Our volunteer Jade Barr is excited to bring to you her thoughts on one of the books in our library collection: Empress Orchid by Anchee Min —
Empress Orchid is the first of two books by Anchee Min chronicling the life of Empress Dowager Cixi from her childhood to the success of quelling the Xinyou Coup. A controversial figure, mostly maligned but later re-evaluated somewhat, the book is firmly sympathetic to her character and struggles. It paints the empress as a woman faced with little options and impossible choices, enduring a life of loss after loss after loss as China’s imperial age comes to a stuttering end.
As an author, Anchee Min cares deeply for history, talking in interviews about trawling through medical, accounting and police records, even using back doors to government guarded storerooms. And this shows in the book.
Life within the Forbidden City often came off as more pomp and pageantry than substance. Especially as the situation grew graver and graver and distractions grew ever more appealing than reality. And while the attention to detail, the focus given over to ceremonies and Buddhist rituals matches this atmosphere, it can sometimes work to the detriment of the tension. The number of dragons in certain halls is not that interesting and the splendour of the city is given enough attention elsewhere.
That said, Anchee Min takes great care in her writing and for the most part the weaving of the Empress Dowager’s love of opera and hobbies is seamlessly woven into the narrative alongside the dire political landscape and threats inherent to life within the Forbidden City. She has said that she wanted to counteract the misogyny that has for centuries laid the blame of China’s defeats at the feet of concubines and though her course correcting rings overzealous at times it is achieved here. To read Empress Orchid is to come away in awe at the Empress Dowager.
Compelled to read this book? It is available to lend in our library. Check out our catalog!
Our library is open every Wednesdays 12:00-19:00.
(refer to our EVENTS page for more details)
All are welcome to visit to explore the treasures in reading whilst enjoying some delicious teas.