16. The Last Empress by Anchee Min
There was a reason the ending to Empress Orchid felt abrupt. The story wasn't over yet! I have to say, this was definitely a story that needed to be told in full, though I think the second book was a little weaker in places than the first. Towards the end though, it perks up a lot. And Min's powerful metaphors continue to adorn the text.
Empress Orchid, now Cixi, describes her relationship with her son as "trying to hold onto a kite in a capricious wind." The death of her best friend is like having "[her] heart shattered and the pieces pickled in sadness." Cixi is a woman who inspires incredible loyalty and immeasurable loathing. In this book, Min more directly addresses the many criticisms of Cixi's character and reign that proliferated in the foreign press in her later years. Some of the accusations, according to the novel, are true, but the most heinous ones are not. Cixi is painted as, above all, a patriot, a woman who sacrificed everything, including hers and her sons' happiness, her friendships and relationships, and her reputation, for China.
When her own son dies, she raises her nephew, son of her sister and brother-in-law(her sister married her husband's brother), as the next emperor. In retrospect, she says she was prepared to gamble everything on him and lose-and she did. What is most confusing about this book is that it seems to have been written from the moment of the empress' death...except that sometimes it seems to be taking place in the present, and sometimes in the past. It is almost impossible to get hold of a concrete chronological order. The empress frequently refers to her age and the age of those around her, but the ages never seem to match up. It would be much less confusing for the reader if the age-mentioning were simply dispensed with. It was very distracting because I was always having to stop and think-wait, how old she is now? Why is her servant so much younger? Aren't they only two years apart? Wait, how much younger is her son than she is, was he dead by her fortieth birthday? Didn't he get her a fortieth birthday present, what?
I know this may seem like a petty concern, but it actually really interfered with the flow of the story as well as the feeling of verite. The fourth wall was constantly being broken, and I'm fairly sure, not in an intentional way. The best parts of the book were when chronological order appeared restored, and events happened in their naturally exciting sequence. Min's relation of the Boxer rebellion and its aftermath had me on the edge of my seat.
I'm very glad I listened to both of these books centered on this fascinating historical character. After reading, I'm interested in learning more about the empress and Chinese history in general. Now I have a much better idea of how the great empire transformed into its present state. I also feel that the book was really helpful in painting the discrepancy between Western colonizers and the Eastern cultures they invaded. Through a cultural lens, China's reaction to Westerners makes much more sense, and the Western "barbarians'" behavior becomes alienating.
In any case, I would definitely recommend these books for a new perspective on China's last empress.