March TBR: The Last Empress

For the month of March, we are to read a “Historical romance or fiction or mystery” and my choice is the sequel to Empress Orchid by Anchee Min, which I read for another TBR challenge some three years ago. My fascination with history doesn’t just stop at wars, knights, and myths.  A large part of the curiosity has to do with the roles women play in those olden days.  Take the rare few female monarchs for example, Queen Elizabeth, Wu Ze Tian, Cleopatra, and the controversial Empress Cixi (Tzu Hsi), the kind of power play, politics and sacrifices they were inevitably drawn into sure make them intriguing figures to study.

last_empressThe Last Empress, written in first person, traces the trials and heartaches the young widowed Empress Cixi experienced in trying to raise her young son, the heir to a doomed kingdom which has barely recovered from a damaging Opium War with several power hungry European nations.

Now, in our part of the world, Cixi has always been portrayed, in drama, movies and TV serials, as a stern, insecure matriarch who refused to cede authority and government of the country over to her sons, first Emperor Tung Chih, and then Guang Hsu.

History text books have also alluded to her being a ruthless, cunning and masterful politician, who would not stop at murdering her enemies to ensure she remained in power.  Well, I’ve always regarded these records with a bit of disfavour because women, powerful, strong women, have always threatened the society’s traditional notion of kingship and governance, and God forbid women should be allowed to rule the nation, much less the world. Oh, and most of these historical texts were penned by, you guessed it, men.

Here’s finally one author, a female, who dares to attempt to unravel the emotions and likely thought process behind some of Cixi’s ruthlessness and decisiveness. I applaud Anchee Min for putting a feminine voice and humane personality to Cixi. Unless those historians have lived even a day in her life where every one surrounding her could topple her and her son if she were to waver in her strength, or falter at making decisions, or lessen her vigilance, I’d say listen to the other side of the story and give the distorted stories in the western media the benefit of doubt.

Reading this book has given me fresh perspectives on the last days of the Qing dynasty, Cixi, and made me rethink political terrorism and its permanent impact. Perhaps it has something to do with my roots, because a part of me was indignant at the heavy penalties demanded by the European nations for the slightest of offences at that time. Even the missionaries of those days were not entirely blameless.  In their overzealous efforts to seek and guide the Chinese citizens to true salvation, they failed to be sensitive to the cultural differences between two races, and stirred up some unhappiness and prejudices that to this day still sticks in the older folks’ mind, and which the western world now have to overcome.

IMB rating: 3.0