At the end of Empress Orchid, Anchee Min’s first novel on the life of China’s notorious Empress Dowager Cixi was at the zenith of her powers, having survived an attempted coup following the death of her husband the Emperor Hsien Feng and being appointed as co-regent of the new Emperor, her infant son Tongzhi.
In her sequel, The Last Empress, the author covers the second half of Cixi’s life as she struggles to keep the conservative and reformist factions of the court united against the growing encroachment of the foreign powers and to prevent increasing waves of internal discontent and rebellion from sweeping throughout the country.
While elegantly written, the book has very little of the spark and verve of Empress Orchid because of the depressing nature of its subject matter. We see Cixi lose her son Tongzhi from syphilis at the age of 21 as a result of alleged encounters with prostitutes, and then we experience her pain as she watches her adopted son, the Guangxu Emperor, grow up into a feeble-minded man powerless to prevent Japan, England, Germany, and other Western countries from grabbing increasing parts of his kingdom for themselves and unable or unwilling to effectively drive through much needed domestic reforms to modernize China.
If that weren’t enough Cixi has to find ways of protecting loyal officials such as Li Hongzhan and Yong Lu from constant attacks from the conservative Manchu faction in the court (and widespread accusations of being imperialist lackeys) while she herself is vilified for her alleged mendacity, greed, and lust for power in both the Chinese and foreign media.
For a Chinese history buff like myself, this is extremely fascinating stuff but I suspect that it would be hard work for a more general reader with little background knowledge of the subject. Indeed, I have to admit that even I felt somewhat worn down at the end by the relentless spiral of decline that the novel chronicles.
While the author has done an admirable job of painting a realistic portrait not just of Cixi herself but also of the tumultuous times she ruled over, good history doesn’t necessarily make for good fiction. As cynical as it may sound, I can’t say I’m too surprised that other novelists writing about the Empress Dowager have chosen to include some of the more salacious (and probably untrue) rumors about her life to add more “color” to their stories.