Monday, 23 May 2011

Kim's Review: Empress Orchid

Orchid Yehonala is a 17 year old forced to support her impoverished family after her father died. Her only saving grace - she is of Manchu blood andher Father before he died was above the rank of Blue Bannerman. Forced into a corner by an uncle who provides the roof over their heads but now wants Orchid to marry his son, she comes across an edict that every Manchu girl between 13-17 must present herself among the women whom the Emperor will choose his wives and concubines from.

The Chinese Emperor's polygamy is very different from the polygamy practiced by the Indian Kings and princes. While in India, a royal marriage was often to improve political and financial relations, in China, the purpose is only to procreate. Only a son of the Manchu Emperor and a Manchu woman can occupy the Emperors throne and hence the Chinese Emperor has a one-time ceremony in which he chooses 7 wives (1 main Empress, 6 minor wives) and as many concubines as he desires.

Orchid is fortunate to be chosen as an Imperial Consort of the 4th rank, who then becomes the mother of Emperor Hsien Feng's only son, thus raising her status to Empress Tzu Hsi.

Empress Tzu Hsi has been widely reviled in history, mostly due to the writings of biased European journalists who found themselves in China during the tumultuous changes of the 20th century. Sir Edmund Backhouse was incredibly vicious and claimed to have been extremely close to the Empress.In 1974, he was revealed to be a counterfeiter who had never even entered the Forbidden City. But the damage in the foreign press and at Oxford had already been done with multiple repercussions.

Anchee Min in her 2 books about Orchid Yehonala tries to set the record straight and put the events of those years in perspective from the Empresse's perspective.

Empress Orchid is a gripping tale, especially as it is mostly factual and hence a fascinating introduction into the Imperial Chinese court and its functioning within the Forbidden City.

Everything is governed by rules and rituals. Eunuchs wield enormous power. The Manchu's (5 million population) rule the roost in court, even though they seem to have lost touch with reality. The Chinese Han (395 million population) are more in touch with ground reality and have experienced the harsh truths of the world outside the Forbidden City, but are ignored within the court, in a kind of Apartheid.

The Emperors wives and consorts conspire to gain the Emperors attention and to sustain it once gained. But those who take up too much of his time and interest are punished for that by the Grand Empress (Queen Mother)

Empress Orchid, deals with Orchids early troubles, before she is chosen as an imperial consort. Once chosen, the lonely nights she spends while trying desperately tries to get the Emperor to choose her for the night, how her intelligence and forthrightness evokes a kind of trust, her difficult pregnancy before she becomes the mother of his only son.

Until this point, the novel talks mostly about her, her feelings, her attempts, her fears and hopes for herself. Once she becomes the mother of a child - Guang Hsu, it is then that she begins to look at the larger picture. She starts to help the Emperor with court documents and taking an interest in International affairs given the threats at their doorstep, and her anxiety about the China her son will inherit.

However as the foreign invasions continue, the Emperor and his family are forced to abdicate to Jehol where Emperor Hsien Feng succumbs to his illnesses of body and spirit. As Guang Hsu is very young at the time of his passing, a powerful court official Su Shun tries a coup. But Empress Orchid uses every tactic she knows and presses every contact she knows, to prevent this from happenning and places Tsai Chun on the throne as Emperor Tung Chih with herself and Chief Empress Nuharoo as regents

The book ends with the 5 year old Emperor Tung Chih and his court returning to the Forbidden City and the proper burial ceremonies for Emperor Hsien Feng who died when barely 30 years old.

It was a good change to read Chinese History from this perspective. There is always more than one side to a story and it is important that a tale like this is told and read and acknowledged. It gives insight and perspective into future actions and reactions.

I can't wait to start The Last Empress which deals with the 2nd part of Empress Orchid's life and one in which she takes a prominent political role.

Rating: 4/5

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