Betrayal& survival in the Forbidden City

In my last entry, I penned down my thoughts about prostitutes as well as Empress Orchid by Anchee Min book.

This is a continuation of that entry. This time, I’ll be reviewing The Last Empress by Anchee Min- the sequel to Empress Orchid.

I pestered Smallkucing’s Mamarazzi for quite some time for both of the books, and she had generously lend the books to me, so I think that it’s only fair that I do some justice to her, and the books by reviewing it. 😀

This historical fiction, a continuation of Empress Orchid hurl you into the world of the last empress of China. An extraordinary and probably one of the most misunderstood woman in history, considering how China is against women ruling above men.

This book… brings you into a world where one could have everything, and yet have nothing; a world where betrayal and ruthlessness is the very key to survival. A story of being… a woman, and just human.

The story begins with the death of Orchid’s mother, and the arising conflict between her and Prince Kung over political matters. The relationship between Orchid and her son, Tung Chih, began  to fall apart too at this point of the story.

Just after Tung Chih’s 17th birthday in 1872, the selection of Imperial consorts for him is completed. The chosen Empress for Tung Chih is a an 18 years old beauty known as Alute.

Orchid was displeased with the selection of Alute as the Empress as she preferred  the daughter of a provincial governor named Foo-cha. But in regards of family matters and decisions regarding to her son Tung Chih, the higher rank wife, Nuharoo’s words is a command, and though Tung Chih is her son, she could not make decisions for him. Nuharoo’s words as ‘first royal mother’ overrule Orchid’s words.

After the selection of Imperial consort for the new Emperor Tung Chih, Antehai, orchid’s eunuch and confidant died. His death had a great emotional impact on Empress Orchid – and it is at this moment that she admits to ‘giving up’ on Tung Chih, as she realizes that her relationship with Tung Chih could never be like the one he shares with Nuharoo.

Around one year later, tension begins to mount between Orchid and  her daughter in law Alute. This is first observed after Tung Chih develops a sexually transmitted disease symptoms. Alute refuses to answer Orchid’s queries about the situation, maintaining that it is between Tung Chih and her alone. Orchid becomes irritated at Alute’s aloofness, and is further annoyed with Alute’s rude attitude towards her. But her annoyance soon turns to happiness when Alute claims that she is pregnant with Tung Chih’s first child.

Tung Chih’s illness worsens and in 1875 he dies with his mother beside him. Around the same time, Alute sends Empress Orchid a message threatening to commit suicide. Convinced that she will give birth to a son, Alute states that she should be entitled to the regency upon giving birth and so expects Orchid to hand over power to her. Empress Orchid refuses to do so, as she believes that Alute only sees the glory of being an Empress. She also believes that Alute has little experience with political and court matters and therefore, rendering her unsuitable for the role as Empress of China.

Upon learning of Orchid’s refusal to step down, Alute commits suicide by dousing herself with opium, smuggled into the Forbidden City by her father.

After the death of Alute, Empress Orchid learns that there was a possibility that Alute’s pregnancy was not real. Orchid also realizes that Alute may have been mentally disturbed.

Yet these possibilities had no effect on English journals describing Orchid as an intimidating character who contributed to the death of her son whilst portraying Alute as the victim. Many foreign reports and articles soon begin printing false reports of Orchid’s actions as ruler of China, suggesting that she is solely responsible for China’s decline due to her cruel regime. However, such stories are seemingly published only to justify their further invasions of China.

After the death of Tung Chih and Alute, Orchid adopts her sister Rong’s son Tsai-Tien after realizing that her sister’s mental disorder caused the death of three of her infant sons.

Orchid then renames her nephew Guang-hsu upon his succession to the Dragon Throne. Initially, Orchid felt no motherly love for her nephew as she only adopted him to prevent his death at Rong’s hand. However, a mother-son bond eventually forms between the two. Nuharoo disagrees with Orchid’s methods of bringing up Guang-hsu, causing yet more tension between the two characters once again…and Orchid felt that it’s the history is repeating itself.

Shortly after the appointment of Guang-hsu as Orchid’s successor, her love interest, Yung Lu announces that he is planning to marry and move away to faraway Sinkiang. Orchid’s health begins to decline badly a short while afterwards. Soon after Orchid realizes that she is no longer at full health, she receives information that Empress Nuharoo has collapsed from an illness. Nuharoo then dies, and rumours suggest that Orchid is responsible for her death.

Several years later (after increasing attacks by foreign countries), Orchid and Guang-hsu move to Ying-Tai. During her stay, Orchid becomes the victim of an attempted assassination, supposedly organized by her adopted son. After Guang-hsu learns of the mistake he made that almost cost Orchid’s life, he becomes deeply shamed and loses the will to live. His attempted reform of China also fails, and he too succumbs to illness. Attacks by a rebellion group named the Boxers soon force Orchid, Guang-hsu and their servants to flee. They return to the Forbidden City after the attacks subside.

Orchid’s health then deteriorates further and during this time, she meets with Robert Hart, an important contributor to the stability of China’s economy. On November 14th 1908, Emperor Guang-hsu dies. Orchid also dies the following day, after appointing her grandnephew Puyi, who is still a child as her successor.

One amazing that that she did before she died was that she left a will, stating that there shall be no more Empress Dowager appointed as regent to those child-Emperors.

I seriously prefer Empress Orchid in comparison to The Last Empress. The Last Empress, while realistic, is also very depressing. It showed that when things get worst, sometimes, things would never be better again, no matter what you do to rectify the problems. Rectifying problems and ruling an empire would require changes, motivation and co-operation, but in this book, the whole China was bound by traditions, and the mindset of the people cannot be changed overnight, hence…the fall of the dynasty.

The Ching dynasty would have fallen, even if it wasn’t in Empress Tsu Hsi’s hand. I doubt the emperors could do much… considering the damages, the corruption, the rebels and not to mention the revolutionists who wants to reform China. Typical of men. When they succeed, they will boast about their conquest. When they fail, they will blame the nearest women. In this case- Empress Orchid.

Cleffairy: In The Last Empress, those emperors are good for nothing, but dying young and leaving their mess to be cleared by others.


  1. kathy says:

    I felt depressed too when reading this book. Kesian her, like got no where to turn to. Everything she do or dont do also got people criticsize.

    This is of course fiction la. but I cant help wondering if that is what happen in her true life.

    • Cleffairy says:

      Not sure how her real life was. Cuz whole China condemn her, blame her for the fall of Qing dynasty… but for me… I dun think she’s solely responsible for the fall of Qing dynasty. That time is opium war, revolution time…she was at the wrong time. :'(

      • kathy says:

        yalah…too much corruption around that time. How la she is going to jaga the whole Kingdom.

        Even if she is not bitter also will turn into a bitter woman coz kena blasted from all sides…and must bear in mind the horror story in the Forbidden City. All those women rival for 1 man attention. ishhhh

    • Cleffairy says:

      Heavy ah? Okok lorrr…not bad, very exciting for me. But have to read when you’re not depressed… if not, this book ah, will make you feel like you kena langgar by lorry!

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