Genres: Historical Fiction, Cultural
Main themes: Empowering Women, Power
Rating: 5 stars
This rich historical account follows the life of Orchid, a 17 year old Manchu girl from Wuhu who’s been facing severe hardships due to the death of her father. We see that life for Orchid and her family has become increasingly discouraging, and all Orchid wishes for is a chance to better all of their lives. That chance arrives when it’s officially announced that Emperor Hsien Feng is on the lookout for future mates. Being eligible, Orchid puts herself forward and eventually, is selected out of thousands of girls to become one of the Emperor’s 7 wives. The rest of the story tells of Orchid’s journey in the Forbidden City and how eventually, she rises the ranks to become an Empress of China.
I really enjoyed Empress Orchid, reading it was such a great experience because everything about it was so engrossing. The plot had so much depth, the narrative was strong throughout, and for me it was such an eye opener to 19th century China and its culture. I loved learning about many of the Chinese laws, customs and traditions. It was very insightful and all described beautifully.
I never actually realised this novel was so closely based on real historical events until I was halfway through the story. It was nice to know though because from the beginning, the characters felt very real to me; they left such strong impressions and were very memorable.
My favourite character would definitely have to be Orchid; I admire her so much and was rooting for her throughout the whole book. Despite living a life of comfort once in the Forbidden City, Orchid was still troubled as it seemed that from the very beginning, nearly everyone was against her because of her background, as well as her blossoming relationship with Emperor Hsien Feng. She had many battles; that of abandonment and apprehension, restriction and isolation. It was especially hard when she was not even permitted to be a proper mother to her own child; she had to step back because giving birth to the heir of the throne meant nothing when you were considered to be just a ‘lower class’ concubine.
It wasn’t just a case of wanting to see the underdog do well though- Orchid was just a brilliant character. Her narrative was at times very humorous because she was just so honest, and she often found it hard to yield to customs if it meant sacrificing her dignity and what she believed in. I really respect that about Orchid because in a time when women were just possessions and it was wrong for them to even be in the presence of men when they were talking about politics, Orchid never let that way of thinking hold her back. She had such a progressive mindset and dared to take risk after risk if it meant she would be helping Hsien Feng, or securing her survival for another day.
In addition to that, I also really love that Orchid refused to be ignorant towards the difficulties China was facing. She may have been a woman but Orchid would often help Hsien Feng with political matters, offering him solutions that actually worked, and even writing and sending off decrees. It wasn’t just as a woman that Orchid took risks though; she challenged some of the longstanding traditions and beliefs that in some ways were holding China back. And it wasn’t to be rebellious but because she loved her country and didn’t want to see it fall.
And so despite knowing from the get go that Orchid would one day be Empress, I was still extremely passionate about wanting her to show everyone that someone of her ‘background’ would one day rule over China for many decades. And even though she believed that the Forbidden City had ruined what was left of the girl from Wuhu, I still think she was such an admirable character because she was just so honest and I don’t think her good morals or humbleness ever really left her. She was human and refused to be anything different than what she was.
I also really liked An-te-hai; I don’t think you could ask for anyone more loyal to look out for you. I thought it was sweet that he and Orchid were able to develop a strong friendship, and that Orchid found so much comfort in having An-te-hai by her side. I had to smile at the part where Orchid recalled the time when Chief Eunuch Shim had presented her with her new attendants. He claimed that he’d given her the ones who basically slept so quietly, you wouldn’t be able to tell they were there. Orchid discovered that An-te-hai was not only a snorer, but a loud one at that. Even so, his snoring became one of the most comforting sounds Orchid wouldn’t be able to sleep without.
Overall I thought Empress Orchid was amazing. I love that it was more than just a young girl wanting to enter the Forbidden City to win the Emperor’s heart, but about someone who would not be swayed by the wind despite being oppressed by those who had great power, and those trying to obtain it. Min’s writing style was both captivating and compelling; from the moment I started reading this book I always felt submerged within the character’s world. I’m really looking forward to reading the sequel, especially as there’s so much yet to be told.