September 2009

This is the amazing story of the last Dowager Empress of China written as a novel. The author Anchee Min was born in Singapore and was picked by Madame Mao to be part of the Chinese propaganda industry but subsequently left to live in California.

Empress Orchid born Tzu Hsi, the daughter of an impoverished noble family was chosen aged 16 to be one of the 3000 concubines & more importantly as one of 7 wives to the young Emperor Hsieng Feng in the mid C19. Due to her determination to beat the overwhelming Court System, the young Tzu Hsi, backed by her chief Eunuch, bribe’d & wheedled her way into the Emperor’s bed. He was a weak character with poor health – dying only 5 years later presumably of TB. Luckily Tzu Hsi had become pregnant and as mother to be of an emperor made the best use of her position to become the emperor’s confidant. The story gives a marvellous insight into life in the Forbidden City extraordinarily luxurious, highly proscribed, full of dangers & intrigues.

After the Emperor Hsieng Feng’s death, Tzu Hsi oversaw the lives of her young son, who died young, & subsequently her nephew who also died young – turbulent times in China. This was a period of gradual decline in China during the Opium Wars with European countries, unequal treaties, the sacking of Peking and at the end or the Century, the Boxer Rebellion. Tzu His has been much maligned over the last 100 years but is emerging now from the prejudices of the time. Her life & times ran much in parallel with that of Queen Victoria who she much esteemed.

This was a marvellous read and allowing for it being a novel gives a fascinating view of the period & life at court. I look forward to the sequel.!!

Our next Meeting is Thursday Oct 8th when the book we will discuss will be The Believers by Zoë Heller.

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