The second half of the nineteenth century and early part of the twentieth century were not good times for China. The Taiping Rebellion of 1850-1864, arguably considered the largest conflict of the nineteenth century, caused widespread devastation. The country was politically weak and industrially backward and, with its huge economic potential, a load of foreign powers were after a piece of the action. Japan and Russia were both keen to seize pieces of Chinese territory. Britain had Hong Kong and, as was France, stepping up her influence in neighbouring countries. All four powers, along with Germany, the Netherlands and the United States, were after trading concessions and trading bases within China; and Austria-Hungary and Italy joined most of the others in getting stuck in during the nationalistic Boxer Rebellion of 1899-1901.
The Qing dynasty produced three successive emperors who died young, leaving children to take the throne after them. The first two were personally and politically weak, and the second two were unable to produce direct heirs. Tensions between the ruling Manchus and the majority Han Chinese, and between traditionalists and reformers, were rising, both at court and elsewhere, and court bigwigs were jockeying for position. A series of natural disasters didn’t help. Nor did activity by Western Christian missionaries, offending local traditions.
From 1861 to 1908, much of the power in China was held by the Dowager Empress Orchid, usually known as Cixi, one of the concubines of the Emperor Hsien Feng and regent for her son and nephew, the next two emperors. She’s had a terrible press, both in China and beyond, being portrayed as a despot and a corrupt money-grabber and even being accused of poisoning her nephew and other family members. In recent years, views of her have begun to change, and Anchee Min presents her, the eponymous heroine of both these books, as someone who genuinely had the interests of the country and the imperial family at heart and always did her best under very difficult circumstances.
Despite the complexities of the situation and the fact that English language readers are probably not going to be very familiar with the culture of the Chinese court, the books are fairly easy to read, and very interesting. There’s a lot of information about court life and traditions, and, if the idea of the books was to get the reader to like and sympathise with Orchid/Cixi, Anchee Min does an excellent job of it. I don’t really know enough about Chinese history – although I’m trying to learn! – to be able to have a proper opinion on whether or not the Empress has been unfairly maligned, but there are many characters in history who’ve been given an unfairly bad press and many who polarise opinion, and it looks as if she’s one of the former and is becoming one of the latter.
These are novels, written in the first person, and, presumably, very much aimed at giving a positive view of the Empress Orchid/Cixi. They’re not textbooks – but they’re not meant to be textbooks. And they do a very good job of holding the reader’s attention and explaining the fascinating and complex world of the Chinese court at a very difficult time in its history.