“Orchid is a young girl, the daughter of a Bannerman (a minor government official) in 19th century China. After her father dies in disgrace, the family, consisting of Orchid, her mother, and younger brother move to Peking. Orchid hears stories of the Imperial Court through Big Sister Fann, a former shoe and dressmaker to the court. She never imagined that she would soon me a member of that court herself.
Responding to a summons calling for all Manchu girls to present themselves to the Court for consideration a possible concubines, Orchid is chosen from hundreds of other girls to be one of a group of seven wives to the Emperor. Another girl, Nuharoo, is also chosen to be one of the seven.
Thus, Orchid's life is totally transformed. She spends her days surrounded by the luxuries of the Forbidden City. However, she is lonely, missing her family, and spending her days waiting to be summoned by the Emperor to his bed. She finally is called, after bribing the chief Eunuch of the Court. The evening begins badly, but through her insights into the nature of loneliness and isolation, she is able to reach through the Emperor's arrogant facade. She becomes the favorite of the Emperor, and eventually gives him a son. She enters a new phase of her life as the mother of the future Emperor. Instead of being revered, she must be constantly vigilant to Court intrigues and the jealousy of the other wives and concubines.
I really enjoyed the period detail of this book. The opulence of the Forbidden City is very effectively portrayed, as well as the intricate interplay of the various members of the Imperial Court. A glaring dichotomy was very obvious within the wall of the Forbidden City. Although the court contained palaces with such poetic names evoking "celestial purity" and "complete happiness," there exists an atmosphere of back-stabbing and betrayal. The reader gets the sense that what the Imperial Court is trying to portray and what exists in reality is tremendously different. I realize that although this is probably the way things really were within the walls of the Forbidden City, it bothered me with its constant deceptions and plots. This atmosphere was capable of turning once beautiful, artistic, and pleasing women into bitter, jealous harpies.
Long ago, I read Anchee Min's Red Azalea, her memoir of her life in China as an actress chosen to be part of Madame Mao's movie ventures. Her writing is very effective in describing the attitudes and politics of the Chinese people, I get the sense that although she loves China and it's culture, she is somewhat conflicted about what her country can do to it's people.”