Sunday, 29 May 2011

Kim's Review : The Last Empress

The Last Empress continues the story of Empress Tzu Hsi from where it leaves off in Empress Orchid

5 year old Tsai Chun is anointed as Emperor Tung Chih with Empress Orchid and Chief Empress Nuharoo as regents. As he is too young to reign and Empress Nuharoo has no interest in world affairs, it is left to Empress Orchid to rule on her son's behalf. In this task, Empress Orchid depends a lot on her husband (Late Emperor Hsien Feng)'s brother - Prince Kung - to provide a rational voice in the increasingly polarised court. She also depends on the Han Chinese Generals Tseng Kuo-fan, Li Hung Chang and Yung Lu to relay the truth to her on matters concerning the country and its governance and in maintaining law and order, especially along the borders.

Tsai Chun is hence left to the care of tutors, eunuchs and an extremely indulgent Empress Nuharoo who lets him do as he pleases since (even though he is only 5) he is the Emperor of China. Without a firm hand to guide him, and with tutors too terrified of his tantrums to teach him, he grows into a rather callous and indolent youth.

Bored and constricted by the Forbidden City, he takes to visiting city brothels and dies at the age of 19 in 1875 of what was suspected to be an STD. He had barely ruled as Emperor for 2 years even though he enjoyed the title for 14.

Already reeling from the execution of her favourite eunuch An-te-hai, Empress Orchid lost the will to keep living. It is only with great difficulty that her new chief eunuch Li Lien-Ying nurses her back to health.

Since Emperor Tung Chih died without an heir, a new Emperor had to be chosen. But according to Chinese Imperial Family law, the successor to the throne could not be a member of the same generation as his predecessor. Finally, 3 year old Prince Tsai-t'ien, son of Prince Ch'un (Emperor Hsien Feng's brother) and Rong (Empress Orchid's sister) is chosen as Emperor Guang Hsu.

Disappointed with how Tsai Chun turned out and blaming his upbringing, Empress Orchid, vows to do a better and more involved effort with Guang Hsu.

Unfortunately, Empress Orchid soon has to deal with the deaths of her allies in coourt, the Taiping Rebellion, war with Japan, the Opium wars and the Boxer Rebellion. Add to this the Western nations that were publicly flaying her in the press, while chipping away at China's territory and demanding financial compensation for their defeats.

An announcement was made by the united Western powers, regarding the "spheres of influence in China". Germany & Russia had agreed that the entire Yangtze basin from Szechuan to the delta at Kiangsu was British. Britain agreed that Southern Canton & Southern Yunan were French. A belt from Kausu through Shensi, Shansi, Hunan & Shantung was German. Manchuria & Chihlu were Russian. The freedom-loving United States secured equal rights & opportunities for all nations in the leased areas & termed their attitude 'the open door policy'

Caught between opposing factions with the court, Ironhats, Manchu princes, Boxers, Peasant uprisings, foreign incursions, assassination attempts, Empress Orchid formidably still holds on to power until her death.

Achee Min's writing offers a fascinating insight into Chinese History and culture. The clearly unfair treatment of China by the Western powers is an indicator as to why relationships between these nations have never been completely mended. The kind of unjustified aggression and disastrous financial penalties imposed upon China by "outsiders" who refused to respect local customs and beliefs would definitely have sown deep seeds of mistrust which will take generations to repair.

Anchee Min acknowledges that her writing is fictionalised and some tales may not ring true with historians, but both these books have been a fascinating read and provided new insight into well established culture.

Rating: 4/5


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