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In 1852, a beautiful seventeen-year-old girl from an important but impoverished family of the Yehonala clan arrived in Peking as a minor concubine to the young Emperor, Hsien Feng. Tzu Hsi, known as Orchid as a girl, was one among hundreds of concubines whose sole purpose was to bear the Emperor a son.
It was not a good time to enter the Forbidden City, a vast complex of palaces and gardens run by thousands of eunuchs and encircled by a wall in the center of Peking. The Ch’ing Dynasty was losing its vitality and the court had become an insular, xenophobic place. A few decades earlier, China had lost the first Opium War, and it had done little since to strengthen its defenses or improve its diplomatic ties to other nations.
Within the walls of the Forbidden City the consequences of a misstep were often deadly. As one of hundreds of women vying for the attention of the Emperor, Orchid discovered that she must take matters into her own hands. After training herself in the art of pleasing a man, she risked everything by bribing her way into the royal bedchamber and seducing the monarch. Hsien Feng was a troubled man, but for a time their love was passionate and genuine, and soon she had the great fortune to bear him his only son and heir. Elevated to the rank of Empress, Orchid still had to struggle to maintain her position as the Emperor took new lovers. The right to raise her own child, who was under the control of Empress Nuharoo, the Emperor’s senior wife, was constantly at issue.
The invasion by Britain, France, and Russia in 1860, and the subsequent occupation of Peking, forced the Chinese court into exile in the distant hunting reserve of Jehol, beyond the Great Wall. There the humiliating news of the harsh terms for peace contributed to the decline of the Emperor’s health. With the death of Hsien Feng came a palace coup, which Orchid helped to foil with the help of her brother-in-law Prince Kung and General Yung Lu. The handsome Yung Lu reignited romantic feelings in the still young Orchid, but in her new position of power there was little opportunity for a personal life. As coregent with Empress Nuharoo until her son’s maturity, Empress Orchid was at the beginning of a long and tumultuous reign that would last into the next century.
Mother’s eyes were closed when she died. But a moment later they cracked open and remained open.
“Your Majesty, please hold the eyelids and try your best to close them,” Doctor Sun Pao-tien instructed.
My hands trembled as I tried.
Rong, my sister, said that Mother meant to close her eyes. She had waited for me for too long. Mother did not want to interrupt my audience.
“Try not to trouble people” was Mother’s philosophy. She would have been disappointed to know that she needed help to close her eyes. I wished that I could disregard Nuharoo’s order and bring my son to bid a final goodbye. “It shouldn’t matter that Tung Chih is the Emperor of China,” I would have argued. “He is my mother’s grandson first.” I turned to my brother, Kuei Hsiang, and asked if Mother had left any words for me.
“Yes.” Kuei Hsiang nodded, stepping back to stand on the other side of Mother’s bed. “ ‘All is well.’ “ My tears came.
“What kind of burial ceremony do you have in mind for Mother?” Rong asked.
“I can’t think right now,” I replied. “We will discuss it later.” “No, Orchid,” Rong protested. “It will be impossible to reach you once you leave here. I would like to know your intentions. Mother deserves the same honor as Grand Empress Lady Jin.” “I wish that I could simply say yes, but I can’t. Rong, we are watched by millions. We must set an example.” “Orchid,” Rong burst out, “you are the ruler of China!” “Rong, please. I believe Mother would understand.” “No, she wouldn’t, because I can’t. You are a terrible daughter, selfish and heartless!” “Excuse me,” Doctor Sun Pao-tien interrupted. “Your Majesty, may I have you concentrate on your fingers? Your mother’s eyes will remain forever open if you stop pressing.” “Yes, Doctor.” “Harder, and steady,” the doctor instructed. “Now hold it. You are almost there. Don’t move.” My sister helped to hold my arms.
Mother’s face in repose was deep and distant.
“It’s Orchid, Mother,” I whispered, weeping.
I couldn’t believe she was dead. My fingers caressed her smooth and still-warm skin. I had missed touching her. Ever since I had entered the Forbidden City, Mother was forced to get down on her knees to greet me when she visited. She insisted on following the etiquette. “It is the respect you deserve as the Empress of China,” she said.
We rarely had privacy. Eunuchs and ladies in waiting surrounded me constantly. I douubted Mother could hear me from where she had to sit, ten feet away from me. It didn’t seem to bother her, though. She pretended that she could hear. She would aaaaanswer questions I hadn’t asked.
