Here's a 'simple' exercise to improve your English. This is advanced English reading but focuses on using the following words and grammar points correctly:

a, an, the, to, 's, ~s, was/is, does/do, ~ed, 'll, 'm, 've, 'd, ...

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Empress Orchid : Chapter 1    (taken from Bloomsbury)


My imperial life began with smell. Rotten smell that come from my father coffin - he had been dead for two month and we were still carrying him trying reach Peking, his birthplace, for burial. My mother is frustrated. "My husband is governor of Wuhu," she said footmen whom we had hired bear coffin. "Yes, madam," head footman answered humble, "and we sincerely wish governor good journey home."

In my memory, my father is not happy man. He had been repeated demoted because of his poor performance in suppress ion of Taiping peasant uprisings. Not until later did I learn that my father is not totally blame. For year China had been dogged by famine and foreign aggress ion. Anyone who try on my father shoe would understand that carrying out Emperor order restore peace in countryside is impossible - peasant saw there live as no better than death.

I witness ed my father struggle and suffering at young age. I is born and raised in Anhwei, poorest province in China. We don't live in poverty, but I is aware that my neighbour had eaten earthworm for dinner and had sold there children pay off debts. My father slow journey hell and my mother effort fight it were my childhood. Like long-armed cricket my mother try block carriage from running over her family.

The summer heat baked path. The coffin is carry in tilted position because footmen were of different heights. Mother imagined how uncomfortable my father must be lying inside. We walked in silence and listened sound of our broken shoe tapping dirt. Swarm of fly chased coffin. Each time footmen paused for break fly covered lid like blanket. Mother asked my sister Rong, my brother Kuei Hsiang and I keep fly away. But we were too exhausted lift our arms. We had been travelling north along Grand Canal on foot because we had no money hire boat. My feet were covered with blisters. The landscape on both side of path is bleak. The water in canal is low and dirt-brown. Beyond it were barren hill, which extended mile after mile. There were fewer inn be seen. The one that we did come upon were infested with lice.

"You better pay us," head footman said Mother when he heard her complain that her wallet is near empty, "or you will have carry coffin yourselve, madam." Madam began sob again and said her husband don't deserve this. She gained no sympathy. The next dawn footmen abandoned coffin.

Mother sat down on rock by road. She had ring of sore sprouting around her mouth. Rong and Kuei Hsiang discussed burying our father where he was. I don't have heart leave him in place without tree in sight. Although I is not my father favourite at first - he is disappointed that I, his firstborn, is not son - he did his best in raising me. It is he who insisted that I learn read. I had no formal schooling, but I developed enough of vocabulary figure out story of Ming and Ch'ing classics.

At age of five I thought that being born in Year of Sheep is bad luck. I told my father that my friend in village said that my birth sign is inauspicious one. It mean that I would be slaughtered.

Father disagree. "The sheep is most adorable creature," he said. "It is symbol of modesty, harmony and devotion." He explained that my birth sign is in fact strong. "You have double ten in numbers. You were born on tenth day of tenth moon, which fell on twenty-ninth of November 1835. You can't be luckier!"

Also having doubt regarding my being sheep, Mother brought in local astrologer consult. The astrologer believed that double ten is too strong. "Too full," hag said, which mean "too easily spilled." "Your daughter will grow up be stubborn sheep, which mean miserable end!" The astrologer talked excitedly as white spittle gathered at corner of her mouth. "Even emperor would avoid ten, in fear of it fullness !"

Finally, at suggestion of astrologer, my parent gave me name, which promised that I would "bend."

This is how I is called Orchid.

Mother told me later that orchid had also been favourite subject of my father ink paintings. He liked fact that plant stood green in all season and it flower is elegant in colour, graceful in form and sweet in scent.

