Lisa (Harmonybites)'s Reviews > Empress Orchid

Empress Orchid by Anchee Min
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bookshelves: fiction, historical-fiction, novels, ultimate-reading-list
Recommended to Lisa (Harmonybites) by: The Complete Idiot's Guide to the Ultimate Reading List
Recommended for: Those Interested in Chinese History

The author, Amchee Min, was born in Shanghai and came of age in China during the Cultural Revolution, and still visits there regularly. Being able to read Chinese, Min was able to extensively research her period using primary sources. I therefore trusted her depiction of late Ching dynasty China is fairly accurate. This novel is told as the first person account of China's infamous "Dowager Empress," Tzu Hsi aka Red Orchid, who came to the Forbidden City as one of the Emperor's brides when she was seventeen in 1853.

Min presents a sympathetic portrait of a woman that contemporary Chinese texts described as "a mastermind of pure evil and intrigue." It's a fascinating picture of a milieu of lavish riches, elaborate etiquette and byzantine court machinations, a world where Orchid is one of 3,000 concubines and power, even survival, is dependent upon alliances with eunuchs such as her "first attendant" An-te-hai. Her era was that of the Opium Wars and the Taiping Rebellion and she played a pivotal part in Chinese history.

I was riveted from the first page and through the first half or so of the book describing life in the palaces of the Forbidden City, and Min writes with a solid style, but I thought it later devolved into a romance novel. Ultimately I thought in trying to redeem this historical figure, Min whitewashes her a bit too much--and it's not that I've read any conflicting historical account of her. But reading between the lines, Orchid commits some ruthless, cruel acts. They're a bit breezily passed over in the novel as necessary to set an example or done against her will, but I wished Min had been more unflinching in her portrayal of the strong-willed woman who ruled China at the turn of the 20th Century.
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Reading Progress

May 26, 2011 – Started Reading
May 26, 2011 – Shelved
May 26, 2011 – Shelved as: fiction
May 26, 2011 – Shelved as: historical-fiction
May 26, 2011 – Shelved as: novels
May 26, 2011 – Shelved as: ultimate-reading-list
May 26, 2011 –
page 104
June 1, 2011 – Finished Reading

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