Valentines, now long gone, has a special place in my heart – especially when it involves my library’s romantic-themed, “Blind Date with a Book.” I have participated in this for three years and every time I do, I find something heartbreaking, genuine, beautiful and with incredible storytelling. This time, I picked up a white-covered book with hearts on it. The description talked about a woman named Orchid and her rising to power in China. Ever since I read Wild Swans by Jung Chang, China has been an interest of mine. They are one of the super powers of the world we know today.
I have always been thirsty to understand other countries and why they hate the US, or why they are in poverty. I have so many why’s and I try to quench my thirst via books instead of the insane social media that never seems to have any basis of truth in it.
So, although this book could be considered historical fiction, I started to really get a more basic understanding of China. When I read Wild Swans, it led me to hate it. The author of Wild Swans, who describes not only her experience but that of her mother’s and her grandma, describes a time as dark as the dark ages. I was led to understand that China was a nonstop struggling country who abused their people, and vanquished the gems of their culture – specially under Mao and the Cultural Revolution. I had sympathy for the ever-struggling people but not the government. Unfortunately, I still did not know why they disliked us. And maybe I still don’t. But from the recount of Empress Orchid, I have some idea, I hope.
The Last Empress, by Anchee Min, provides an insight into the notorious Empress Dowager Cixi. As a book in itself, it was well-written. It was overflowing with whimsical poetry-styled metaphors and a strong woman character. Although Orchid was flawed just like the rest of us, the writer allows us to connect with her and understand the many trials she has to face when it comes to honor, patriotism, and our loved ones. Unfortunately, she cannot keep all of this balanced. She sees the Opium Wars, the struggle with Japan, and the raping of her country by more superior countries such as Britain, the US, and Russia. The Chinese have been always weary of foreigners and now I understand why. In the name of greed or maybe mislead ignorance, these superior powers brought a once proud country to its knees. Empress Orchid stood and watched it all.
The Last Empress doesn’t hate the foreign powers but simply is deeply saddened the disease plaguing her beloved country. On top of trying to keep a breaking country under control, she was also trying to raise her son, and in his death, grow love for another. She was a wise mother and although many painted her a villainous woman, you can see her depth of worldly understanding and motherhood when she says:
I would have also let Pearl know that there are truths a mother knows about her child that she can never share with anyone else. The fact that I have been proud of Guang-hsu didn’t meant that I didn’t know his limitations. I had challenged his potential with all m might. Submitting myself entirely to his call for reform was a personal decision I had made. I had thrown the dice, prepared to lose everything, and I had.
It’s so hard to sit down and read through the abundance of struggles Empress Orchid had to go through – fighting true love, watching her very family die, trying to maintain the respect of her country, and holding onto power that she so dearly wishes wasn’t hers. But, in the end, a bittersweet taste is there when she makes her final edict on her deathbed.
I would recommend this book to anyone looking for a strong female role, incredible story-telling, and just an overall understanding of why and how. It has encouraged my thirst to never stop for there is always more than what meets the eye. I cannot read the one written before this and still have some part in the great Empress Dowager.