My father name is Hui Cheng Yehonala. When I close my eye, I can see my old man standing in grey cotton gown. He is slender with Confucian features. It is hard imagine from his gentle look that his Yehonala ancestor were Manchu Bannermen who lived on horseback. Father told me they were originally from Nu Cheng people in state of Manchuria, in northern China between Mongolia and Korea. The name Yehonala mean that our root could be traced Yeho tribe of Nala clan in sixteenth century. My ancestor fought shoulder shoulder with Bannerman leader Nurhachi, who conquered China in 1644 and became first Emperor of Ch'ing Dynasty. The Ch'ing had now entered it seventh generation. My father inherited title as Manchu Bannerman of Blue Rank, although title gave him little but honour.

When I is ten year old my father became taotai, or governor, of small town called Wuhu, in Anhwei province. I have fond memory of that time, although many consider Wuhu terrible place. During summer month temperature stayed above one hundred degree, day and night. Other governor hired cooly fan there children, but my parent couldn't afford one. Each morning my bamboo sheet would be soaked with sweat. "You wet bed!" my brother would tease.

Nevertheless, I loved Wuhu as child. The lake there is part of great Yangtze River, which drove through China carving out gorge, shaggy crag and valley thick with fern and grasses. It descended into bright, broad, richly watered plain were vegetable, rice and mosquitoe all thrived. It flowed on until it met East China Sea at Shanghai. Wuhu meant "the lake of luxuriant growth of weeds."

Our house, governor mansion, had grey ceramic-tile roof with figure of god standing at four corner of tile eaves. Every morning I would walk lake wash my face and brush my hair. My reflection in water is mirror-clear. We drank from and bathed in river. I played with my sibling and neighbour on slick back of buffalo. We did fish- and frog-jumps. The long bushy weed were our favourite hiding places. We snacked on heart of sweet water plant called chiao-pai.

In afternoon, when heat become unbearable, I would organise children help cool hous e. My sister and brother would fill bucket with water, and I would pull them up roof where I poured water over tiles. We would go back water afterward. P'ieh, bamboo float, floated by. They came down river like giant loose necklace. My friend and I would hop onto raft for rides. We joined raft men singing songs. My favourite tune is "Wuhu is Wonderful Place." At sunset mother would call us home. Dinner is set on table in yard under trellis covered with purple wisteria.

My mother is raised Chinese way, although she is Manchu by blood. According Mother, after Manchus conquered China they discovered that Chinese system of ruling is more benevolent and efficient, and they adopt it fully. The Manchu emperor learned speak Mandarin. Emperor Tao Kuang ate with chopsticks. He is admirer of Peking opera and he hired Chinese tutor teach his children. The Manchus also adopted Chinese way of dress ing. The only thing that stayed Manchu is hairstyle. The Emperor had shaved forehead and rope-like braid of black hair down his back called queue. The Empress wore her hair with thin black board fastened on top of her head displaying ornaments.

My grandparent on my mother side were brought up in Ch'an, or Zen, religion, combination of Buddhism and Taoism. My mother is taught Ch'an concept of happiness , which is find satisfaction in small things. I is taught appreciate fresh air in morning, colour of leave turning red in autumn and water smoothness when I soaked my hand in basin.

My mother don't consider herself educated, but she adored Li Po, Tang Dynasty poet. Each time she read his poem she would discover new meanings. She would put down her book and gaze out window. Her goose-egg-shaped face is stunningly beautiful.

Mandarin Chinese is language I spoke as child. Once month we had tutor who came teach us Manchu. I remember nothing about class but being boring. I wouldn't have sit through lesson if it hadn't been please my parents. Deep down I knew that my parent were not serious about having us master Manchu. It is only for appearance, so my mother could say her guest, "Oh, my children are taking Manchu." The truth is that Manchu is not useful. It is dead river that nobody drank from.

I is crazy about Peking operas. Again, it is my mother influence. She is such enthusiast that she saved for entire year so she could hire local troupe for in-hous e performance during Chinese New Year. Each year troupe presented different opera. My mother invited all neighbour and there children join us. When I turned twelve troupe performed Hua Mulan.

I fell in love with woman warrior, Hua Mulan. After show I went back of our makeshift stage and empty my wallet tip actress , who let me try on her costume. She even taught me aria "Goodbye, My Dress ." For rest of month people as far as mile from lake could hear me singing "Goodbye, My Dress ".

