‘Empress Orchid:’ a rich and powerful girl lives a tortured life - The online voice of cambridge campus students
The online voice of cambridge campus students
by Holly Buboltz

mpress Orchid’ is a fictional tale carved out of an ancient and alluring true story about a strong and powerful woman who ruled China for nearly 60 years.

Although Orchid’s character was and still to this day is known as one of the greatest leaders in ancient China, she didn’t achieve her position easily. She fought and persevered because she believed in her country and wanted more than anything for her country and people to survive.

In the beginning of this novel by Anchee Min, we are introduced to Orchid, a young girl who is accompanying her deceased father’s body through the countryside to the capital city of Peking. We meet Orchid with her distraught family sitting on the side of a dusty road. The scents of decay are wafting from the coffin in the sweltering heat. Orchid and her family have no idea how to go on. They have no money and no way to hire footmen to carry the coffin.

In order to save her family, and herself from an arranged marriage, Orchid applied and was selected to be an Imperial concubine to the Emperor Hsien Feng and live in the Forbidden City. In China during this time period only nobility and few others were allowed into the Forbidden City. It was considered a sacred place and the entire population of China worshipped this palace and the Emperor that its walls held.

Upon Orchid’s arrival she was excited about her new life. However, she quickly learned that it was not at all that she had dreamed of.

Orchid instantly learns that her elaborate life is that of one to be lived in captivity. She is trapped in a fairytale that soon becomes old. She must dress and have her hair done for hours each day. All is done in the hope that her husband, the Emperor, may come visit her. She learns this is an event unlikely to happen.

Desperate and depressed, Orchid learns the ways of the palace quickly. Everything in the Forbidden City has a price. Orchid calls upon the Chief Eunuch and bribes him to allow her a night with the Emperor. She is granted this wish, and after one evening the Emperor Hsien Feng is captivated by Orchid. She is Hsien Feng’s favorite.

China soon falls into the Opium War. Shortly thereafter Hsien Feng became very ill because of the pressures of leadership that had weighed him down since he was a child and the major losses China had suffered. He was so ill that the Emperor was unable to effectively rule his country alone. He desperately needed the help of someone.

He needed Orchid.

Behind closed doors Orchid assumed the role of her husband’s advisor and in a sense ruled the country for him. The story continues as Orchid leads her country though wars, major decisions, death, and foreign invaders all the while feeling as though she is held back.

This book is the enthralling story of Orchid’s life, her trials and problems. Her heartbreak was clear when her husband chose to ignore her and she wasn’t allowed to raise her own son. She held a desperate feeling of being in captivity, an inability to breathe in her own life, and the weight of a country on her shoulders.

The author, Anchee Min, was born and grew up in China during the Communist regime. She has written many other books that about the Chinese history, a few of them include "The Last Empress", "Red Azalea", and "Becoming Madame Mao." Min’s books are fictional but are laced with actual events.

I never carried much of an interest for Chinese history. But, after reading the first chapter of "Empress Orchid," I immediately wanted to know more and drank up every detail about ancient China’s culture and history. Through many of Min’s books you can gather that she has a deep love for her people. She writes with a passion, a passion that I have never heard from an author before.

Through Min’s novels I couldn’t help but be intrigued with the details in this story. Her writing style is unlike any other. It is captivating and engrossing. "The slow accretion of courtly detail in this novel winds up torquing the text into something grotesque, nervously riveting, and oddly beautiful. The reader, like Orchid herself, can end up gasping for breath from under all that deadly finery." Writes the Star Tribune. Many historic novels can be difficult to read and may be at a very advanced level that only a brilliant scholar understands but Min’s writing is clear and easy to comprehend.

This book is more painted than printed. The words the author uses paints you into the scenes as though you sitting right next to the character. When reading this story I could feel Orchid’s pain and tragedy when her son was born but she was not allowed to raise him. I could also feel her childlike happiness when she strolled through her garden or discovered a new hairstyle. The descriptiveness of this story is torturous and beautiful at the same time.

I would strongly recommend this book to anyone who loves romance that contains truth and history.

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