Stitch and Bear

A long-running Irish blog with reviews of the best restaurants in Dublin and throughout Ireland. Some wine and cocktails thrown in for good measure!

Monday, October 13, 2008

Empress Orchid - Anchee Min

Author: Anchee Min
Empress Orchid tells the tale of the early life of Empress Dowager Cixi, the last empress of China. She is a controversial figure, often blamed for the downfall of the Qing dynasty and Imperial China. It is somewhat accepted now that she may not have been as despotic as comtemporary press made her out to be, but she was definitely of a conservative and nationalistic political stance. Anchee Min's dramatisation of her early life is sympathetic, but even so, I still caught glimpses of a shrewd and determined operator.

Orchid enters the Forbidden City at a long age, having been selected through open competition to be a concubine and wife to the Emperor Hsien Feng. Her early time in the compound are filled with loneliness and desolation as she remains unselected for the Imperial bed. She begins to play the system, resulting in becoming a favourite of the emperor, bearing him a male heir, and gaining exposure to the political and foreign pressures faced by the emperor.

The book follows Orchid's life as the health of both the emperor and China itself decline. Orchid is forced to come into a more open role in order to secure the future of her son. We are treated to glimpses of a sympathetic, yet driven and manipulative character. Upon finishing the book, you aren't too sure who Orchid really was, whether she was truly a person capable of manouvers, or whether life in the Forbidden city had turned her into such a person.

This is an excellently colourful book, packed with descriptions of the costumes and courts of the era. However, it also captures the sense of decline and confusion that must have been rampant in the China of the time.

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