Wednesday, February 4, 2009

Empress Orchid by Ann Chee Min

I wish that I'd read this book before visiting the Forbidden City in Beijing because Anchee Min definitely breathes life into GIGANTIC, dusty and rather grey (and red) 600 over year old tourist spot!

"Empress Orchid" traces the humble beginnings of Ci Xi (Tzu Hsi) or the Empress Dowager when she first steps into the Forbidden City as one of Emperor Hsien Feng's lucky 7 wives.

Coming from a poor but pedigreed background, Orchid had never dreamed of ever becoming one of the Emperor's 3,000 over concubines let alone an Empress!

However, the thought of marrying her mentally disabled cousin to settle her family's debts, Orchid chances upon the imperial announcement for young ladies from good Machu backgrounds to try their luck at becoming one of the Emperor's ladies of the night.

Although her good friend, Big Sister Fann, one of the late Empress' handmaid thought Orchid didn't stand a chance (7 out of 200 out of 5,000), she decided to take that chance in hell and succeeded!

Armed with her background knowledge of the imperial family, intuition and fiery personality, Orchid catches the Emperor's eye and the Grand Empress' dislike.

A loyal eunuch, An-te-hai, guides her through the highly "bitchy", structured and complicated world of the Forbidden City where she gives birth to the only male heir to the Ch'ing dynasty and befriends THE Empress, Lady Nuharoo, who are both instrumental in her rise to power.

Although the blurb says that Orchid "trains herself in the art of pleasuring a man" Annchee Min's narrative depict a situation where her brain and her personality actually maintained the Emperor's interest and loyalty to her. Was Ci Xi a beauty with brains?

With Ci Xi and his half-brother, Prince Kung (or Gong) at his side, I felt that the Emperor Hsien Feng would have been able to rise above the foreign attacks and the court battles that close in on China around that time. Sadly, his pessimism and sense of hopelessness made him give up...

Or maybe it was the pressure of having to surpass his father's feat of visiting his 3,000 concubines in the quest of producing thousands and thousands of children!

About AnnChee Min
I really enjoyed reading "Empress Orchid" because Annchee Min (a Shanghainese who was a child model member of the Red Guard and star of Chinese propaganda movies during the Cultural Revolution) deftly weaves in historical facts as she tells this intriguing narrative through the eyes of Ci Xi herself.

What sets "Empress Orchid" apart from other books on the Empress Dowager is that this "fiction-like" book is based on "real people". In the author's note, Anchee Min states that:
"I tried my best to keep the events the way they were in history. I translated the decrees, edicts and poems from the original documents. Whenever there were differences in interpretation, I based my judgement on my research and overall perspective."

What could be more exciting than a research-based romance? It's such an exciting read that I grabbed every spare minute I had during Chinese New Year to devour the book and now, the better half's booked it for the next reading!

"Empress Orchid" was an easier read compared to Marina Warner's "The Dragon Empress" although I liked the black and white photographs Warner included in her biography to show the reader what Ci Xi looked like in person.

After reading the book, I wonder if "Empress Orchid" will be made into a movie? Would Zhang Yimou venture to take this on and have his favourite starlet (the now Singaporean) Gong Li take the lead role???

I can't think of anyone else more suited for this beautiful, creative, intelligent and multifaceted character as portrayed by Min.

Interestingly, as I re-read "The Dragon Empress", Marina Warner's Note on Rereading "The Dragon Empress" also mentioned that that she had also thought of Zhang Yimou's 1991 movie "Raise the Red Lantern", which featured Gong Li arriving as a young concubine at a rich man's house.

When I read "Empress Orchid", I couldn't help thinking of "Raise the Red Lantern" either because the hypocrisy, scheming and betrayals all for ONE man's attention reminded me so much of Orchid's experiences in the Forbidden City with the Empress and the other concubines.

Sigh, I'd give anything for another chance to visit The Forbidden City to explore the various palaces and halls, which we'd skip our first time there...

I can't wait to get my hands on "The Last Empress" to see how her friendship with the now Chief Eunuch An-te-hai blossoms and of course, the suppressed romance between Ci Xi and General Yung Lu develops :-)

What are you waiting for? Grab a copy of "Empress Orchid" and "The Last Empress" by AnnChee Min or "The Dragon Empress" by Marina Warner now! 

No time to read? Then, watch "Raise the Red Lantern" :D

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