Imperial Woman – Pearl S. Buck
Imperial Woman is a biographical story of Tzu Hsi (or Cixi), the last empress of China, written by Pearl S Buck. Tzu Hsi’s claim to fame is that, she was a fierce, efficient, intelligent and a very controversial empress.
The story starts when Tzu Hsi is a child. Orchid is her childhood name. She is the daughter of a low-ranking Manchu official of Yehonala clan. As was the practice then, a set of young girls are chosen out of who, a wife and some cocubines are picked for the Emporer. Orchid and her cousin, Sakota are both picked as expected and go to stay in the Forbidden City – never to return. While Sakota is given a the rank of the Emporer’s primary wife because, her elder sister was at a high rank, Orchid (now known as Yehonala) earns a high rank. To be noticed, she makes an effort to stand out. She bribes the enuches and is good to the Dowager Empress (Emporer’s mother).
While Sakota gives birth to a girl, Yehonala gives birth to a boy and rises to the position of the “Fortunate Mother”, the mother of the heir. Thru sheer guile and ambition, she continues to be the favorite of the Emporer. Pity is the only emotion she has for the sickly and weak Emporer. Her love is always for her kinsman – Jung Lu, to who she was betrothed. Jung Lu is a guard at the gates of Forbidden City.
Yehenola reads history, learns affairs of the state, painting and poetry. She takes interest in matters of state and the Emporer is soon dependent on her for most decisions. She learns to trust no one but only those closest to her. After the death of the Emporer, though She and Sakota together rise to the position of Regents, Yehenola is the de facto ruler. Yehenola gets the Title of Tzu Hsi (or Cixi, The empress of the eastern palaces) and Sakota gets the title of Tzu An ( or Cian,The empress of the western palaces)
There are rumors that her son is born thru Jung Lu. Her life and her son’s life are in danger. The nation is under attack. She has to protect herself, her son and the Empire. With the demands of countries like France, England and Russia increasing, with the missionaries converting Chinese into Christians, with the number of rebels from within the nation increasing, there is unrest all around.
Tzu Hsi learns and grows as a ruler gaining the trust of her subjects. People call her “The old Budhha” – thus rising her to the position of God. In a time of great change and cultural upheaval in China, she is a relic of the past – always resisting change. The Boxer Rebellion marks the beginning of the end of Tzu Hsi.
The story is written in lucid prose – it flows thru the story of Tzu Hsi, thru the death of her son, her crowning a nephew to be the next Emporer and when he fails, taking the throne back for herself. She grows old and begins to accept change as she realizes, she has no other way to retain her empire.
This book provides a good insight into a critical phase of Chinese History. After having read it, I’m tempted to visit the Forbidden city. The book is worth hunting for.