The fictional persona of Empress-Dowager Cixi: Anchee Min’s Empress Orchid and The Last Empress

51DUc3-4YnL._SX300_My reecent trip to China in June 2014 still has a profound impact on my spare-time reading, and has even meant that I am tackling an item on my bucket list, which is learning Mandarin. Or rather, I have no idea whether I shall master Mandarin, but I am giving it a go, and am enjoying this very much too. As far as my reading is concerned, one of my main research interests as a professional art historians concerns the discousres of power and especially gender. Even more particularly, I teach on the powerful women of the Italian and Elizabethan Renaissance (Isabella d’Este, Queen Elizabeth I, Bess of Hardwick etc) and one of the themes I have returned to in my reading recently are writings about the Empress Dowager Tzu-Hsi, Lady Yehonala, Cixi- which are just some of the many names she is known by/ As in Western literature, she is usually referred to as Cixi,  I will use this name here for convenience’s sake, but clearly, if sources disagree on what to call a significant historical character, then we have the first indication already of a subject worth looking into in more detail, for all sorts of reasons. First of all, reasons of biography- why is there such a divergence in naming this remarkable woman? What is there in a name? Well, it turns out, rather a lot, and possibly in the context of late nineteenth-century China, even more than usual. Please bear with me on this, as I am no expert on Chinese history, but there is much about the power politics of the Q’ing Court that resonates with me as a Renaissance art historian, and there are a number of fascinating observations that stand out even from a cursory engagement with the subject. The name of a person signifies rank, status and profession, but also says much about family and political alliances. Much of this is familiar: take, for example, one of the foremost 16th century families at the Tudor Courts, the Seymours. A Seymour implied adherence to the reform movement, so the name places the bearer in a political camp already. At the Q’ing Court, a family or clan name may have indicated adherence to a similar faction, maybe the ultra-conservative Ironhats, or maybe a more reformist group. If we look at the Seymour’s again, then the given, or Christian names, become interesting as here a Christian name may imply flattery of a patron who shares the same name, say, an Edward, or an Elizabeth. There is a limited pool for given names, often drawn from saints’ names, so choices are limited, and very often say little about the personal qualities of the bearer of the name. Chinese names work differently, and certainly given names are subject to change at different stages of the lifecycle, especially of a woman. A name tells us about a woman’s status, and also her connections, and Cixi’s history of names is a case in point, as her various names and titles reflect her comparative power at various stages in her life. So, the issue of what to call her is not just an issue about being ‘correct’ and using the appropriate name; it rather offers the writer control over shaping his or her subject by picking a particular angle from a whole range of options. Cixi is just one part of the whole prism of experiences and histories associated with the historical figure of the Q’ing Dynasty’s Empress Dowager whose death in 1908 precipitated the fall of the dynasty- and arguably, its the name often used in Western sources because of a need to almost ‘translate’ Western conventions about names into a description and discussion of Chinese customs. There is certainly a whole other story here which I am trying to unpick a bit at the moment (blog to follow), while working through one of the best known and most notorious sources on the Q’Ing Court and the Empress Dowager of them all, the contemporary writings of Backhause and Bland. And after that, of course, the writings by Pearl Buck, especially her Imperial Woman.

Anyway, this rather long introduction might help in looking at Anchee Min’s novels loosely based on Cixi’s biography, Empress Orchid (2004)  and its sequel, The Last Empress (2007). Both are wonderfully written accounts assigning Cixi the narrative voice, so we as readers are watching events unfold from Cixi’s perspective. Min gives a voice to her female protagonist, and this convention allows her of course to tell of the non-public and private elements of Cixi’s story- her fears, her hopes, her despair, her joy. Min, in other words, proves herself to be a master writer of histoprical fiction in her scrupulous attention to the documented events of Cixi’s life, but trying to imagine her emotional landscape. Her Cixi is driven by a need not only to survive (quite a tricky undertaking in the enclosed confines of the politics of the Forbidden City), but a desire to retain a core sense of her identity, so interestingly, as Cixi’s many names change, the narrative remains grounded in the recognisable character of its narrator. Empress Orchid essentially covers the years between Cixi’s entry into the Forbidden City in 1851, as a 6th-rank concubine named Noble Lady Lan, to the death of Emperor Hsien-Feng in 1861, and the commencement of Cixi’s first period of regency, as co-reigning Empress Dowager. Cixi became known as Empress Dowager Tzu Hsi and her co-regent, Lady Nuharu (well, that is one of the many names associated with her…), as Empress Dowager Tzu An. Both women reigned on behalf of the 5-year old Tung Chi. In a way, this first book offers Anchee Min the perfect showcase for her formidable narrative talents: much of the events of the story, with one notable exception, take place within the claustrophobic and sealed environment of the Forbidden City with its layers and layers of stiff protocol; and ceremonies. Min as a writer plays with the stability and immutability of this background by emphasiing the shiftitng interior emotional landscape of Cixi, and the way in which Cixy restructures her perceptions of her surroundings in the relationships she forms with her husband, her son, her co-empress and most importantly of all, the eunuchs that make up her closest ‘family’. The notable exception to the stability of Cixi’s external settings occurs with the flight of the Q’ing Court to Jehol in 1860; while away from Peking and the Forbidden City, Emperor Hsien Feng dies, and James, 8th Lord Elgin ransacks and burns the Peking  Summer Palace, in an act of humiliation for the Q’ing Dynasty and its refusal to entertain more open diplomatic and trading relationships with the Western powers. When Cixi re-enters the Forbidden City, not just her emotional landscape,but her physical environment has changed dramatically, and Min uses the burning of the Summer Palace and the Flight to Jehol as a hinge around which the narrative turns.

The second book in the series, The Last Empress, is for me the weaker of the two books, because the scale of the story has been upped so dramatically. Where one spans one decade, from 1851-1861, the other deals with the period from 1861 to Cixci’s death in 1908. As a result, the close focus on the narrative voice of Cixi gets lost, and the gentle, often quite lyrical prose of the first book becomes hard and business-like; clearly, Min chooses a different voice for her protagonist because her protagonist has grown up, assumed power and is holding her own as a woman in the intensely masculine context of a beleagurerd Manchu Court. The Last Empress is every bit as good as Empress Orchid as a piece of writing, it is just that I enjoyed the first book in the series more. Part of its appeal for me could be Min’s attention to detail in describing the ceremonial and material culture of the Court, and here of course my interests as Renaissance art historian, with an interest in cereony, power, gender and self-fashioning converged with my passion for reading. What interested me most? The construction of the persona of the Empress Dowager. At this stage, we still know so little about China in the late-nineteenth century- yes, there are sources, but while there are Western eyewitness accounts, fascinating for their insights into contemporary attitudes towards China, there are few alternatives to how these stories are told. But again and again, both fictional and factual accounts return to the Empress Dowager as both an exception and a symbol of her people, so I reckon that undertstading more about the various constructions of the  persona of the Empress Dowager who has become such an important entry point into this history, is an interesting experiment into looking at the telling of history. Makes perfect sense, right?


Julia Lovell, The Guardian 28 February 2004



One thought on “The fictional persona of Empress-Dowager Cixi: Anchee Min’s Empress Orchid and The Last Empress

  1. Pingback: The contemporary Western view of Manchu China: Edmund Backhouse and J.O.P.Bland’s China under the Empress Dowager (1910) | renaissanceissues

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