Manchu Palaces

Overview

At the midpoint of the Manchus' long sway over the largest empire in China's history, Lotus stands reluctantly on the brink of womanhood. Schooled in painting and music in the hope of securing a place in the imperial palaces of Beijing's Forbidden City, Lotus learns other arts from her father's concubine that are at odds wit the teachings of straitlaced Confucian scholars. Meanwhile, her lively, book-loving cousin prepares herself for the difficult life of a wife and daughter-in-law, seeking a suitable husband ...
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Overview

At the midpoint of the Manchus' long sway over the largest empire in China's history, Lotus stands reluctantly on the brink of womanhood. Schooled in painting and music in the hope of securing a place in the imperial palaces of Beijing's Forbidden City, Lotus learns other arts from her father's concubine that are at odds wit the teachings of straitlaced Confucian scholars. Meanwhile, her lively, book-loving cousin prepares herself for the difficult life of a wife and daughter-in-law, seeking a suitable husband who isn't put off by the smallpox scars that mar her face. As the cousins wend their way through the seductive world of the senses, a second tale, one of spiritual pilgrimage, unfolds: Lotus's beloved mother has died, and her spirit wanders between the realms, struggling to return to life in the flesh. While Lotus explores the mysteries of sex and seeks an end to her mourning, her mother refuses to learn the lessons of the gods and goddesses.
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Editorial Reviews

Publishers Weekly - Publisher's Weekly
Set at the Imperial Court of China's Manchu Qing dynasty in the 17th century, Larsen's marvelously imagined, if somewhat convoluted, second novel (after Silk Road) centers on the coming-of-age of shy, beautiful Lotus, who will be chosen for the coveted position of bond-servant to the Empress Dowager. Young Lotus, living with her extended family (all bond-servants to the emperor) on the outskirts of the palace, is still grief-stricken over the recent death of her mother. Together with her spirited cousin, Wintersweet, she is kept busy with courtly duties. When Lotus's father returns from a long absence, he brings his new love, a worldly concubine called Little Auntie Tao, who teaches Lotus the importance of controlling her emotions and the nuances of traditional feminine power. These skills come in handy when Lotus catches the eye of a prince, who pursues her with the approval of the Empress. This gently intriguing, brilliantly detailed tale forms the strong backbone of the novel. Larsen weakens it somewhat by lavish use of interpolated material, including Chinese fables and mythology, faux historical manuscripts (one penned by an 18th-century Portuguese explorer; another by a scholar in the 1930s) and bland (if satirical) contemporary criticism of Manchu literature. Lotus's singular story of enlightenment, involving a statue of the goddess Tara and the secret of a mandala, is the radiant center of these diversions, however. The result is like a vividly rendered painting whose commanding central image is sometimes obscured but more often enhanced by minutely observed background detail. (Oct.)
Booklist
Both educational and thoroughly enjoyable.
—Nancy Pearl
Library Journal
In her third novel set in Imperial China (e.g., Silk Road, LJ 5/1/89), Larsen continues to detail severe Asian customs regarding women and to temper that harshness with the exquisite sensibilities of Chinese poetry, lush descriptions of nature, and quiet evocation of mood. We chase the rambling tale of Lotus, bond-servant to the 18th-century Empress Dowager in Beijing, from her mother's death through her court appointment. Gods, goddesses, and ghosts of the recently dead wreck havoc throughout. Complex and labyrinthine, this novel expects the reader to work for understanding. The story is told from various points in time by diverse characters often called by different names, a practice some readers may find confusing. Yet the effort of figuring out whether a new name refers to a character previously met does not disengage interest from so elegant a story. Recommended for large fiction collections. [Previewed in Prepub Alert, LJ 6/1/96.]Sheila M. Riley, Smithsonian Inst. Libs., Washington, D.C.
Kirkus Reviews
A luminous, self-contained, fluid world in which history, legend, and a religious quest create a portrait of an age—the glittering high noon of the Manchurian empire.

Myths come down to earth, gods appear as fortune-tellers, and ghosts, lascivious and maternal, intervene in mortal lives as Larsen (Bronze Mirror, 1991; Silk Road, 1989) turns to the Manchus, under whom China reached its imperial zenith. The time is the mid- 18th century: Westerners are curious about the country but are still rare, the Emperor is strong, his subjects are loyal, and great palaces of delicate beauty have been built for his pleasure. But the material world, however brilliant, is for believers an illusion, a distraction from the spiritual journey that is the true purpose of life, and Lotus, a wonderfully original protagonist, will eventually be driven to seek enlightenment—an enlightenment that will come only when a number of scattered sacred statues are once more united to form a mandala, revealing the mythical "hidden pure land" where there is no suffering. As Lotus, still grieving for her dead mother, grows old enough to become a servant of the Dowager Empress in the Forbidden City, legends, poems, histories, and the memoirs of a British opium addict and a 1930s aviatrix further illuminate the myth and the period. Lotus, a Manchu bondservant like her courtier father, has been prepared by her father's concubine for life at court, where beauty and talent may lead to marriage with a prince. And once there, accomplished and strikingly beautiful, she is soon wooed by one, but cryptic comments from mysterious messengers and hauntingly vivid dreams impel her to search for the statues and restore the mandala instead.

An exemplary novelist again makes history a playful parade of personalities, period details, and ordinary people conscripted by the times.

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Product Details

  • ISBN-13: 9781574531336
  • Publisher: Audio Literature
  • Publication date: 7/28/1997
  • Format: Cassette
  • Edition description: 3 Cassettes
  • Product dimensions: 4.40 (w) x 7.03 (h) x 1.41 (d)

Meet the Author

Jeanne Larsen's books include the other two novels in her Avalokitesvara trilogy, Silk Road and Bronze Mirror, as well as James Cook in Search of Terra Incognita: a Book of Poems, Brocade Rivers Poems: Selected Works of the Tang Dynasty Courtesan Xue Tao, and Willow, Wine, Mirror, Moon: Women's Poems from Tang China. She teaches at Hollins University in Virginia.
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