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The Last Empress: A Novel
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The Last Empress: A Novel

3.9 36
by Anchee Min

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The last decades of the nineteenth century were a violent period in China’s history marked by humiliating foreign incursions and domestic rebellion, ultimately ending in the demise of the Ch’ing dynasty. The only constant during this tumultuous time was the power wielded by one person, the resilient, ever-resourceful Tzu Hsi, Lady Yehonala -- or


The last decades of the nineteenth century were a violent period in China’s history marked by humiliating foreign incursions and domestic rebellion, ultimately ending in the demise of the Ch’ing dynasty. The only constant during this tumultuous time was the power wielded by one person, the resilient, ever-resourceful Tzu Hsi, Lady Yehonala -- or Empress Orchid, as readers came to know her in Anchee Min’s critically acclaimed novel covering the first part of her life.

The Last Empress is the story of Orchid’s dramatic transition from a strong-willed, instinctive young woman to a wise and politically savvy leader who ruled China for more than four decades. Moving from the intimacy of the concubine quarters into the spotlight of the world stage, Orchid must face not only the perilous condition of her empire but also a series of devastating personal losses, as first her son and then her adopted son succumb to early death. Yearning only to step aside, and yet growing constantly into her role, only she—allied with the progressives, but loyal to the conservative Manchu clan of her dynasty—can hold the nation’s rival factions together.

Anchee Min offers a powerful revisionist portrait based on extensive research of one of the most important figures in Chinese history. Viciously maligned by the western press of the time as the “Dragon Lady,” a manipulative, blood-thirsty woman who held onto power at all costs, the woman Min gives us is a compelling, very human leader who assumed power reluctantly, and who sacrificed all she had to protect those she loved and an empire that was doomed to die.

Editorial Reviews

Publishers Weekly

Min's Empress Orchidtracked the concubine Orchid's path to becoming Empress Dowager Tzu Hsi; this revisionist look at her long years behind her son Tung Chih's throne (1863–1908) won't disappoint Orchid's fans. Recounted through Tzu Hsi's first-person, the early chapters encompass her trials as a young "widow," as co-regent with the late emperor's wife and as a mother. An engaging domestic drama gives way to pedestrian political history; Tzu Hsi lectures like a popular historian on palace intrigue, military coups, the Boxer Rebellion and conflicts with Russia, France and Japan. Though tears flow, there is little passion (save Tzu Hsi's erotic but chaste longing for Yung Lu, commander of the emperor's troops). Min's empress adopts a notably modern psychologizing tone ("How much was Guang-hsu affected when he was wrenched from the family nest?"), earthy language ("You are the most wretched fucking demon I know!") and notes of historical prescience (including what "future critics" will say). Min attacks the popular conception of Tzu Hsi as a corrupt, ruthless, power-hungry assassin, but the results read less like a novel than a didactic memoir. (Mar.)

Copyright 2006 Reed Business Information.
Library Journal
Three years after the publication of Min's best-selling Empress Orchidcomes the sequel to the life of Lady Yehonala, a.k.a. the Dowager Empress, or the last empress of China. Min picks up Orchid's story from the time of her mother's death and takes readers through the empress's own death in 1908. Departing from the stereotype of Orchid as the "dragon lady" empress, Min uses first-person narration to portray her as a caring mother to Emperor Tung Chih and her nephew, Emperor Guang-hsu. The softness of Orchid's persona is revealed in her relations with her eunuchs, An-te-hai and Li-Lien-ying, while her strength is played out in the politics of the period and in her ability to survive the hardships of the Boxer Rebellion. As seen in the author's previous works (e.g., Becoming Madame Mao), Min consistently blends meticulous historical research with firsthand knowledge of Chinese culture and the female perspective to bring to readers a unique look at women in Chinese history. Essential for all fiction collections. [See Prepub Alert, LJ11/15/06.]
—Shirley N. Quan
Kirkus Reviews
In this sequel to her historical novel Empress Orchid (2004), Min tells the story of late-19th-century China's crumbling empire, from the point of view of the country's much-vilified final empress. Two years after the death of Orchid's husband, she and his "first wife," Nuharoo, are sharing the upbringing of the new Emperor, Orchid's seven-year-old son Tung Chih, and acting as ruling co-regents until he grows up. Orchid is overseeing a nation heavily in debt and slowly losing control of its provinces to western nations and Japan. Orchid is selflessly devoted to governing China. She does not allow herself a relationship with the one man she genuinely loves, focusing instead on preparing Tung Chih for his responsibilities with a single-mindedness that undermines the typical mother-son relationship. When Tung Chih, who hates his duties, dies in his 20s of a venereal disease, Orchid adopts her sister's three-year-old son Guang-hsu and makes him emperor. Although Orchid loves Guang-hsu, her sense of political responsibility again overrides maternal feelings. The sensitive, sweet little boy grows into an indecisive, insecure ruler. Although recognizing the mistakes Guang-hsu and his advisors are making, Orchid often goes along in order to keep his sense of authority intact. By the time of the Boxer Rebellion, she has lost control over her ministers, even while she is being vilified in the Western press as the "Dragon Lady." She wants reform and feels camaraderie with Robert Hart, who keeps China financially afloat for decades. But most of all, she wants to keep China unified, a goal that proves impossible. The great swatches of historical detail will enlighten readers who generally view historyfrom a Western perspective, but with Orchid so busy explaining herself, the human story of a woman who denies her instincts never quite emerges.

Product Details

Houghton Mifflin Harcourt
Publication date:
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Product dimensions:
5.50(w) x 8.25(h) x 0.85(d)

Read an Excerpt

The Beginning

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.

Meet the Author

Anchee Min was born in Shanghai in 1957. At seventeen she was sent to a labor collective, where a talent scout for Madame Mao’s Shanghai Film Studio recruited her to work as a movie actress. She came to the United States in 1984 with the help of actress Joan Chen. Her memoir, Red Azalea, was named one of the New York Times Notable Books of 1994 and was an international bestseller, with rights sold in twenty countries. Her novels Becoming Madame Mao and Empress Orchid were published to critical acclaim and were national bestsellers. Her two other novels, Katherine and Wild Ginger, were published to wonderful reviews and impressive foreign sales.

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Last Empress 3.9 out of 5 based on 0 ratings. 36 reviews.
pumba1029 More than 1 year ago
This book takes you through the life of the last empress orchid. It is actually a sequal to the book Empress Orchid. I read this book first I plan on reading the first one though. It is very accurate I looked up Emrpess Tzu Hsi (empress orchid) and she did exist and EVERYTHING that happend in the book was accurate it matched up with everything I looked up about this empress online. It is very interesting it is a great read if your a history fanatic especailly if your into ancient chinese history. Make sure you dont make the same mistake I did tho, read the book Empress Orchid first then this one, this is a sequel.
juls43v3r More than 1 year ago
I found it hard to get into this book. I read Empress Orchid first and I like that book a whole lot more. My mind kept wandering while I was reading this. I almost felt like I was reading a history text book.
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CautiouslyOptimistic More than 1 year ago
It was an enjoyable read, though not as exciting as Empress Orchid. It holds less romance and emotion, with pleanty of historical facts/fill-ins. It was nice to see how the reign of Empress Orchid comes to a close. Anchee Min's style of writing (as always) was wonderful.
DrCynthiaAcupuncture More than 1 year ago
I have read the book "Empress Orchid" which I liked so much, that is why I broght this bood. Cause I could stop to want know what's next...I think I like that one better, this one is kind depressing...:)).
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