The Last Empress, by Anchee Min, is the second in a set of two novels about the Chinese Qing Dynasty Dowager Empress Cixi, the first being Empress Orchid. It is a sympathetic depiction of someone who was vilified both inside China by her enemies and in the West by mystified politicians. History has not been kind to Empress Cixi. Min, from the first page of the book and the epigraphs, makes it clear that she will present an alternative, largely sympathetic view of this historical figure. It is Biographical Fiction, but it is also a fascinating depiction of a life of greatness, duty and loneliness, lived during the last, spectacular reign of emperors in China.
In this instance, much of the difficulties with understanding Empress Cixi and the reign of the emperors of China seem to have been caused by the secrecy and mysteriousness maintained by the ruling class and dynasty about their affairs, and about the country as a whole, until the early 20th century. Prior to the death of Express Cixi in 1908, there were movements both for and against increased foreign relations, the importation of Western ideas, new technology, and reforms. On the whole, though, scholars view Empress Cixi’s “rule behind the curtains” as the cause of the ultimate decline of the Qing dynasty and its capitulatory peace deals with foreign powers.
The Last Empress is written from the first-person perspective of “Empress Cixi” (the fictional character’s name is given in quotation marks). That was daring of Min, considering that information about the internal affairs of China at that time was hard to come by. As a result, Min would have had to deduce a psychological profile of the empress – a great feat of imagination and reification.
Empress Orchid and The Last Empress are both fictional biographies that offer an alternative view of a famous figure from history, that much is clear. How much latitude Min took with the historical details in order to paint a positive picture of Empress Cixi I do not know, since I am not a student of Chinese history and do not know Mandarin at all. But authors of fiction can of course put whatever spin they want on their tales.
The real Dowager Empress/Empress Dowager Cixi[a], also called Empress Orchid, ruled in the late 19th century when China’s borders were still closed and the royal palaces and the Forbidden City were mysterious and unknown, with only a handful of foreigners allowed in and the members of the monarchy not allowed to go out. During her life she was often depicted in the press as a cruel, perverted tyrant. So how did Min do her research and what did she find out about the real empress?
The search for accurate information
Min, when questioned about the level of historical accuracy in her novels about Empress Cixi, said:
In order to research this two-part series, Min and her father were apparently able to gain access to documents which were not publicly available in China.
Bear in mind that Min’s personal background makes her particularly qualified to write historical novels about China and the Chinese, informs her particular points of view, and allows her to reveal, as she has stated, the “truth of the human heart” of her characters.
in this novel, Min has used artistic licence to create a convincingly rounded, nuanced, and surprisingly pitiful character from the historical records on Empress Cixi. Yes, “Empress Cixi” in this interpretation is someone for whom you feel pity.
Imagine; you are stuck in this huge, locked-up, ancient (so very, very ancient) palace-city. You feel some affection for a general who is devoted to you, but who marries someone else. Your husband and male descendants come to power, are corrupted, fail, or fall ill. They die, while you live on. The people revolt. Foreign powers declare war on China. The Age of Enlightenment and the Industrial Revolution change the history of Europe and the Americas forever, but passes you by. And you are surrounded by hundreds of eunuchs and palace officials and members of royalty who are running – and ruining – the show. There are a thousand rules on what to say and think and do, and not much room to be oneself. What a miserable existence in which to be thrust. The whole thing smacks of desperation and a repressed life-force.
Interesting supporting characters
The other major characters, “Cixi’s” family members, aides, confidants, servants, daughters-in-law, generals, and politicians, are portrayed as intriguing enough to make you want to look them up – sympathetic, unconventional, heroic, conflicted, vicious or mad. Unlike other novelists, like Hilary Mantel, for instance, Min does not include a list of characters in the book to clarify which ones she invented and which ones are real. However, the details of the ones who I did read up about, were consistent with the descriptions in the book of their identities, titles, achievements, and connections to Empress Cixi.
Many roles – one lot
Many of the major characters are depicted as repulsive by their actions, or traitorous to “Cixi”. Many of her supporters are murdered, exiled or overthrown by her rivals. And as for the emperors to whom she was mother and dowager – well, the least said about that lot, the better.
