Cixi, the last empress of China from 1856 to 1908, is one of those historical figures people love to be nasty about. Soon after her death, Edmund Blackhouse, a charlatan foreign correspondent, forged Chinese court documents portraying her as a psychopathic nymphomaniac; ever since, Cixi's many western biographers have gleefully wallowed in allegations of her badness: her extravagance (she splurged the fund for modernising the navy on a marble pleasure boat), her conservatism (she crushed the westernising reform movement of 1898), her ruthless disposal of inconvenient political opponents (including her nephew, whom she placed under house arrest for a decade and perhaps poisoned). This very partial version of events swallows whole the Confucian Chinese male view of history, which, wherever possible, deflects blame for monumental historical catastrophes - such as the collapse of the Qing dynasty in 1911 - on to women.
But the tide of opinion now seems to be turning for the last empress. Last year, Chinese television aired a hit drama series about the last years of the Qing dynasty, in which viewers were flabbergasted to see Cixi portrayed as "a nice person". (Deeply perturbed, China's rulers - all of them men - soon weighed in to criticise the show's historical heresies.) Empress Orchid is a further, feminist step on the road to her rehabilitation. Written by a woman, narrated by Cixi herself, the novel turns the last empress into a dignified, discreet sovereign, holding her country together in the face of foreign invasion, dissolute emperors and scheming courtiers.
Born into a declining gentry family in 1835, the 16-year-old Cixi travels to Beijing with her widowed mother, brother and sister. There they are sheltered by Cixi's uncle until she restores the family's fortunes by being selected as one of Emperor Hsien Feng's legion of concubines. Once received into the Forbidden City, however, she is ignored by the emperor - who, after all, has several thousand other consorts to occupy him. Thus neglected, she is left to contemplate the life choices open to imperial concu bines: allow yourself to be forgotten and grow old torturing coital moths (a traditional concubine amusement), or try to win the emperor's favour, risking assassination by rivals or, worse, mutilation by mother-in-law. Immediately after Cixi enters the palace, the empress dowager takes her on an educational visit to see a legless, armless concubine stored in a jar, whose limbs she removed as punishment for monopolising the emperor.
Understandably depressed by the prospect of a lifetime spent tormenting insects, Cixi bribes her way into the imperial bedchamber. Once there, she wins the jaded and impotent emperor's affections through a combination of plucky outspokenness and sexual wiles, and soon falls pregnant. But her success brings enemies: the moment her pregnancy is announced, she faces the threat of poisoning by jealous fellow concubines. Beyond the palace walls, meanwhile, China is being torn apart by western invaders and domestic rebellion. Hsien Feng disintegrates under the nervous strain, forcing Cixi to educate herself in government. As the emperor approaches death, Cixi has to fight to avoid being entombed with her husband, is hurled at a pillar by an enemy eunuch, and narrowly escapes assassination.
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