Hazel McHaffie

Manchu people

The life of an Empress in China

Our British literature abounds with tales of royal intrigue across the ages in the UK and Europe, but how much do we know of other nations’ history? In my case, precious little, so reading a very engaging story of China’s last Empress proved fascinating.

OK, Henry VIII rather fancied he was above the laws of the land and could change the rules to suit his whims, but imagine if the king/emperor is deemed an infallible god! … he’s known as the ‘Son of Heaven’ – ‘whatever he does is Heaven’s will.’ From childhood he has the notion drummed into him that everyone in the Forbidden City lives to attend to his needs. So removed from reality is he, indeed, that he grows up spoilt and with no appreciation of suffering in others; he believes in and consults the gods and his ancestors, but when they don’t fulfill his wishes he is left with an enormous burden of responsibility and guilt. An unenviable inheritance.

Empress Orchid by Chinese American author, Anchee Min, starts at the time when the ruler in question is Emperor Hsein Feng, ninth Emperor of the Manchu-led Qing dynasty, and the seventh Qing emperor to rule over China proper. We’re talking 1850 to 1861.

It’s hard to conceive of a court so opulent and extravagant and yet so cruel and superstitious. Strict rules of etiquette, ritual and ceremony apply to everyone, with horrific punishments meted out to those who infringe them. Wives and concubines are arbitrarily beheaded or ordered to hang themselves; younger sons can be exalted above older ones without challenge; torture is commonplace.

Emperor Hsein Feng is actually ‘delicate and sensitive’ as well as fearful and ‘deeply insecure’, but he hides this under a façade of ‘arrogance and decisiveness’. He is fabulously wealthy, but outside of his numerous palaces there is abject poverty – frozen bodies left in the streets after ice-storms; families unable to afford essential food or bury their loved ones; people stinking because they are unable to wash or change their clothes; girls forced to marry totally unsuitable men to rescue their families from destitution.

One such girl is Orchid, a poverty-stricken girl from an aristocratic background, on the verge of entering a forced marriage with an unattractive and mentally-challenged cousin, to save her family from penury. The story is told through her eyes and begins with an event which changes her life for ever: the Selection of Imperial Consorts. The new Emperor is looking for a new harem, his mother, Grand Empress Lady Jin, a powerful influence in his choices. The task is to select seven official wives who will be given magnificent palaces to live in all with exotic names – Palace of Earthly Tranquillity, Palace of Universal Inheritance, Palace of Eternal Peace, Palace of Great Mercy, etc.

All Manchu girls between 13 and 17 are required to register to become part of the Imperial household of 3000 concubines – in the Imperial garden of beauty; 18 is considered a ‘flower on its way to withering’. None of these teenagers can marry until the Emperor has ‘passed them up.’ Representing the Emperor in the initial stages is the chief eunuch who inspects all the girls carefully. The finalists are kept locked away in the Forbidden City, guaranteed a lifetime of annual payment based on title and rank, but always one false move away from execution. Humiliating experiences and ferocious vetting procedures (sometimes naked in front of several eunuchs) to eliminate defects such as sloping shoulders, slight smells, a graceless walk, await them.

2000 eunuchs are a constant presence within the Forbidden City, poised to remove any girl who loses control or betrays any behaviour outside the strict etiquette required inside those sacred walls. These men – more than 50 thousand added annually – are quick-witted boys often from impoverished backgrounds who are castrated at a young age to guarantee the Emperor is the ‘sole seed-planter’, regimented, punished, severely disciplined, all in the hope of becoming the Imperial favourite, a legend above the nation. Anger and brutality are rife amongst them. So too is inspirational loyalty.

Orchid is kitted out in regal clothes and glides through the selection process until she is one of two hundred girls competing to be one of the seven royal wives. Though competing with the rich and famous and royally connected, she is chosen by the eunuchs, an honour beyond the family’s wildest dreams; or, as her mother puts it before the Gate of Zenith slams shut on her old life and her family, ‘Consider yourself boarding a ship of mercy on the sea of suffering’. Aged just 17, knowing nothing of how to pleasure a man, she is taken by a family friend to a ‘whorehouse’ to learn the tricks of their trade. But the young Emperor is neither as highly sexed nor as fertile as his fathers, and Orchid waits in vain to be summonsed to the royal bed. In desperation she bribes the head eunuch who negotiates her an invitation, and she quickly becomes the favoured concubine. However, this in turn stirs up huge jealousies and threatens her security; punishments for monopolising the Emperor are brutal. One such concubine had all her limbs hacked off and her living torso kept in a jar as a warning to others.

Thousands of years of tradition lie behind many of these arcane customs and rituals. My medical sensitivities recoiled from the method of diagnosing illness. No male apart from the eunuchs and the Emperor is allowed to see any of the females in the Forbidden City, so doctors have to make a diagnosis from nothing more than feeling a pulse behind a curtain. And it’s in this bizarre way that Orchid finds out what’s ailing her: ‘My lady, the dragon’s seed has sprouted!’ At last! But reality hits home all too soon. Her pregnancy makes her the object of jealousy and envy, evil intent and vicious plots. Not only does she face falling out of royal favour herself, but her child is in danger if he doesn’t perform to order as a baby or toddler.

Penetrating deeper and deeper into these ancient practices and superstitions gives us an insight into why the people perceived Christianity and any attempt to save the souls of the Chinese, to be an insult to their age-old traditions and beliefs and gods.

Immersed in the elaborate, secluded and extravagant lives women lead inside the Forbidden City, Orchid struggles to understand what’s going on in the rest of the country. But she’s inquisitive, and intelligent and persistent. She objects inwardly to the diktat that the role of Empresses is to feel not to rule, so seizes an opportunity when the Emperor becomes too ill and frail to rule effectively, to become in effect his secretary, and consequently privy to his official papers and activities; she helps to couch his responses and edicts, sharing His Majesty’s dream of reviving China. But Orchid doesn’t suffer from a god-complex; she’s wise enough to listen to others. As his health fails, the Emperor, still in his 20s, becomes depressed, in pain and pessimistic, taking less and less interest in state affairs, and almost imperceptibly Orchid takes over writing the edicts herself, making them more encouraging and positive, less dictatorial and punitive.

But this is the 1850s, the time of the opium wars, China’s power and influence is waning, the economy shrinking. She is increasingly under threat from the Allies – Russia, Britain, France. Ancient Chinese ways of fighting wars – fortified earthworks, bamboo stakes, ditches and dykes, martial arts – are an embarrassment in the face of the cannons and guns and warships of the Westerners. Disaster looms.

Orchid is appalled when the Emperor decides he will desert Peking and his people, ostensibly to ‘go hunting’, but her protestations meet with a wall of regal immovability. Her husband even threatens to send her a silk rope to hang herself if she persists. His brothers too, all risk their lives to protest against his departure, but the sick king is a coward, and insists not only on going but on doing so with the usual enormous pomp and ostentation. Even in desertion etiquette must be observed – ‘the Imperial household stretched for three miles’ – leaving despair and chaos behind it.

The Forbidden City is ransacked and destroyed and looted. Emperor Hsein Feng dies, still a young man in his early 30s. At the eleventh hour, and then only under severe pressure, he names his only son the next Emperor. Orchid, the Emperor’s biological mother, and her senior sister-wife Nuharoo, together act as regents. Their brother-in-law, Prince Kung, negotiates with the Allies for a freer society, and a kinder more tolerant regime replaces the old order.

In telling the story of the last Empress, Min really brings history alive and captures the absurdities and traditions vividly. My main difficulty was separating out the characters – the Chinese names are hard to remember and keep track of. Nevertheless it’s a tale well told.


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