“Gently, release the eyelids,” Doctor Sun Pao-tien said.
Mother’s eyes remained closed. Her wrinkles seemed to have disappeared, and her expression was restful.
I am the mountain behind you. Mother’s voice came to my mind:
Like a singing river You break out to flow freely.
Happily I watch you, The memory of us Full and sweet.
I had to be strong for my son. Although Tung Chih, who was seven, had been Emperor for two years, since ascending the throne in 1861, his regime had been chaotic. Foreign powers continued to gain leverage in China, especially in the coastal ports; at home, peasant rebels called Taipings had spread through the interior and overrun province after province. I had struggled to find a way to raise Tung Chih properly. Yet he seemed to be so terribly shattered by his father’s early death. I could only wish to raise him the way my parents had raised me.
“I am a lucky woman,” Mother used to say. I believed her when she said that she had no regrets in life. She had achieved a dream: two daughters married into royal families and a son who was a high-ranking Imperial minister. “We were practically beggars back in 1852,” Mother often reminded her children. “I will never forget that afternoon at the Grand Canal when the footmen deserted your father’s coffin.” The heat of that day and the smell of rot that came from my father’s corpse stayed with me as well. The expression on Mother’s face when she was forced to sell her last possession, a jade hairpin that was a wedding gift from our father, was the saddest I had ever seen.
As Emperor Hsien Feng’s senior wife, Empress Nuharoo attended my mother’s funeral. It was considered a great honor for my family. As a devout Buddhist, Nuharoo disregarded tradition in accepting my invitation.
Dressed in white silk like a tall ice-tree, Nuharoo was the picture of grace. I walked behind her, careful not to step on the long train of her robe. Chanting Tibetan lamas and Taoist and Buddhist priests followed us. Making our way through the Forbidden City, we stopped to perform one ritual after another, passing through gate after gate and hall after hall.
Standing next to Nuharoo, I marveled that we had finally found some measure of harmony. The differences between us had been clear from the moment we entered the Forbidden City as young girls. She elegant, confident, of the royal bloodline was chosen as the Emperor’s senior wife, the Empress; I from a good family and no more, from the country and unsure was a concubine of the fourth rank. Our differences became conflicts as I found a way into Hsien Feng’s heart and bore my son, his only male child and heir. My elevation in rank had only made matters worse. But in the chaos of the foreigners’ invasion, our husband’s death during our exile at the ancient hunting retreat of Jehol, and the crisis of the coup, we had been forced to find ways to work together.
All these years later, my relationship with Nuharoo was best expressed in the saying “The water in the well does not disturb the water in the river.” To survive, it had been necessary for us to watch out for each other. At times this seemed impossible, especially regarding Tung Chih. Nuharoo’s status as senior wife gave her authority over his upbringing and education, something that rankled me. Our fight over how to raise Tung Chih had stopped after he ascended the throne, but my bitterness over how ill prepared the boy had been continued to poison our relationship.
Nuharoo pursued contentment in Buddhism while my own discontentment followed me like a shadow. My spirit kept escaping my will. I read the book Nuharoo had sent me, The Proper Conduct of an Imperial Widow, but it did little to bring me peace. After all, I was from Wuhu, “the lake of luxurious weeds.” I couldn’t be who I was not, although I spent my life trying.
“Learn to be the soft kind of wood, Orchid,” Mother taught me when I was a young girl. “The soft blocks are carved into statues of Buddha and goddesses. The hard ones are made into coffin boards.”
I had a drawing table in my room, with ink, freshly mixed paint, brushes and rice paper. After each day’s audience I came here to work.
My paintings were for my son they were given as gifts in his name. They served as his ambassadors and spoke for him whenever a situation became too humiliating. China was forced to beg for extensions on payments of so-called war compensation, imposed on us by foreign powers.
The paintings also helped to ease the resentment toward my son over land taxes. The governors of several states had been sending messages that their people were poor and couldn’t afford to pay.
“The Imperial tael storehouse has long been empty,” I cried in decrees issued in my son’s name. “The taxes we have collected have gone to the foreign powers so that their fleets will not set anchor in our waters.” My brother-in-law Prince Kung, complained that his new Board of Foreign Affairs had run out of space in which to store the debt seekers’ dunning letters. “The foreign fleets have repeatedly threatened to reenter our waters,” he warned.
It was my eunuch An-te-hai’s idea to use my paintings as gifts, to buy time, money and understanding.
