Okay, I’ll be honest. I can completed understand why this book might not be everyone’s cup of tea. But, for me, I loved it. Chinese history has fascinated me ever since I was little. After graduating from university, I buggered off out of the UK and lived in China and worked as an English teacher. And I loved it. I loved the people, I loved the food, I loved the language (although as time goes on, I’m forgetting more and more of it) and I loved the culture. So, I already knew I was going to enjoy this book before I even started it.
Maybe it’s just me, but I find reading historical books (fiction and non-fiction) to be far more exciting when you have actually been to the countries or cities you are reading about. In that sense, I am lucky that I have been fortunate to travel to the countries that interest me the most (China, Poland & Germany). So, when I was reading this book, I felt like I was there, right in the middle of it.
The book tells the story of Orchid (who later becomes Empress Tzu His), who is a poor girl living in Beijing. She is chosen from thousands of girls to become one of the Emperor’s concubines. She soon finds that living in the palace is not as fun as everyone hyped it up to be. Sure, she has her own palace and lovely clothes, but she has nothing to do other than wait around until the Emperor shows an interest in her. Frustratingly for Orchid, this takes longer than she thought, so she bribes her way into the Emperor’s bed. She learns ways to please him so that he remains interested in her long enough for her to become pregnant and give birth to his only son.
Part of the book focuses on Orchid’s struggle to be her son’s guiding figure as she has to contend with the Emperors main concubine, who seems to think that being a ruler is easy and you can to do it without being firm or having any idea about the history or culture of your country.
The other part of the book focuses on China and the wars that plagued it during this time. This could have been interesting to read, but unfortunately it wasn’t. It was a chore and relatively boring. I found that this element of the book required a lot more concentration that I was willing to give.
That being said, I loved the characters in the book. I particularly liked how Anchee Min wrote the ‘rags to riches’ story of Orchid. More than that, I loved how it showed that sometimes it’s not all it’s cracked up to be.
Throughout the book, I found my feelings for the characters change drastically. At the start, I thought Orchid was too naïve and needed to get a grip of herself. By the end of it I loved her. When we were first introduced to Nurahoo (the Emperors No. 1 concubine), I really liked her and thought she was a friendly and compassionate character, however, as it went on, I despised her. You get the picture..
So, all in all, I would say that Anchee Min’s strength lies in the portrayal of the people, rather than the political affairs of China. However, I need to feel for her, because it would have impossible to write this book without drawing on the turmoil that China found itself in at that time.
If you do read this book and like it, try Wild Swans: Three Daughters of China by Jung Chang.
If you do read this book and find that you don’t enjoy it, try Wild Swans: Three Daughters of China by Jung Chang. It’s far easier to read and is one my favourite books!