Empress Cixi had different names and titles at various times in her life. She was first known as Lady Yehe Nara; then as Consort or Concubine Yi, when she was the favourite of the Xianfeng Emperor; then as Dowager Empress, during the reign of the Tongzhi Emperor and the Xuantong Emperor; and finally as Grand Empress Dowager Cixi and Empress Xiaoqinxian. In the novel, “Cixi” is described as spending her whole life working (literally and figuratively) for the good of China in many different roles, including that of mother – the most conflicting one. But she has no choice about whether she wants to become a concubine or anything that follows. It is her lot and she puts up with it.
Always, duty comes first
It comes through very clearly in the novel that her life is spent slaving away in service to the dynasty, the country and its people, and giving up everything of personal value to do that. “Cixi” is a practically a prisoner in the Forbidden City, with hardly any room for manoeuvre, and whatever she values and whoever she loves is taken away from her. By then end of the book, her death seems to be a welcome release from these burdens.
What inner life did she have – what private thoughts and feelings? Could Min recreate or even approximate her true nature from those dull, dusty, official documents that she and her father found?
I think Min gave it a good shot. The character certainly reads well, appearing to be rounded, well-motivated, coherent and consistent. Often the details are intimate and precise – her hair, clothes, way of speaking, childhood memories, emotions, even her poetry and art.
One can assume that until the end of the rule of the Qing Dynasty, most nobles, who would have included Empress Cixi, aspired to have demonstrable skills in the disciplines that were highly valued, and signified high social standing: painting, poetry, calligraphy, discourse, philosophy, and political analysis (rather than mathematics and economics). In reality, not everyone at court were skilled or talented, and that included the emperors and their consorts and wives.
Min describes how “Cixi” makes paintings that are completed and “corrected” by others, and quotes the poems which “Cixi” and her son, “Emperor Tung Chih”, have written. I do not know whether the real Empress Cixi actually wrote poetry, or those particular poems, but they make the character of “Cixi” seem more sensitive, perceptive and tragic. For example, this is a poem that that she wrote, which she recites in memory of her favourite eunuch, “An-te-hai”. While in Western quatrain format, and with some antiquated words, like “oft”, the imagery is none the less identifiably Chinese:
"How fair the lakes and hills of the south, With plains extending like a golden strand. How oft, wine cup in hand, have you been here To make us linger, drunk though we appear. By Lily Pond new-lit lamps are bright, You play the Water Melody at night. When I come back, the wind goes down, the bright moon paves With emerald grass the river waves." (p.55)
Though she may have been a poet and artist, and even a repressed romantic, Empress Cixi is often represented as an evil, perverted, power-mad, dangerous and ill-informed ruler during the last, bloody decades of the rule of dynastic emperors in China.
Even in paintings and drawings, and early photographs of the era, her appearance seems to match her reputation. She looks positively grim, with a doughy, oval face, dull expression, witchy nail protectors, and ornate gowns that reduce her to a shapeless lump of fabric and jewels. She once posed for photographs with a few wives of Western diplomats in an effort to give them a better impression of the Emperor and his household (see the image at the top of this page, on the right). Apparently she could not talk to them, because of protocol, but her appearance must have astonished them. It makes you wonder how it was possible that she had been seen as beautiful and desirable. For lack of good looks, she must have been very smart to have survived as long as she did.
The end of an era
The story ends with her last days and, as always with Historical Fiction where the time and method of death of the main character are undisputed facts, I wondered how Min would interpret “Cixi’s” death. She does it rather beautifully, with “Cixi” remembering the birdsong in the village where she grew up in the company of her best friend, “Grasshopper”. It is sad and becomes even sadder when you find out about the chaos that followed her death, and the expulsion of Puyi and his court to Manchuria, and the rest of the miserable story – which then connects the Empress’s story with that of the decidedly crazy “Bloody White Baron“, Roman Fyodorovich von Ungern-Sternberg, military leader of the Bogd Khanate of Mongolia.
