three-and-half-stars
Bookmarks Issue: 
10-May-June-2004
user_rating: 
0

A Novel

A-EmpressOrchidTzu His (Orchid) was the last empress of imperial China. In this historical novel, Min reimagines Orchid's mid 19th-century life, the subject of great myth and lore. Orchid comes from a poverty-stricken Peking family who tries to force her into an arranged marriage. Instead, she enters a contest to become one of the emperor's 2,000 concubines. Orchid succeeds, becoming the fourth wife and the only woman to bear the emperor a male heir. Focusing on Orchid's ambitions as her importance rises in the palace, Min offers a new portrait of decadent but oppressive concubine life and Orchid's unflagging determination at the end of an empire.
Houghton Mifflin. 336 pages. $24.

Orlando Sentinel 4 of 5 Stars
"Min comes to all her work with a sympathy for any woman who has been portrayed as the devil. ... Her graceful writing style is one that any native speaker of English would envy, and leads readers to conclude that whoever contributed to her language instruction should be our national superintendent of public instruction." Carol Doup Muller

Oregonian 3.5 of 5 Stars
"The book is a work of research and scholarship. ... Min, with her choice of material, has brought new life and heart to the story of a famous Chinese political figure previously demonized." Monica Drake

SF Chronicle 3.5 of 5 Stars
"Min entwines many story lines in the novel: the rivalry with the emperor's first wife, Nuharoo, who takes over as mother to Tung Chih, Orchid's son; the emperor's failing health and increasing reliance on Orchid; power struggles among Chinese officials; and attacks by European forces ... [T]he ambitious, revisionist story she has given us, however uneven, makes for fascinating reading." Irene Wanner

Houston Chronicle 3 of 5 Stars
"Empress Orchid is a fascinating novel, similar to Arthur Golden's Memoirs of a Geisha in that it is not about sex but about a young woman shaping her life by making critical decisions. Ironically, the blossoming of Orchid as a person occurs as the Ch'ing Dynasty is withering." Allan Vorda

Los Angeles Times 3 of 5 Stars
"At times, the story turns on implausible particulars; it's hard, for example, to believe that the strong-willed Orchid really has fallen in love with the ineffectual emperor. Still the lavishness of the historical setting and the author's strong use of research to flesh out the tale make for a stirring, exotic novel that is a treat for the senses and intellect alike." Bernadette Murphy

Critical Summary

Min, author of the acclaimed Becoming Madame Mao, which fictionalized the life of a woman demonized in history books, again melds exhaustive historical and political research with expertly articulated characters in Empress Orchid. Critics praised the novel's linguistic dexterity (once in the United States, Min had to learn English in six months or face deportation) and revelatory insights into the lives of women possessing few rights. Too many characters and events muddle the plot, and the style wavers from glittering to dull. Yet ultimately, the novel provides a valuable glimpse into the daily habits of fascinating historical characters and charts the last, decadent days of an empire.