Chinese-born Min’s usual meticulous attention to local color (Wild Ginger, 2002, etc.) puts a brake on what should be a riveting tale—the ascent to power of China’s last Empress—in a court where beheadings are as frequent as concubines are numerous.
Min has done her research, and, unfortunately, it shows. The many and vivid details of court life—custom, costume and culture of late 1800s China—undercut her efforts to give a more balanced portrait of a woman who has often been vilified for her role in the decline of Chinese power. Narrated by the Empress, called Orchid because of her beauty, the story begins as Orchid, a member of an aristocratic clan related to the ruling Manchus, accompanies her family to Beijing to bury her recently deceased father. As the family faces poverty and starvation in Beijing, the 17-year-old Orchid learns of an Imperial decree announcing that the young Emperor Hsien Feng is looking for future mates who, to preserve the purity of the Imperial blood, must be Manchu. Miraculously, Orchid is chosen. Her family receives money, and she receives valuable gifts, lives in splendor in the Forbidden City, and has countless servants. But the life is stifling—protocol is all, jealousy commonplace, few can be trusted—and Orchid realizes that the only way to obtain a more secure life is to bed the Emperor and bear him an heir. Which, with some scheming, she manages to do, but China in the early 1860s is beset with problems. The European powers are seizing the country’s territory, selling opium, and insisting on reparations from the Emperor. Meantime, the Imperial court is divided, the Emperor is weak both in judgment and health, and Orchid fears her son may not succeed his father. When the Emperor does die, her five-year-old son, although he’s named heir, is too young to rule, and Orchid must ensure that both of them stay alive as rivals plot and treachery is everywhere.
Evocative, but underpowered in simple narrative.