Book Review: Empress Orchid by Anchee Min

Next year, I am planning to write the biography of a very dear friend of mine from LiXian who has led a fascinating life. To get myself ready, I have decided to start reading more life stories, fiction and non-fiction, of Chinese persons to get more familiar with the writing style. So, since I am reading them, I thought I may as well start sharing them with my readers as well.

I first read Empress Orchid by Anchee Min. At Page One bookstore in Hong Kong in the Chinese writers section, Anchee Min and Lisa See dominate the shelves. Both authors sounded interesting and I couldn’t decide who would be better to read, so I got one historical fiction book from each (the Lisa See book I will review next).

Empress Orchid (in a nutshell) follows the life of the last empress of China, Cixi, from her teen-years, just before she became a concubine to the Emperor, until the death of the Emperor when she was about 30 years old. (Min’s sequel, The Last Empress, picks up and covers the rest of Cixi’s life.)

The book is written in first person, which always makes me dubious when writing about a historical person. Who can ever know what was going on in someone’s mind? Especially someone as complex as Cixi. It is really important to read this book as historical fiction, not historical fact.

Min’s handling of the character of Cixi is almost painfully sympathetic, but that may have been her goal. Traditionally, Cixi has been seen as a villainess of Chinese history. However, this traditional viewpoint is mostly likely viciously unfair and Min may have been seeking to counteract that. But it could be just as unfair to paint her as a completely innocent victim as well as Min has done. I like more complexity in my characters. Min’s strength is in her descriptions. Sights, sounds, smells, fabrics, buildings, a glance, a look, a touch of a hand, her descriptions are all very vivid. But she seems unable to transfer that into the psyche of her characters. On one page Cixi says “I was not jealous at all” and on the very next page she says “I was so jealous.” The leap Cixi makes in this moment does not have enough depth to it. What caused this change? She also spends the whole year Cixi waits for her wedding go by in only a page or two. Cixi’s life was completely changing at this time and I think Min could have spent far more time on her character development here.

Overall, though, I did enjoy the book. The view into palace life during the fall of the Chinese empire is very interesting. She does a good job of balancing the very negative views the Chinese had of Westerners during this time, but also keeps in mind her Western audience and makes sure not to turn them off to the story.

I would probably give it a 3 out of 5 and I certainly will be reading more of Min’s books. She has written her own biography that sounds fascinating and she has also written about the life of Pearl S. Buck. So stay tuned for more reviews to come!