The last empress of China

The Guardian


Cixi, The last empress of China from 1856 to 1908, is one of those historical figures people love to be nasty about. Soon after her death, Edmund Blackhouse, a charlatan foreign correspondent, forged Chinese court documents portraying her as a psychopathic nymphomaniac; ever since, Cixi’s many western biographers have gleefully wallowed in allegations of her badness: her extravagance, her conservatism (she crushed the westernising reform movement of 1898), her ruthless disposal of inconvenient political opponents. This very partial version of events swallows whole the Confucian Chinese male view of history, which, wherever possible, deflects blame for monumental historical catastrophes — such as the collapse of the Qing dynasty in 1911 — on to women. But the tide of opinion now seems to be turning for the last empress. Last year, Chinese television aired a hit drama series about the last years of the Qing dynasty, in which viewers were flabbergasted to see Cixi portrayed as “a nice person”. Empress Orchid is further, a feminist step on the road to her rehabilitation. Written by a woman, narrated by Cixi herself, the novel turns the last empress into a dignified, discreet sovereign, holding her country together in the face of foreign invasion, dissolute emperors and scheming courtiers. Born into a declining family in 1835, the 16-year-old Cixi travels to Beijing with her widowed mother, brother and sister. There they are sheltered by Cixi’s uncle until she restores the family’s fortunes by being selected as one of Emperor Hsien Feng’s legion of concubines. Once received into the Forbidden City, however, she is ignored by the emperor — who, after all, has several thousand other consorts to occupy him. Thus neglected, she is left to contemplate the life choices open to imperial concubines: allow yourself to be forgotten and grow old torturing coital moths (a traditional concubine amusement), or try to win the emperor’s favour, risking assassination by rivals or, worse, mutilation by mother-in-law. Immediately after Cixi enters the palace, the empress dowager takes her on an educational visit to see a legless, armless concubine stored in a jar, whose limbs she removed as punishment for monopolising the emperor.

Understandably depressed by the prospect of a lifetime spent tormenting insects, Cixi bribes her way into the imperial bedchamber. Once there, she wins the jaded and impotent emperor’s affections through a combination of plucky outspokenness and sexual wiles, and soon falls pregnant. But her success brings enemies: the moment her pregnancy is announced, she faces the threat of poisoning by jealous fellow concubines. Beyond the palace walls, meanwhile, China is being torn apart by western invaders and domestic rebellion. Hsien Feng disintegrates under the nervous strain, forcing Cixi to educate herself in government. As the emperor approaches death, Cixi has to fight to avoid being entombed with her husband, is hurled at a pillar by an enemy eunuch, and narrowly escapes assassination.

“Seduction is power, and treachery a way of life,” the cover blurb trumpets, and Empress Orchid is strong on both sexual chicanery and violent conspiracy. A maid sent to spy on Cixi is beaten to death; when the empress protests, her chief eunuch shrugs: “My lady, she wouldn’t shut up.” Min keeps the melodrama under control with plenty of mind-improving history, while spicing up the stolid period detail with a few touches of romantic historical schlock: the evil, money grubbing uncle intent on marrying his beautiful niece off to his idiot opium-addict son, the will-they-won’t-they sexual tension between Cixi and her bodyguard, Yung Lu.

Considering Anchee Min grew up in China and, according to her biography, learned her English from Sesame Street, the language is generally pretty competent, and sometimes even engaging: bamboo rafts drift down a river “like a giant loose necklace”. At other, less assured points, unfortunately, the tone swings queasily between fortune cookie wisdom (“A dead camel is bigger than a live horse”), romantic fiction (“Take me,” the empress gasps at Yung Lu when they find themselves alone together in the emperor’s tomb) and the downright eccentric.

Empress Orchid delivers a fictional peek into the intrigues of the Forbidden City and a novel take on the much-reviled last empress. But now that we have both the knives-out and revisionist versions of Cixi’s life, maybe non-academic English-speaking authors could find someone else from the Chinese past to write about. Western fascination with Cixi springs from the west’s fascination with itself: she appeals primarily because her rule coincided with western invasion of China — the opium wars, the unequal treaties, etc. Anyone who read only popular books about China published in English could reasonably assume the Middle Kingdom barely had any history before westerners arrived en masse in the 19th century. Right now, China might have fewer cars, fridges and washing machines per capita than Britain, but history is one thing it isn’t short of. Empress Orchid, by Anchee Min, published by Bloomsbury, 336pp