My first look at Anchee Min’s work was her first novel, Katherine (see June 30, 2010), which was different as can be (supposing from reviews) as her first book, a memoir called Red Azalea. The Last Empress is different still from either of those.
Proving once again that historical fiction is wonderfully educational as well as wonderfully entertaining, I’ve now had a look inside the late-nineteenth-century decline and fall of the Chinese empire. I knew something of the opium wars and the western world’s disgraceful treatment of Asia in the relentless quest for empire. I knew something of the Pearl Buck China, the Boxer Rebellion, Sun Yat Sen, Chiang Kai Shek, and the conditions that made the world fertile for Mao. But I knew nothing of the last dynasty. Now I do. And with that knowledge comes the fascinating character Min has created.
I say Min created her because from various references in reviews and in the book itself, the portrait in The Last Empress is not the one painted by most (western) journalists and historians. She has been portrayed as ruthless, sybaritic, venal. She supposedly plundered the treasury and starved the people to feed her own insatiable appetite for power and luxury. Min gives us, first person, a lady conscious of her power but determined to use it sparingly and responsibly. Officially not a ruler in her own right because women were forbidden that station, she acted as regent for first a son and then a nephew, neither of whom was fit for emperorhood. Always she yearned to step aside and retire, but always duty and circumstances forced her back into the fray.
Not only was she forced to carry out responsibilities for which she lacked full power, but she was caught in the middle of a feudal system that refused to change to meet changing circumstances. Despite the concept of emperor, China’s central government was weak. It ruled a collection of warlords and governors, each of whom held sway over his own territory, army, taxing system, and official underlings. The system operated on a complex interweaving of graft, privilege, superstition, and tradition. Thus, the Forbidden City’s operations consisted more of playing off factions and competing philosophies against one another than of developing and exercising a centralized governmental structure.
Royal edicts were supposed to be absolute commands, but that idea was as illusory as the notion that China was the center of the universe. A good example: the “empress” was not allowed to meet with western powers, to allow foreign devils into the Forbidden City. Any negotiations had to be carried out by agents and underlings. Another: Contrary to her express wishes. some council or another decided that she should spend her summers in the summer palace on a lake outside Peking. Huge sums were appropriated to refurbish said palace, including the construction of a marble boat, which she neither requested nor wanted. I’ve been on that boat. It’s grotesque. At any rate, most of the appropriated money never reached the palace. The whole project was a scheme to collect taxes and enrich a huge array of people. Sort of like a modern defense contract for Star Wars technology or the F-24 fighter plane. At any rate, the summer palace money was one of the big weapons used by the western press and Chinese revolutionaries to unfairly besmirch the empress’s reputation.
Of course, she was not sweetness and light. She was immensely powerful and wealthy, concerned first and foremost with preserving her dynasty and Chinese preeminence. Had she been allowed to negotiate directly with western powers, had she been able to control the finances of her corrupt empire, there is little doubt that she would still have pulled resources out of the countryside to the throne room, despite her peasant beginnings. She ordered her share of beheadings, some with regret, but many as part of the daily business as usual. She often subordinated China’s welfare to the desire to save the face of her pathetic offspring. Still, Min offers us a glimpse of a tormented soul trying vainly to maintain stability and dignity amidst historical forces far beyond her–or anyone’s–ability to direct or control. Empress Orchid is someone you can admire and sympathize with, though not someone you’d want to spend an afternoon with. Nice, job, Anchee.