who arranged for Orchid’s marriage to a cousin. The future looked bleak and the hopes of restoring some semblance of family honor started to drift further from Orchid’s reach. But just when everything seemed hopeless, a sliver of hope beckoned. The young Emperor Hsien Feng is a bachelor. With the pressure to produce an heir weighing on his shoulders, he issued a decree summoning young eligible women to converge in the Forbidden City for him to choose a suitable mate. The daughter of a “Blue Mannerman” and with Manchu kinship, Orchid is eligible to be the Emperor’s betrothed.

“I was happy not to be in his place. He could command my death, but not his. But then, what kind of power was his? He was a prisoner of himself.”  ~ Anchee Min, Empress Orchid

In intricate and rich details, Anchee Min carefully wove the complexities of the long and arduous process of mate selection for the Emperor during the reign of the Quing dynasty. As is the case in the prior dynasties, the kin of the ruling monarchy is the only choice for a suitable mate. This is to maintain the purity and the sanctity of the family’s lineage. In Chinese hierarchy, the Emperor is no mere ruler or figurehead. Considered to be the son of the Heaven, he is praised and glorified by his subjects.

In the context of Chinese nobility, mate selection doesn’t end with the selection of an Empress. Young suitable women don’t only vie for the seat of the Empress but they also compete to be chose as a royal consort. The designation sounds demeaning but it also means that the chosen candidates can live comfortably as they are rewarded the advantages the royal family partake of. Emperor Hsien Feng chose seven women to be the royal consorts, with Nuharoo pronounced as the Empress. Orchid, on the other hand, was chosen as the  Imperial consort of the fourth rank. She earned the official title “Lady of the Greatest Virtue”.

Competition is a reality that the royal consorts have to contend with every day of their royal lives; being selected as a royal consort is no guarantee. Once the elaborate fanfare is over, they also have to vie for the Emperor’s affections and a space in his bedchamber. They plan different schemes to gain his favor. With China’s patriarchal and hierarchical society, bearing the Emperor’s first son is the goal of every consort. The title of Empress is rendered useless if she doesn’t bear the heir apparent. This objectification of women is prevalent in the story with Empress Orchid ruminating, “I couldn’t imagine myself , any of them being the subject of an emperor’s passion.”

A strong sense of kinship flows through the veins of the Qing dynasty emperors. However, it goes beyond the search for a suitable mate. As exemplified by Emperor Hsien Feng’s predecessor, the strong sense of kinship plays a key role in the assignment of key government roles. They filled up senior official ranks with their relatives. Non-Manchu Chinese were relegated to ranks of very minute influences. They have to work hard to earn their places in the Emperor’s Hall.

“Like a singing river
You break out to flow freely
I am the mountain behind
Happily I watch you
Memory of us
Full and sweet” ~ Anchee Min, Empress Orchid

Leadership is a seminal subject that was underscored in the story of Empress Orchid. Emperor Hsien Feng ascended to the throne at a young age. Carrying the title “emperor”, on its own, places significant weight on bearer’s name. His lack of leadership skills and foresight was in stark dichotomy to Empress Orchid’s quick wittedness, percipience and elan. Behind the doors of the royal bedchamber, she effectively ruled the empire. On the emperor’s behalf, she wrote decrees and final judgments. She proved herself a capable leader in a government that was dominated by men.

Empress Orchid captured the daily life of an ordinary royal consort. It also explored some aspects of Chinese royal culture such as their patronage for the arts and their interest in the opera. Intricate and complex ceremonies form an integral part of royal life. There are rigid canons that must be adhered to lest they arouse the anger of their ancestors. Such ceremonial acts can be gleaned in the mate selection process, the marriage ceremonies, the first birthday of the first royal son, and the burial ceremonies.

On the backdrop of Empress Orchid‘s story is the vivid painting of the Forbidden City. Through Anchee Min’s powerful masterstrokes, she made the landscape of the royal complex come alive. She walked the readers through the elaborate labyrinth of the Chinese royal household, transporting them to a world beyond its restricted spaces. Forbidden City is a city within a city, a complex propped with grand palaces and royal halls; each royal consort has her own private palace. Punctuating the royal grounds are open spaces and tranquil gardens.

