I first heard about ‘Empress Cixi’ through a BBC documentary called ‘The Ascent of Woman.’ An impressive summary of a huge swathe of human history, the programme asked questions about the subjugation of women over the centuries, and examined the reasons behind it. Much of it was startling, such as the fact that covering women up with veils was considered appropriate to show status and sexual promiscuity, many hundreds of years before Islam existed as a faith. It also examined the deep suspicion of women, their sexuality and their motives, and the way they have been mis-represented in history. One of these cases is the basis for the novel ‘Empress Orchid,’ written by Anchee Min. In it, we discover the hidden past of the woman who went on to be the main political power in Imperial China for 47 years. Historically, she has traditionally been painted as a devious despot, who was largely responsible for the fall of the Qing Dynasty. However, this may well be another case of the mistrust powerful women are afforded.
She started out her life as a relative pauper, her father holding a position in local government. When they came to Beijing, she was promised to a less than spectacular cousin in order to try and sort out the family finances. Instead, she decides to enter a kind of ‘lottery’ that chooses the wives and concubines of the emperor. Due to her Manchu origin (the Manchu ruled over the Han Chinese for thousands of years) and beauty, she is selected to be one of that ‘wives’ of the emperor. She is effectively a very high-ranking concubine. As the story progresses, her relationship with the emperor and his ‘main’ wife develops, and she finds herself in a far more favourable and powerful position than she ever set out to be.
The description of the wealth and luxury of the Chinese court are fantastic. Having visited the Forbidden City myself, I know how intricate and detailed the carvings, buildings and palaces are. To see it through the eyes of Yehonla as she enters, and as gifts are bestowed upon her, is wonderful. Jewels, gold, silk, diamonds, all of these things are lavished on each item she and the other woman possess. Shoes become priceless objects, trays and wall decorations are the work of gifted craftsmen. It truly transfers us to another world, a place where a man can have thousands of women to choose from to secure his future heirs, a place where bathing and making yourself beautiful takes half a day, and a funeral procession involves tens of thousands of people and can last for weeks. In hindsight, it seems impossible that such wealth and splendour were available to so many (admittedly, a tiny percentage of the population). But then, if you leave peasants to starve in fields, I’m sure there’s more than enough for your gold teapot. It gives us a window into a forgotten and lost world, full of extremes.
The personal story of Yehonala is an interesting one. Min decided to follow her story from her poor beginnings to the moment when she gains her power. That seems reasonable enough, there are many writings on her as an Empress and it is good to see the ‘hidden’ part of who she was, even if it is a fictionalised account. Nonetheless, I think I would have liked to have seen more of her afterwards, to get a sense of the woman she became, as well as how she got there. If you want to read more about that part of her life, The Last Empress, also by Anchee Min, follows her later life.
A rather frustrating element in the book is the timeline. I can only imagine how difficult it must be for a researcher to take disparate events in a person’s life, especially when there is so little to be found for this particular person, and then weave it together into a coherent narrative. However, there were places where we seemed to shift forwards or backwards to a few months or weeks later, with little sense of progression. I suspect she wanted to include certain details and just included them in the ongoing story, but it might have made the book flow better if she had considered more carefully where to place them and how they contributed to the overall narrative.
I think the parts I enjoyed most concerned the diplomatic and political situation of the time. While all the fancy bits were pretty, I was fascinated to discover a country that truly perceived itself as far superior to others in every way, and considered the rest of the world to be barbarians in comparison. The mistrust and lack of diplomatic success of China historically is far more understandable in this context. The marginalised role of women and the careful and surreptitious ways Yehonala has to manipulate her way into having any influence over her life or that of her family is also very illuminating. No doubt this is where the label of ‘devious’ comes from. However, when viewed from her perspective, you can see that the only way such a person could have any say in her own world would be through less diplomatic means.
Ultimately, Empress Cixi managed to gain and hold influence over a global power for decades in an era that barely allowed women the right to choose their clothes, let alone their destiny. This book is an important fictionalisation of a remarkable woman. We must remember how skewed our view of history is, and try our best to rediscover the forgotten women that helped to shape it in ways we do not understand. That alone makes it worth a read.