The Last Empress: A Novel

Anchee Min

Houghton Mifflin Harcourt, 2008

Agent: Sandra Dijkstra

The last decades of the nineteenth century were a violent period in China’s history marked by humiliating foreign incursions and domestic rebellion, ultimately ending in the demise of the Ch’ing dynasty. The only constant during this tumultuous time was the power wielded by one person, the resilient, ever-resourceful Tzu Hsi, Lady Yehonala -- or Empress Orchid, as readers came to know her in Anchee Min’s critically acclaimed novel covering the first part of her life.

The Last Empress is the story of Orchid’s dramatic transition from a strong-willed, instinctive young woman to a wise and politically savvy leader who ruled China for more than four decades. Moving from the intimacy of the concubine quarters into the spotlight of the world stage, Orchid must face not only the perilous condition of her empire but also a series of devastating personal losses, as first her son and then her adopted son succumb to early death. Yearning only to step aside, and yet growing constantly into her role, only she—allied with the progressives, but loyal to the conservative Manchu clan of her dynasty—can hold the nation’s rival factions together.

Anchee Min offers a powerful revisionist portrait based on extensive research of one of the most important figures in Chinese history. Viciously maligned by the western press of the time as the “Dragon Lady,” a manipulative, blood-thirsty woman who held onto power at all costs, the woman Min gives us is a compelling, very human leader who assumed power reluctantly, and who sacrificed all she had to protect those she loved and an empire that was doomed to die. 

“Today’s Tzu His, as Min’s revisionist pair of novels imagines her, suits a contemporary Western audience as the vision of an empress who very nearly had it all: vulnerability and strength, motherhood and power, earthiness and dignity, compassion and ambition."
Washington Post

“…a novel that evokes the intrigue and opulence of 19th century China. …[Min] has emerged as a talented and widely acclaimed novelist in her adopted language, a remarkable feat. She is an evocative, bold writer who seems eager to take on a broad canvas.”
Los Angeles Times

“[Min] has taken on the task not only of bringing to life the fall of monarchist China but also of revising the canon’s version of it.”
Minneapolis Star Tribune

“This tale of royal intrigue is played out in an era when China was beset by foreign intervention…A sympathetic look at a woman who was reviled in the Western press of her era.”
Milwaukee Journal Sentinel 

“Admirers of Empress Orchid will be interested in this sequel. Others may find the introduction to relatively modern Chinese history a revelation.”
Rocky Mountain News

“Empress Tzu His of China went down in history as the original dragon lady: power mad and bloodthirsty, complete with six-inch fingernails. But Anchee Min’s forceful historical novel, The Last Empress (Houghton Mifflin), turns the dragon lady image on its head…. In this sequel to Min’s Empress Orchid, a passionate young woman becomes a commanding leader, beset by disappointments and longing. Meticulously researched, The Last Empress fascinates.  Empress Tzu His may have been the first powerful woman branded with the dragon lady image, but she wasn’t the last. Let the reclamation projects begin.”

“Min completes her stupendous two-volume historical novel about China’s Empress Tzu His, or Orchid, an indomitable and forward-thinking leader who was demonized, conspired against, feared, and worshipped…. Min distills and transcends a vast amount of long hidden, highly significant historical fact to create a brilliantly imagined and pellucid novel possessing all the drama and angst of a Greek tragedy in its portrayal of an unjustly maligned, truly extraordinary woman leader.”
Booklist (starred)

“As seen in the author’s previous works (Becoming Madame Mao), Min consistently blends meticulous historical research with firsthand knowledge of Chinese culture and the female perspective to bring to readers a unique look at women in Chinese history.  Essential for all fiction collections.”
Library Journal

“[T]his revisionist look at her long years behind her son Tung Chih’s throne (1863-1908) won’t disappoint Orchid’s fans….Min’s empress adopts a notably modern psychologizing tone…earthy language…and notes of historical prescience….Min attacks the popular conception of Tzu His as a corrupt, ruthless, power-hungry assassin.”
Publishers Weekly

“In this sequel to her historical novel Empress Orchid (2004), Min tells the story of late-19th-century China’s crumbling empire, from the point of view of the country’s much-vilified final empress….The great swatches of historical detail will enlighten readers who generally view history from a Western perspective….”
Kirkus Reviews