Monday, 18 May 2009

Buried In Time

My unedited review of Anchee Min's The Last Empress that got swallowed up by the labyrinthine editing process at The Star. I felt the book, the sequel to Empress Orchid, spoke for itself. It also marked the start of a brief spell where the books I chose were part of a series.

History has never been kind to women with power (not when men write the books, anyway): Boudicca, Nefertiti, Cleopatra, Catherine the Great, Empress Wu Zetian and even Queen Elizabeth I.

Apart from Wu Zetian, the only other empress this side of the world who’s been given a bad rep is Ci Xi. Tales of her excesses roared across every corridor and back-alley during her days. Under the Communists, her reputation fared no better. Modern-day scriptwriters did her no favours, either. Thus, the image of the female tyrant who reigned in her son’s name lives on to the present.

Then I came across Anchee Min’s The Last Empress. I was expecting the usual, so I thumbed a few pages - and was proven wrong.

The Dowager Empress Ci Xi began life as Orchid, the daughter of an official whose death left the family in dire straits. Once she entered the imperial court, she schemed and bribed her way into the emperor’s bedchamber and eventually sired an heir, no doubt stepping on some toes and ruffling a few feathers on the way. Ci Xi’s rise to power is chronicled in Empress Orchid, also by the same author. The story continues in this kind-of autobiographical account of the Dowager Empress’ days until the end.

I knew how the story ended, but I was unprepared for how it was told here. Min depicts the Dowager Empress as a smart, strong-willed and all-too human woman trying to shine in her role: disciplining the unruly, forging alliances, outmanoeuvring scoundrels and keeping her enemies at bay, struggling against the tide of public opinion, political chicanery and the onset of globalisation.

The author gives readers front-row seats to the drama that is twilight of the Qing Dynasty and remains faithful to the historical timeline. In this version, Her Majesty was in fact aware of the plots swirling around her, but every attempt to remedy the situation was sabotaged by traitors, schemers and the ineptitude of others, including her son. Other times, she was simply outmanoeuvred. Blame is also laid on the foreign media of the time, with accusations of sensationalism and propaganda. Once can’t help but draw parallels with Iraq and its “heroic exiles” like Ahmed Chalabi.

While there are glimpses into Ci Xi’s official role, more emphasis is given to her personal side. Your heart is wrenched by the Empress’ losses and how she reacts to them. As the country collapses around her, sabotaged by enemies from within and beyond, friends and loved ones are taken away one by one: her biological son, her eunuch attendant, trusted advisors and the other man in her life, whom she could not openly acknowledge. Her slow, painful decline is finally marked by one last departure - her own.

The prose is powerful and evocative of that bygone era. The Wade-Giles method of spelling Chinese names (as opposed to today's hanyu pinyin method) gives the pages the feel of an old history book. The flapping sounds of pigeon’s wings, the scent of flowers in the garden, meandering streams and the smell of musty old corridors and dark corners of the Forbidden City, are all brought vividly to life - minute interludes before each chapter unfolds.

In The Last Empress, Min abandons the notoriously popular Ci Xi of the silver screen and (sometimes biased) history books and gives us Ci Xi the mother, aunt, sister, lover and human being - a convincing portrayal that will have you wishing that the author’s interpretation of the Dowager Empress is actually closer to the truth. One can’t discount the possibility; written history has been proven to be as fallible as human memory, and subject to interpretation - or subversion.

The Last Empress
Anchee Min
Bloomsbury Publishing Plc
308 pages
ISBN: 978-0-7475-7850-5


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