This painterly abstract is a photograph
of tree bark with vibrant color, texture and contrast. Many images are revealed
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associated to Empress Tzu Hsi or Empress Orchid, the last Empress of China. She is in her violet robes at the bottom of the photograph with an Imperial Headdress as she ponders her fate as the last powerful Chinese Empress of the fallen Chi’ng dynasty. Another powerful presence looms overhead in the top right corner among other powerful imagery in this fascinating historical study. Power is a here- today, gone-tomorrow concept in Chinese history, especially for women. Given the role of women in power in history, the story of the Imperial court was of oppression and severe restrictions on personal freedom and private feelings for women. An enforced distance among members of the imperial family was a time of turmoil constant fear and physical harm affected those who opposed the rigid order of the Chinese Imperial Dynasty. Life for an Emperor or Empress in the forbidden city was imprisonment in a guilded cage. I think the story of ancient history of powerful female political leaders is particularly relevant today as we face an election which in part is a conflict of male/ female domination. More than ever, gender can no longer be the priority. What is needed is a powerful leader unfettered by bureaucracies or elections, who makes political decisions that are genuinely in the national interest. It is impressive that the author, took on the formidable task to “rehabilitate” crucial female figures in Chinese history.The historical tradition describes Empress Orchid as the dragon lady, an overbearing, selfish, greedy, and bloodthirsty ruler. In contrast after extensive research, Min portrays her as a loving mother, trying to protect her country and longing to step down but prevented from doing so by her wishy-washy son. The Last Empress is an endlessly interesting look at palace life, that hermetically sealed world that once existed in China. The author, Min adopts a notably modern psychologizing tone (“How much was Guang-hsu affected when he was wrenched from the family nest?”), earthy language (“You are the most wretched f*#&%$# demon I know!”) and notes of historical prescience (including what “future critics” will say). Min attacks the popular conception of Tzu Hsi as a corrupt, ruthless, power-hungry assassin. Her story delineates the decay and evil from within, combining political machinations and self-aggrandizing power games with such intense inward-looking by most of the imperial court that most failed to see the internal and external dangers encroaching on Beijing until it was far too late. Parallels to the political crisis in the United State’s dangerous misuse of power during the Bush administration resulting in corruption, greed and great peril on a global scale are apparent to those who perceive the damage done by the destructive actions of our President. Whoever becomes our next president has a formidable task to repair the damage done and maybe a change in gender by an experienced and intelligent woman who has extensive political experience is a very important option to consider. It is impertive to be guided by facts, not bias so unlike the story of the dynasty in Ancient China, we can repair the damage done before it is too late. It behooves every citizen to become well informed since so many myths and distortions must be teased out to uncover the truth and alter the course of history for the survival of our planet and the serious dangers that threaten the human population on a global level. What makes the story of the Chinese dynasty so important is how different facts are presented given the time and extensive effort Ms. Min who provides us with a strong and insightful feel for life and the irrepable damage done to China’s imperial city. Known now in the modern English (pinyin) transliteration as Ci Xi, the last Empress of China has until now been portrayed as the manipulative power behind the throne of the last four Emperors of China (her husband and then her own son, followed by a nephew and finally by the infamously impotent Pu Yi), Ci Xi. The Empress in official Chinese history is portrayed as so power-crazed that she singularly caused the downfall of Imperial China. The book, The Last Empress tackles Ci Xi’s life from a quite different angle. Based on extensive research of Beijing’s archives, Min portrays the “evil” Empress as an empathetic figure, a loving wife and perhaps misguided mother, a woman who yearned to be released from the bondage of imperial rule over a nation in rapid decline for the lack of intellectual capacity and political competence of her husband’s successors. Thus, we are presented with an empress in handcuffs, chained to her position of power and wealth by the exigencies of China’s late 19th Century moment. With a new perspective from the author, we understand more about this powerful figure after reading about the first part of the life of Tzu Hsi, or Empress Orchid when she became a widow, mother of the only male heir of the now-deceased emperor. Still, she must contend with palace intrigue on all fronts; even her eunuchs are bribed. She must put up with the smiling faces of men and women who mean her great harm. After her son dies, she adopts her nephew to be emperor, treats him like a son, and despairs of his weakness. Constant deceit is not the only difficulty which must be faced: intrusions of foreigners and domestic rebellion are also part of this violent period at the end of the 19th century. There is the love-hate relationship with the Japanese, the Boxer Rebellion, and widespread mistrust of Western foreigners. Yet Empress Orchid believes that they must appease these factions in order to preserve the dynasty and the throne. All these problems converge to bring the Ch’ing Dynasty to its eventual demise. The last Empress offers a fulfilling sequel to Empress Orchid and a fascinating insider’s perspective on the death throes of an ancient empire.
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