The opulent palaces mask a bloody past. A looming structure that has endured over six centuries of existence, its halls and chambers have heard the guttural screams of brutal and bloody execution. In its darkest corners linger ghosts and phantoms, echoing its long and painful history. Apart from the Forbidden City, Chinese history played a critical role in the narrative. The entrance and the interference of Western powers, and the subsequent decay of the monarchy were vividly captured by Anchee Min.

“Listen, this business is not about how one feels. It never was, is or will be. Such is the fate of a woman. You’ve got to make a dish with whatever you’ve got in the kitchen. You can’t dream only about the fresh vegetables in the market.” ~ Anchee Min, Empress Orchid

What propelled the narrative is Empress Orchid herself. She possesses a determination that is silent but echoes through the oblivion. She was brimming with acuity and tenacity. She is a go-getter who is filled with passion, and compassion. Her street savvy made her wise beyond her years. She has a keen understanding of how the world outside of the Forbidden City works. She is always clearheaded and is always a step ahead of those who plans to block her path. Despite this, it was not power or prestige that she perverts to. At the heart of it, she was driven by the need for survival.

Empress Orchid is an evocative portrayal of the young Empress Dowager Cixi. From her extensive researches and from the annals of history, Anchee Min’s impressionable writing and pleasurable storytelling painted a silently and subtly powerful image of the Empress Dowager. The Empress Dowager is a relatable character. She was the product of her time but she was also a stern and determined character who would have made an effective leader had she been born in a different time and city. But it was exactly these unfavorable circumstances that molded her character and turned her into the resolute woman that she was.

Ratings:

87%

Characters (30%) – 28%
Plot (30%) – 27%
Writing (25%) – 20%
Overall Impact (15%) – 12%

I think I was in grade five (or four) when I first heard of the Empress Dowager. While browsing through the glossy pages of an encyclopedia, I first encountered her. Juvenile curiosity didn’t, however, work for me that time and simply dismissed her. Who’d have thought that I’d encounter her again, nearly 20 years since our first encounter. Anchee Min wrote a vivid account of her story and her character, both what I imagined and what I had not imagined. I enjoyed the exploration of this part of Chinese history, the prelude to the downfall of the empire. I loved reading about the Empress Dowager, her humble beginnings and her ascent to the throne. I am considering reading the sequel to this book.

P.S. My high school research paper was about the rise and fall of empires.

Book Specs

Author: Anchee Min
Publisher: Bloomsbury
Publishing Date: 2005
Number of Pages: 336
Genre: Historical

Synopsis

To rescue her family from poverty and avoid marrying her slope-shouldered cousin, seventeen-year-old Orchid competes to be one of the Emperor’s wives. When she is chosen as a lower-ranking concubine, she enters the erotically charged and ritualised Forbidden City. But beneath its immaculate facade lie whispers of murders and ghosts, and the thousand of concubines will stoop to any lengths to bear the Emperor’s son. Orchid trains herself in the art of pleasuring a man, bribes her way into the royal bed, and seduces the monarch, drawing the attention of dangerous foes. Little does she know that China will collapse around her, and that she will be its last Empress.

About the Author

Anchee Min was born on January 4, 1957 in Shanghai, China to a pair of teachers.

When the Cultural Revolution begun, she was taken in as a member of the Little Red Guards at the age of nine. From 1974 to 1976, she was sent to work in a Red Fire collective farm near the East China Sea where she was forced to work for 18-hours everyday. While working at the farm, she was discovered by a talent scout from the Shanghai Film Studio. She won the lead role  in a propaganda film inspired by Madame Mao. The disgrace she received after the Mao Zedong’s death led her to depression.

After successfully obtaining a passport, she immigrated to the United States in 1984. She was nearly denied entry when it was learned that she did not speak English, contrary to what was placed in her visa application. She was allowed entry when she managed to convince the immigration officer. In 1985, she entered the School of the Art Institute of Chicago while working five jobs and learning English by watching Sesame Street. After six years, she earned her bachelor’s degree and masters of Fine Arts.

In 1994, she published her first work, Red Azalea, a memoir about her experience during the Cultural Revolution. It was cited as a New York Times Notable Book of the Year and won the Carl Sandburg Award. IN 1995, she published her first fictional work, Katherine. Her other works include Becoming Madame Mao (1999), Wild Ginger (2002), Empress Orchid (2004), The Last Empress (2007), and Pearl of China (2010).

She is currently married to fellow author Lloyd Lofthouse and is currently residing in California.