Anchee Min's 'Empress Orchid': addictive

January 25, 2004|By Ben Neihart | Ben Neihart,Special to the Sun

Empress Orchid, by Anchee Min. Houghton Mifflin, 352 pages, $24.

Near the end of Anchee Min's operatic new historical novel, Empress Orchid, an exquisite young widow doomed to a lifetime without physical love sends the gift of three prostitutes to the tent of the handsome young general she loves, consoling herself with the memory of a friend's wise words: "Pain does good things. It prepares us for peace."

In this absolutely addictive book, a marvel of perfectly executed narrative, Min charts the 19th-century rise of Tzu Hsi, China's last empress -- remembered in history books as the Dragon Lady, the epitome of sadistic evil -- from the depths of poverty to the heights of opulence. It is a journey in which the punishing theater of wealth, fame and absolute power illuminates some of the most elegantly arresting scenes of torture in contemporary literature.

Min never wallows in violence, but she cannot tell Tzu Hsi's story without linking the royal family's excruciating material indulgences -- the jewels, the palaces, the fabrics, the feasts -- with the awful and ingenious ways in which they inflict pain on their enemies, lovers and friends. The harrowing moments linger subliminally long after you've finished reading.

For instance, during Hsi's first visit to the Forbidden City, "the Grand Empress had taken us to the Hall of Punishment, where I saw for the first time the famous beauty Lady Fei. She used to be the favorite concubine of Emperor Tao Kuang, but now she lived in a jar. When I saw that Lady Fei had no limbs I almost fainted. ... Her head rested on the rim of the jar, her face was filthy, and green mucus dripped from her chin."

We learn the rituals of court manners, the symbolism of traditional Chinese theater, the rules governing the mating rituals of concubines and prostitutes, and the correct methods for beheading fallen enemies, using the toilet and honoring dead ancestors. The pageantry never overwhelms the narrative; Min's voice is intimate and winning -- she keeps us on the side of the "monster" empress whose history she has scrupulously researched.

The novel opens with Tzu Hsi's backward glance at her long reign. "The truth is that I have never been the mastermind of anything," she begins. "I laugh when I hear people say that it was my desire to rule China from an early age. ... For half a century, I participated in the elaborate etiquette of the court in all its meticulous detail. I am like a painting from the Imperial portrait gallery. When I sit on the throne my appearance is gracious, pleasant, and placid."

Anchee Min does not tear the painting from the wall. She does not slash the canvas to bits. She does not destroy the imperial portrait. What she does is far more difficult: She paints thousands of portraits, hangs them with confidence and leaves us with a heart-rending monument to a complicated heroine.

A sequel is in the works. As eager as I am to read the concluding volume in this story, I would never hurry an artist like Min.

Ben Neihart is the author of Hey, Joe, Burning Girl and Rough Amusements.

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