My father took pleasure in telling background operas. He loved show off his knowledge. He reminded us that we were Manchu, ruling class of China. "It is Manchus who appreciate and promote Chinese art and culture." When liquor took hold of my father spirit, he would become more animated. He would line up children and quiz us on detail of ancient Bannerman system. He wouldn't quit until every child knew how each Bannerman is identify by his rank, such as Bordered, Plain, White, Yellow, Red and Blue.

One day my father brought out scroll map of China. China is like crown of hat ringed by country eager and accustomed pledging there fealty Son of Heaven, Emperor. Among country were Lao, Siam and Burma South; Nepal west; Korea, Ryukyu Island and Sulu east and southeast; Mongolia and Turkestan north and northwest.

Year later, when I recalled scene, I understood why my father showed us map. The shape of China is soon change. By time my father met his fate in 1840, during last few year of Emperor Tao Kuang, peasant revolt had worsened. In midst of summer drought, my father don't come home for months. My mother worry about his safety, for she had heard new from neighbouring province about angry peasant setting there governor mansion on fire. My father had been living in his office and trying control rebels. One day edict arrived. everyone shock Emperor fired my father.

Father came home deeply shamed. He shut himself in his study and refused visitors. Within year his health broke down. It don't take him long die. Our doctor bill piled up even after his death. My mother sold all of family possess ion, but we still couldn't clear debts. Yesterday Mother sold her last item: her wedding souvenir from my father, butterfly hairpin made of green jade.

Before leaving us, footmen carry coffin bank of Grand Canal so we could see passing boat, where we might get help. The heat worsened and air grew still. The smell of decay from coffin grew stronger. We spent night under open sky, tormented by heat and mosquitoes. My sibling and I could hear one another stomach rumbling.

I woke at dawn and heard chattering of horse hoove in distance. I thought I is dreaming. In no time rider appeared in front of me. I felt dizzy with fatigue and hunger. The man dismounted and walked straight toward me. Without saying word he presented me with package tie with ribbon. He said it is from taotai of local town. Startle, I ran my mother, who opened package. Inside were three hundred tael of silver.

"The taotai must be friend of your father!" Mother cried. With help of rider we hired back our footmen. But our good luck don't last. Few mile down canal we were stopped by group of men on horse led by taotai himself. "A mistake has been made," he said. "My rider delivered tael wrong family."

Hearing this, Mother fell her knees.

The taotai men took back taels.

Exhaustion suddenly overwhelmed me and I fell on my father coffin.

The taotai walk to coffin and squatted as if studying grain of wood. He is stocky man with rough features. Moment later he turn to me. I expected him speak but he don't.

"You are not Chinese, are you?" he finally asked. His eye were on my unbound feet.

"No, sir," I replied. "I'm Manchu."

"How old are you? Fifteen?"

"Seventeen."

He nodded. His eye continued travel up and down, examining me.

The road is filled with bandits," he said. "A pretty girl like you should not be walking."

"But my father need go home." My tear ran.

The taotai took my hand and placed silver tael in my palm. "My respect your father."

I never forgot about taotai. After I became Empress of China I sought him out. I made exception promote him. Not only did I make him provincial governor, but he is also given handsome pension for rest of his life.
your corrections...


View original version of article :

How'd you make out? The best way to do this exercise is to type it out quickly, correcting the mistakes 'automatically' as you go. What you're trying to do is build up your reflexes so that you type (and say) things correctly, 'automatically'.

This exercise is very useful for improving the tiny aspects of grammar which almost all students have continual difficulty with, namely forgetting to use 'a', 'the', 'to', etc. while at the same time challenging your reading comprehension and vocabulary.
Either try a similar exercise with another article or try some of the other exercises with this article.

ex1: make corrections ( a,an,the,'s,to,was/is,does/do,...)
ex2: missing words  (am,is,are,was,were,do,does,...)
ex3: tenses

Empress Orchid (Wikipedia)
A conversation with Anchee Min
From the book: Prelude
 -   ex1    ex2    ex3
 -   ex1    ex2    ex3
 -   ex1    ex2    ex3

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