In her memoir Red Azalea (1994) and in three later novels, Anchee Min wrote about the Cultural Revolution in her native China. Empress Orchid is a brilliant re-creation of another tumultuous period in Chinese history, the late 1800’s, when the empire was threatened from without by European imperialists and from within by its own decadence and corruption. Its heroine was a real person, Tsu Hsi, called “Orchid “ because of her beauty. An impoverished girl whose impeccable Manchu lineage took her to court as one of the many wives of the young Emperor Hsien Feng, Orchid eventually became an empress and one of the most powerful people in China.
On her arrival in the Forbidden City, Orchid finds herself a virtual slave, her very life threatened both by a spiteful chief eunuch and by her female rivals. However, Orchid makes her way into the Emperor’s bed, pleases him as a sexual partner, and then so impresses him with her grasp of public affairs that she remains with him as an unofficial advisor. After Orchid bears him an heir, her power seems assured; however, Hsien Feng gives authority over the child to the unworldly Empress Nuharoo, who turns him into a little tyrant.
The ailing Hsien Feng dies when the boy is five. Now Orchid has to get control of her son away from Nuharoo, protect him and herself while she gets rid of her sinister enemy Su Shun, and establish a new regime in which she will be the power behind the throne. Empress Orchid ends with the heroine embarking on her ascent to power. Readers captivated by this fascinating figure out of history would undoubtedly welcome a sequel.