Keith Laidler's "The Last Empress" is not as bad as all that, even if his background as a writer of popular fiction does shine through here and there.
Mr Laidler writes in a nice, fluid prose style, and there are numerous footnotes and many generally well-chosen quotes. But there are certainly drawbacks, too, although I think two stars is a little too harsh.
"The Last Empress" is the story of Wang Xiaoqian, a young girl born in 1834 or 1835 in a village called Xipo. She joined the harem of the Xianfeng emperor at the age of 16 or 17, and bore him a son who became the Tongzhi emperor. During the boy's minority (he was only five when his father died), his mother reigned with a firm hand, and she continued to do so more or less until her death in 1908. You may have seen her portrayed with eerie charisma by actress Lisa Lu in a brief but memorable scene in Bernardo Bertolucci's classic "The Last Emperor".
Now, this sounds like an exciting story, right? Well, it is, and Keith Laidler tells it well, but he does rely an awful lot on anecdotal "evidence", and, in some cases, pure speculation.
And he constantly refers to the empress dowager as "Yehonala", as though this was her first name, when it was in fact the name of the clan into which she was adopted as a young girl. "Yeho-Nala", usually romanized as "Yehe-Nara", is not a given name, but rather like a surname (her actual name, post-adoption, was Yehe-Nara Yulan, that is "Yulan of the Yehe-Nara clan").
That annoyed me a first, until I got used to it. Especially because everybody in the Western world who has ever heard of "the western empress dowager", as she was called, probably know her as Cixi, or, in Wade-Giles' more pronouncement-friendly romanization, Tzu Hsi. That is "motherly auspicious" or "august mother".
But I'm losing my train of thought here. Again, as I said, the book is well-written and quite exciting, but unfortunately it is of doubtful historical value. Nobody really knows how the young Yulan became the emperor's favorite lover, but Keith Laidler makes up a fanciful story about her astounding abilities in bed, which is one of the low points of the book.
And there are few surprising mistakes as well, such as Mr Laidler's claim that "she (Tzu Hsi) came as close as any woman in Chinese history to ascending the Dragon Throne".
Honestly! If you're interested in Chinese history, you must read up on the fascinating story of the empress Wu Zhao (623 or 625 - 705), who took over the government when her husband, the Gaozong emperor, fell ill in late 660. She ruled "from behind the curtain" (quite literally, since regents traditionally sat behind a yellow curtain right behind the imperial throne and whispered their advise to the emperor) for 23 years until the death of the emperor. Then her son Li Zhe became the Zhongzong emperor, but after a brief reign his mother swapped him for her younger, and presumably more manageable, son Li Dan, the Ruizong emperor. And finally, in late 690, the old empress dowager deposed him as well, but not, like Tzu Hsi, in favour of a hapless child during whose minority she could continue to rule unopposed. Instead she took the title "Shensheng Huangdi", that is "holy spirit emperor", and ascended the Dragon Throne herself.
Anyway. You should borrow Mr Laidler's book at your local library and give it a try. It's a pretty good read.
Just don't consider it pure, unadulterated historical fact.