By Anchee MinHoughton Mifflin, 336 pp., $24
Ten years ago, readers of Anchee Min's memoir, ''Red Azalea," were gripped by the story of her youth in China, where she was exiled to the Red Fire Farm labor camp and then abruptly rescued by Madame Mao. Min tells this tale of suppressed freedom and stifled passion in a pained if awkward voice, reminding us that we are fortunate to live in a world where choice is assumed.
After ''Red Azalea," Min turned to fiction, and her novel ''Becoming Madame Mao" was a bestseller in 2001. Her new historical novel, ''Princess Orchid," is the story of China's last empress, Tzu Hsi, whom Chinese textbooks called ''a mastermind of pure evil and intrigue." This image, Min argues, is unfair. Orchid's rise to power is a model of a woman who manages her fate, overcoming traditional cultural limits to help her country.
When Orchid was born, in 1835, China had been ruled by Manchu emperors for seven generations. Her father, from a powerful Manchu clan, had slipped into poverty after a series of political demotions resulting from his failure to control the Taiping peasant uprisings. The novel begins with his death, as the impoverished family spends its last taels to transport his body back to Peking for burial. This is the first of the traditional imperatives that shape Orchid's life.
In Peking, the family moves in with Eleventh Uncle, another poor relative, and suffers through a terrible winter, barely avoiding the bill collector and subsisting on bread made from white garden clay and wheat flour. Orchid confronts a second traditional imperative when her desperate mother arranges her marriage to distant cousin Bottle, who is both ''slow" and an opium addict.
To avoid this nightmarish fate, Orchid applies to be one of young Emperor Hsien Feng's imperial consorts. She fulfills the traditional job requirements; her clan is noble, and she is both beautiful and a virgin. Luckily, too, her employer, Big Sister Fann, was once an attendant to the reigning empress, Chu, who is Hsien's mother. Aided by Fann's tutoring in the ways of the court, Orchid wins the position of fourth wife of the Son of Heaven.
However, Orchid finds life in the Forbidden City tedious, and she is stifled by the pampering. Every morning, she spends hours preparing for a possible visit from her husband, Hsien. She passes the day waiting alone by her pond. Her husband never summons her.
Court tradition mandates that the emperor's seven wives may be ''sisters," but they are not friends. Suspicious and crafty, they compete for Hsien's ''seed." The 18-year-old Orchid sees her future in the madness of the elderly concubines, no longer beautiful, who pass their day chanting to Buddha. Finally, her trusted eunuch and chief attendant, An-te-Hai, suggests that Orchid bribe Chief Eunuch Shem to schedule a visit with Hsien during her fertile time of the month. Even if Hsien calls her, the innocent Orchid does not know how to please a man so Big Sister Fann arranges a private tutorial with prostitutes from the House of Lotus.
This lesson, combined with her natural forthrightness, works. For a time, Hsien and Orchid behave like young lovers. Eventually, however, she also becomes his scribe, counselor, and nurse. Her enhanced influence replaces boredom with danger. Although she is the mother of his only son, Tung Chih, Orchid's life is always at risk inside the court. At best, a misstep means death by mandated suicide; at worst, it means death by beheading or dismemberment. Outside the walls, peasants are rioting, foreigners are approaching, and rivers are flooding. Emperor Hsien, frightened and ill, withdraws from his responsibilities into a lingering death.
Popular Chinese history takes the view that once Hsien died and Orchid became acting regent for her 6-year-old son, she allowed the empire to collapse. In contrast, Min portrays Orchid as working effectively inside the rigid constraints of the traditional political system. She learns patience, poise, and wisdom. Granted, Orchid transcribed and then created Hsien's proclamations, but this was only because the dying emperor asked for her help. In fact, when she worried about the empire, she could not worry about her son. Tung seems as selfish as his father, and by age 3 he knows how to order a beheading. The novel ends with Hsien's death, but Min plans sequels that will follow Orchid's career through her regency and into the 20th century.
To write this novel, Min extensively researched Orchid's life as well as the public records of the time. Even when the scaffolding of research slows down the narrative -- and it sometimes does -- we still cheer for Orchid. We may not admire this woman warrior as much as we do Min, heroine of ''Red Azalea," but we learn from Orchid's life that a strong woman has the ability to make an impact on her nation despite the limits of role, culture, and gender. Princess Orchid just had to wait for Min to set her record straight.
Judy Budz is a professor of English at Fitchburg State College.