Friday, November 16, 2007

Empress Orchid by Anchee Min (3/5 stars)

This is a different book from what I normally read. I heard an interview with the author of this book on the radio and it sounded really interesting. I downloaded it from audible as an audio book.

This book is a fictional account of the rise to power of the Dowager Empress of China Tzu Hsi. Tzu Hsi starts out as a girl from an impoverished family. She is the daughter of a governer of a very poor province. She travels to Peking with her family to bury her father and ends up living in squalor with her "10th uncle", mother and siblings. When her uncle tries to force Orchid (Tzu Hsi) to marry his mentally disabled son. She decides to try and compete for a position as a concubine for the Emperor.

Not only does she end up making the initial cut, she ends up being one of the six wives of the emperor. The trials they endure to achieve this position is interesting. She is not lost in the mix of the 3,000 concubines the emperor also has available to him. Orchid ends up having a son for the emperor and rises to be the most powerful woman in China. This book is very sympathetic to Orchid and shows how she struggled with the isolation of living in the forbidden city, how she had to deal with the treachery of the other wifes, and how she had to work out the scheming of the eunuchs. Her struggles to raise her son to be a good man and not a spoiled imperial brat really resonated with me. How to you raise a divine being to have good manners?

The quality of the audiobook was pretty bad. The reader noisily swallows frequently and it is pretty distracting. The book itself is of mediocre quality. I know that Anchee Min has just recently perfected her English in writing this book. Unfortunately it tells. At one point the author mentions people being "hanged" I think the more correct usage is hung. There are a lot of little things like that in the book. The other thing about the book I didn't like was how the story looses focus and meanders sometimes. You would be reading about a plot in the present then all of the sudden the book would read "At many times in the future....." The author would then digress about a time in the future and sometimes it was difficult to tell when she came back to the present and resumed the story.

I am not sure how historically accurate this book is supposed to be but it is a fascinating topic and a fascinating look into Chinese culture and history. I had a history teacher who told me that "for anyone to fully understand the culture and history of China, they would have to be a genius." Reading this book helps me to understand that teacher's statement more fully.

Some things that I learned about China that were very striking were:

- How little deaths meant to the Emperor. At one point there are 4000 some odd deaths because of a flood and it is mentioned in passing to the Emperor. He is concerned but not overly concerned; that is just a small fraction of the Chinese population.

- How behind in technology the Chinese are compared to the rest of the world in this time frame. The Chinese are trying to sword fight their way through canons and guns...not a pretty fight.

- How isolated the Forbidden City was from the rest of Chinese society. There are people starving in Peking and the wealth of the Forbidden City is unimaginable; there is just such a huge contrast in wealth.

- The very accepted belief of the Emperor as, not a person, but a divine entity.

- The huge impact tradition had on the Chinese and Manchurian culture. It is unbelievable how much work goes into some of the Imperial Rituals.

Overall the book is worth reading because of the interesting subject matter. The quality of the writing isn't great and I would definitely not listen to it on audio book.

Here is a link to the normal book on amazon:

No comments:

Post a Comment