An-te-hai had served me since my first day in the Forbidden City, when, as a boy of just thirteen, he’d surreptitiously offered me a drink of water for my parched throat. It was a brave act, and he had my loyalty and trust ever since.
His idea for the paintings was brilliant, and I couldn’t paint fast enough.
I sent one as a birthday gift to General Tseng Kuo-fan, the biggest warlord in China, who dominated the country’s military. I wanted the general to know that I appreciated him, although I recently demoted him in my son’s name, under pressure from the court’s pro-Manchu conservatives, who called themselves Ironhats. The Ironhats could not stand the fact that the Han Chinese, through hard work, were gaining power. I wanted General Tseng to know that I meant him no harm and that I was aware that I had wronged him. “My son Tung Chih could not rule without you” was the message my painting sent.
I often wondered what kept General Tseng Kuo-fan from rebelling. A coup wouldn’t be hard he had the money and the army. I used to think that it was just a matter of time. “Enough is enough,” I could imagine Tseng saying one day, and my son would be out of luck.
I signed my name in fine calligraphy. Above it I put my signature stamp in red ink. I had stone stamps of different sizes and shapes. Besides the stamp, which was given to me by my husband, the rest described my titles: “Empress of China,” “Empress of Holy Kindness,” “Empress of the Western Palace.” “Empress Tzu Hsi” was the one I used most often. These stamps were important to collectors. To make the artwork easier to sell later, I would leave out the name in my dedication, unless otherwise requested.
Yesterday An-te-hai reported that my paintings had risen in value. The news brought me little joy. I would much rather spend time with Tung Chih than feel forced to paint.
Anyone who examined my paintings could see their flaws. My brushstrokes showed that I lacked practice, if not talent. My handling of ink revealed that I was merely a beginner. The nature of rice-paper painting allowed no mistakes, which meant that I could be spending hours on a piece, work late into the night, and one lousy stroke would ruin the entire thing. After months of working on my own, I hired an artist-tutor whose job was to cover my flaws.
Landscapes and flowers were my subjects. I also painted birds, usually in pairs. I would place them in the center of the frame. They would perch on the same or separate branches, as if having a chat. In vertical compositions, one bird would sit on the top branch and look down, and the other would be on the bottom branch looking up.
I spent the most time on feathers. Pink, orange and lime green were my favorite feather colors. The tone was always warm and cheerful. Ante- hai suggested that I paint peonies, lotus blossoms and chrysanthemums. He said that I was good at painting these, but I knew he meant they were easier to sell.
A tip I learned from my artist-tutor was that the stamps could be used to cover flaws. Since I had fl aws everywhere, I applied a number of stamps to each painting. When I was dissatisfied and wanted to start over again An-te-hai reminded me that quantity should be my objective. He helped to make the stampings look interesting. When I felt there was nothing I could do to save a work, my tutor would take over.
My tutor worked mostly on backgrounds. She would add leaves and branches to cover my bad parts and would add accents to my birds and flowers. One would think that her fi ne strokes would make mine an embarrassment, but she applied her skill only to “harmonize the music.” Her artistry saved my worst paintings. It was amusing to watch her painstakingly try to match my amateur strokes.
My mind often wandered to my son while I was painting. At night it became difficult to concentrate. I would imagine Tung Chih’s face as he lay in bed and wonder what he was dreaming. When my desire to be with him became desperate, I would put down my brush and run to Tung Chih’s palace, four courtyards from my own. Too impatient to wait for An-te-hai to light the lanterns, I would rush through the darkness, bumping and bruising myself on walls and arches until I arrived at my child’s bedside. There beside my sleeping son, I would check his breathing and stroke his head with my ink-stained hand. When the servant lit the candles I would take one and hold it close to my son’s face. My eyes would trace his lovely forehead, eyelids, nose and lips. I would bend over and kiss him. My eyes would grow moist as I saw his father’s likeness. I would remember when Emperor Hsien Feng and I were in love. My favorite moment was still the time when I sweetly tortured him by demanding that he memorize my name. I wouldn’t leave Tung Chih until An-te-hai found me, his long procession of eunuchs trailing behind him, each carrying a giant red lantern.
“My tutor can paint for me,” I would say to An-te-hai. “Nobody will know that I didn’t apply the stamps myself.” “But you would know, my lady,” the eunuch would reply quietly, and he would escort me back to my palace.
Copyright © 2007 by Anchee Min. Reprinted by permission of Houghton Mifflin Company.