A history worth re-reading
Min, an American, is 64 years old this year – she had her birthday on 14 January. Because of her life before she went to America, she has in the past described her relationship with the Chinese government as not so good. I wonder how it is these days. Her most recent work is The Cooked Seed: A Memoir, which was published in 2013. After she arrived in America as a non-English-speaking immigrant (really, she did not know English at all), she published her first novel in English in 1995, and has become a writer with formidable writing skills and imagination. Her forte is creating truly compelling fictional versions of historical settings and figures.
You can reread her books many times, but there are no language idiosyncrasies or mistakes, or discrepancies in the plot or pacing that become noticeable. Though her language is controlled and she depicts most events in a straightforward, factual manner, the passion with which she imbues her characters is always there, just below the surface, like a wound that has never quite healed. Perhaps, the way it is in her own life.
There are many other more academic, more objective novels and reference works about the famous Empress Cixi, but I would recommend this one because Min so convincingly portrays her particular, very personal, version of the Empress and her times. It takes an excellent writer to make the reader feel sympathy for such a powerful, mysterious woman whose mere existence led to the deaths of so many people.
Quotes about other noteworthy characters in the novel
Childhood best friend
“Staring at the golden dragon ceiling above my bed, I recalled the last time I was with my best friend Grasshopper. She was kicking the dirt with her feet, her legs as thin as bamboo stalks. ‘I have never gone to Hefei,’ she said. ‘Have you, Orchid?’ ‘No,’ I replied. ‘My father told me that it’s bigger than Wuhu.’ Grasshopper’s eyes lit up. ‘I might get lucky there.’ She lifted her blouse to reveal her belly. ‘I am sick of eating clay.’ Her belly was huge, like a bottom-up cooking pot.” (p. 150)
“The sky was beginning to brighten. The glazed wing roofs were bathed in golden light. Unlike the Summer Palace, where the air carried the scent of jasmine, Forbidden City mornings were cold and windy. I heard the sound of my own footsteps, the wooden platform shoes hitting the stone walk. Li Hung-chang and I walked side by side. Behind us, sixteen eunuchs carried my room-sized ceremonial palanquin.” (p. 165)
Note: “Li Hung-chang” in the novel is a general, a supporter of the throne, and the person for whom Cixi has the most affection – and possibly, unrequited and unfulfilled love. In real life, Li Hongzhang, Marquess Suyi (romanized as Li Hung-chang; 15 February 1823 to 7 November 1901) was a famous Chinese politician, general and diplomat of the late Qing dynasty.
“I reached out and touched his face. It was hard not to cry, and I forced myself to smile. ‘You are about to go on a hunting trip, and I will join you, I will prepare the bows and you will do the shooting. I’d like you to bring me a wild duck, a rabbit and a deer. Maybe not a deer but a wild pig. I will build a fire and roast it. We will have sweet yam wine and we will talk…’ His eyes became moist. ‘But we will not talk about the Boxers or legations, of course. […] I will tell you how much I missed you when you went to Sinkiang. You owe me a good seven years. You already know this, but I am going to tell you anyway: I am a happy woman when I am with you.’ Tears slowly fell from his eyes.” (p. 294)
Note: This passage is about the death of Empress Cixi’s advisor and confidant, Jung Lu, spelled “Yung Lu” in the book. The real life person was Ronglu, courtesy name Zhonghua (6 April 1836 to 11 April 1903), an important political and military leader of the late Qing dynasty who was deeply favoured by Empress Dowager Cixi. He was the maternal grandfather of Puyi, the last Emperor of China and the Qing dynasty.
Emperor Wenzong of Qing
“I vividly remembered the moment An-te-hai came to bid me farewell. He was dressed in a splendid floor-length green satin robe with a pattern of ocean waves He looked handsome and full of energy. I had great hope that this might be a new beginning for him. Only a few months before, An-te-hai had gotten married. It was the talk of Peking. For the eunuch population, An-te-hai set an example of hope that they, too, might be redeemed from their status. Mentally, marriage might somehow reinstate their manhood and bring them peace. But things had not gone well.” (p. 52)
Note: The real An Dehai (also spelled An Te-hai), 1844 to 12 September 1869, was a palace eunuch at the imperial court of the Qing dynasty. He was the personal attendant and favourite of Empress Cixi, and died by being murdered or executed – depending on different interpretations of his death.