Anchee Min

Empress Orchid

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Empress Orchid Summary

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Empress Orchid is a historical novel by Anchee Min, published in 2004. Min relies on deep research to recreate the final years of the Ch’ing Dynasty in China, exploring one of the more complex and under-studied personalities in world history in the process.

The book begins with Tsu Hsi ruminating on the decayed status of the Ch’ing Dynasty, and her suffocating role as the regent to her son, Emperor Tung Chih. She is amused by people who believe she schemed to rule China since childhood, noting that her life has been shaped by forces beyond her control, and even in her position as regent she must play-act a certain way in order to mollify the chauvinistic fears of her councilors, who are alarmed at the prospect of a woman in power.

Tsu Hsi then reflects on her childhood. She was born the daughter of a former provincial governor, was predicted by an astrologer to be extremely stubborn, and to suffer for this quality, which prompts her parents to name her Orchid, hoping the name would inspire her to bend. When her father dies, her family is plunged into extreme poverty. They place his body in a coffin and begin the long trip back to his place of birth, Peking, in order to bury him. Once in that city, they move in with an uncle they have had barely any contact with; his son, Ping, is mentally disabled and addicted to opium.

Life is very hard for Orchid and her family, but they survive. Some years later, Emperor Hsien Feng sends out an announcement that he is looking for a mate of suitable social class; the emperor has no heir. Orchid qualifies for the role because of her ethnicity (Manchu) and her father’s social rank, and so she applies. She is accepted and becomes an Imperial Consort of the fourth rank, and given the title Lady of the Greatest Virtue. As one of seven imperial consorts, she outranks the thousands of concubines living with the emperor in the Forbidden City. Another consort, Nuharoo, is named Empress and leads the consorts.

Orchid travels to the Forbidden City and meets one of the thousands of eunuchs working there, An-te-hai, and becomes friends with him when he is assigned to be her servant along with a retinue of others. Taking a strong liking to him, she names him her chief servant.

Orchid settles in and becomes horrified at the life she leads as imperial consort. Her sole duty is to have sex with the emperor in order to produce a son as his heir. Months go by, however, and the emperor does not summon Orchid to his chambers. If she does not sleep with the emperor, her position at court is weak and temporary, and Orchid begins to worry. She approaches the chief eunuch, Shim, and offers him a bribe if he will help her gain the emperor’s attention. Shim helps her, and the emperor finally spends time with her, and takes a strong liking to Orchid. She soon becomes his favorite consort as she works hard to please him. Orchid listens attentively and begins to learn a great deal about the history of her country, the current political situation, and the workings of the Forbidden City itself thanks to the access her new status grants her.

Orchid becomes pregnant, and bears the emperor a son, which is cause for relief and celebration. Orchid is initially thrilled to have gained this status, but the thrill fades when it becomes clear that the emperor has lost interest in her now that he has a male heir. Orchid realizes that Nuharoo, jealous of Orchid’s ascent, has been working to undermine her at every turn.

Western nations move aggressively against the weak Chinese regime, demanding special trading privileges and other powers, chipping away at the emperor’s authority as he falls ill and lacks the strength to resist. The foreigners mount what is essentially an invasion, and the emperor and his household flee the Forbidden City as the enemy armies approach it.

Although Tung Chih is his only male son, the emperor has not officially named him his heir, and Orchid finds herself battling both Nuharoo and Su Shun, a powerful politician. She finally convinces the ailing emperor to officially designate Tung Chih his heir, securing her position as she is named co-regent along with Nuharoo and  Su Shun. Su Shun had been plotting to seize power for himself and having to share it with the two women enrages him.

Orchid, now officially known as Empress of Holy Kindness Tzu Hsi, must work with Nuharoo, now known as Empress of Great Benevolence Tzu An. Orchid makes an alliance with another powerful politician, Prince Kung, and plots with him and An-te-hai to have Su Shun arrested before he can move against her, charging him with insurrection.

At the imperial funeral, Orchid knows she has secured her position at court and will have great influence due to her son’s position. She meets a general, Yung Lu, and there is a strong attraction between them as Orchid looks forward to the future.