April 06, 2004

Empress Orchid

Empress Orchid
Anchee Min
( bloomsbury , 2004 )

This is a fictionalised biography of Tze-Hsi, the Dragon Empress who ruled China through her son from the 1860s until 1902 (IIRC). She is a remarkable parallel to Queen Victoria, the contemporary Empress of India, and was, in real life, fascinated by the British woman who could rule in front of the screens.
I've read this for work purposes: it comforms to many of the genre rules of 'Chinese female semi-fictional autobiography' writing (for example, Wild Swans, Women of China etc etc) in that it is first person, it emphasises the subservience expected and yet has a feisty heroine who overcomes adversity. Tze-Hsi is a figure who was demonised in the West for many years, and this sets out to reclaim her. Yet it stops at the precise moment in which she becomes the Dragon Empress, as if aware that some of Orchid's well-documented decisions and policies of her later reign, especially her response to the 1898 reform and the 1900 Boxer War, are difficult to shed favourable light on.

I enjoyed the novel but for a more complex portrait of Tze-Hsi I would recommend Marina Warner's biography instead (especially the revised edition).

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