Anchee Min's Empress Orchid is the tale of an extraordinary Manchu girl who is selected as one of the seven wives of Emperor Hsien Feng in 1852. Orchid's outspokenness and wit mark her as a favorite of the Emperor; overwrought and burdened with governance, he requests his new bride's assistance with official documents.
In this way, Orchid becomes a necessity to a man increasingly overwhelmed by the weight of his office, applying and acquainting herself with the most powerful men in the kingdom. In an unparalleled rise to power, although not chosen as First Wife, Orchid bears Hsien Feng's heir and is his confidante and advisor when the Emperor falls ill. Vying with First Wife and the powerful eunuchs who do the bidding of generals seeking to influence the throne, Orchid is thrown into an untenable position, fighting for her life and the future of her son.
Superstition is rampant in the Forbidden City, artifacts adorned with spiritual symbols, the concubines appeasing the gods with offerings. The labyrinthine passages of the Forbidden City are rendered in exquisite detail, a deeply-rooted caste system of eunuchs and concubines in service to one man, the love of poetry and beauty surrounded by luxury, an appreciation of nature, singing birds in gilded cages and royal pets.
Orchid views her life as "a piece of embroidery with every stitch made by my own hands." Rather than the passivity of the other wives and concubines, Orchid remains involved in court matters, with an eye to protecting her position amid the constant rivalries brewing among the Emperor's wives.
Clear-eyed and level-headed where First Wife is stubborn, Orchid appreciates the Emperor's attention to the complicated business of the kingdom, especially the unrelenting onslaught of the West forcing trade with Asia at gunpoint. The Europeans batter at the Chine ports, determined to maintain a lucrative opium trade, their armaments far superior to Chinese weaponry. Breeching the outmoded defenses of Chinese warriors, samurai tradition rendered irrelevant by modern artillery, the Europeans refuse to retreat from Imperial China and its trade; this is a battle China cannot win.
Author Min is a myth-breaker; her previous novel, Becoming Madam Mao, redefined the wife of the Chairman. In Empress Orchid, Min challenges historical facts that describe Tzu Hsi as a "mastermind of pure evil and intrigue," suggesting the woman's survival rested on her ability to navigate the complicated and cutthroat court she ruled.
The Orchid of Min's design is not evil. Rather, she is driven to protect her son's lineage and her own dominance. It is difficult to accept this portrayal, given the constant rationalizing of the Empress, cerebral and passionless unless manufactured emotion serves a purpose. Empress Orchid wields the tools of power as well as any man, truly amazing in her rise from abject poverty to the pinnacle of power on the throne of China. It is impossible to know the true heart of Tzu Hsi; in this fictionalized version, fact blends with fiction revealing a portrait of a woman as complex as the China of her birth.