I like Anchee Min; I’ve read and reviewed several of her books and I own most of them, which I will read in the future. However, The Last Empress is possibly her worst book and I would not recommend it.
I’m not sure what happened here. I really enjoyed Empress Orchid, and The Last Empress is its sequel, so I thought I would enjoy this too. But there were major problems with everything from tone to style to the story itself.
In The Last Empress, similar to Empress Orchid, Cixi is portrayed as the totally innocent victim. She was 100% benevolent and did her best to support her sons and only wanted to retire in peace. She in no way wanted power for herself and never had a selfish, conniving bone in her body. Yawn.
Forget the fact that she herself staged the most successful coup in Chinese history. Forget that even though there were men who could have taken over as regent, she made sure that she was the only power behind the throne. Forget the fact that she was known to fly into a rage once in a while. Min’s Cixi is so flat and boring that I really, really wanted her to break down and shove the Pearl Concubine down the well just to show some bit of conflict in her character. Come on, Cixi, do something interesting!
I also hate the way some scenes or discussions simply end with no resolution. At one point, Cixi’s favored eunuch asks “the parliament has called for the abolition of the eunuch system. What do I tell the parents whose boys have just been castrated?” The scene ends. What was her reply? I need to know!
Min also repeatedly makes claims about characters that are never displayed in the book. At one point Cixi says, “for the first time my son developed a sense of compassion for those beneath him,” but never in the book is the boy shown being unkind or thoughtless to underlings. She also says “I had argued with Guang-hsu many times over his death orders,” but we never see this.
The book is also told in first person, from Cixi’s point of view, but she also has amazing omniscient powers. She says “future historians would unanimously damn me.” Amazing that she could predict the future. This is left out of most Cixi biographies.
Overall, this book feels hastily and haphazardly thrown together. Cixi lived a long life that could not be contained in one book. It feels like Min wanted to focus on Cixi’s younger years and wrote Empress Orchid. After its success, she threw together a sequel.
I would never simply write off Anchee Min based on one bad book. She is a brilliant and important writer, but if you are looking to pick up one of her books, skip The Last Empress. If you want to read a really fascinating account of Cixi, check out Empress Dowager Cixi by Jung Chang. I’m only 20% through that, but I am really enjoying it.