Reenter the Dragon Lady, Re-imagined

By Donna Rifkind,
who reviews fiction frequently for The Washington Post
Tuesday, April 10, 2007


By Anchee Min

Houghton Mifflin. 308 pp. $25

Anchee Min's historical novels about China have a clear purpose beyond entertainment or instruction. Beginning with "Becoming Madame Mao" (2000) and following with a two-volume epic about the dowager empress Tzu Hsi, the author has set out to reject traditional caricatures of female Chinese rulers as power-mad dragon ladies in favor of more nuanced, sympathetic fictional portraits.

"The Last Empress" is the second of the two novels about Tzu Hsi, who ruled China from the mid-19th century to 1908, during the waning years of the Ch'ing dynasty. It continues the story after "Empress Orchid" (2004), in which Min described how the woman rose from among thousands of imperial concubines to become the mother of the emperor's only son. The first novel ended in 1861 with the emperor's death. Because her son was 5 years old at the time and would not assume full power for years, Tzu Hsi, also called Orchid, governed the empire as co-regent along with the late emperor's childless senior wife.

Both the country and the imperial court were undergoing catastrophic changes. China's humiliating defeat in the Opium Wars forced the opening of its ports to the West, easing the way for European, American and Japanese invasions, and allowed missionaries to introduce foreign religion and culture while remaining exempt from Chinese law. The court, plagued by corruption and the constant threat of coups, was straining to pay stupendous war debts and to control widespread peasant uprisings.

"The Last Empress," a more impatiently written novel than its stately, evocative precursor, begins under these inauspicious circumstances. It is Orchid's job to raise the young emperor, Tung Chih, who has few father figures among the contentious schemers in the imperial court, and to rule a vast, increasingly besieged country while avoiding various efforts to depose her. Tung Chih grows into a recalcitrant adolescent, more interested in debauchery than responsibility, and Orchid's hopes of retiring after her son officially ascends to the throne are crushed when he dies of venereal disease. Devastated by this loss and stung by false accusations that she caused his death, Orchid is forced to name a new heir, her nephew Guang-hsu, and to begin the process of educating yet another emperor. In the meantime, China remains "like a mulberry tree nipped away at by worms," vulnerable to continuing attacks by the Japanese, who invade Formosa in 1871, and the British, who annex Burma a few years later.

"Future critics, historians and scholars would insist that Guang-hsu had led a normal life until I, his aunt, wrecked him," sighs Orchid, who goes to great lengths to combat this view. Eager to please but fearful, the young man is easily manipulated by power-grabbing advisers and proves incapable of facing the continuing crisis he has inherited. More and more territory falls out of imperial control: In the mid-1880s Vietnam is ceded to the French, Korea declares independence, and peasants known as Boxers launch the beginnings of a long rebellion that would reach its apex at the turn of the century.

Forced to intervene in every conflict both inside and outside the court, Orchid continues to long for an ever-infeasible retirement. "The burden of arbitration was left solely to me," she declares, "not because I had any special competence but because nobody else could do any better." Meanwhile, the exiled ringleaders of a foiled assassination plot convince the international press that Orchid is an evil dictator, hoping that the slander will urge foreign powers to unseat her. The year 1898 brings further ruin in the form of famine, floods and widespread rioting. When the emperor falls ill, Orchid's enemies claim that she has tried to poison him; when he retreats into solitude after a nervous collapse, it's widely assumed that she has placed him under house arrest. Forced to flee Peking when the Boxer Rebellion and invasions of foreign troops ravage the country, the royals eventually return home to a much-diminished city, saddled with a permanent foreign military presence.

"The ship sinks when a female goes on board," goes an old Chinese saying that the empress tries manfully to disavow. While Orchid's dedication to her country is so absolute that she sacrifices her entire personal life, including a great love for her army commander, many times in Min's narrative she seems more interested in what the Western press and "future critics" will say than in how her own people regard her. Orchid's reign, after all, coincides with the first significant Western interaction with China, which for centuries had been a closed society.

For every generation's dream of China there seems to be a corresponding dream of Tzu Hsi. She was a dragon lady for late-19th-century Westerners who considered that image useful for their colonial aspirations. Today's Tzu Hsi, as Min's revisionist pair of novels imagines her, suits a contemporary Western audience as the vision of an empress who very nearly had it all: vulnerability and strength, motherhood and power, earthiness and dignity, compassion and ambition.

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