Imperial Woman by Pearl S. Buck

imperial womanMay you live in interesting times…

🙂 🙂 🙂 🙂

This is the story of Tzu Hsi, who ruled as regent and Empress of China from 1861-1908, effectively the end of the empire, which collapsed just 3 years after her death. For the major part of her reign, Tzu Hsi tried to hold back the tide of progress being forced on her by the various Western powers as they jostled to gain a foothold in this vast country.

Pearl S. Buck, as the short biography at the end of this new Kindle edition reveals, was the daughter of missionaries and lived in China for many years as both child and adult. Born in 1892, she would undoubtedly have been old enough to remember the end of Tzu Hsi’s reign and would have had
first-hand experience of being a child of foreign Christians during the Boxer Rebellion at the turn of the century.

Tzu Hsi is portrayed here as a beautiful, ambitious tyrant, scheming to become and then remain Empress. First as concubine to a weak Emperor and then as regent for her son, she uses her beauty and charm to manipulate those around her; but when beauty and charm fail, she is content to use torture, beheading and ‘slicing’ to get her own way, with a calm ruthlessness that never prevents her from ensuring that she is well-perfumed and beautifully dressed. Buck lets us see her tyrannous side growing as she faces threats from domestic rebels, plotting courtiers and foreign armies. But we are also shown her loneliness and isolation, and the personal sacrifices she has to make to hold her position in a society where women are considered inferior and unsuited to rule.

‘In the fourth moon month the wisteria blooms. It was the duty of the Court Chief Gardener to report to the Empress the exact day upon which the vines would blossom and he had so reported. The Empress did then decree that upon this day she would not appear in the Audience Hall, nor would she hear any affairs of state.’

Portrait of Pearl S Buck by Quistgaard (
Portrait of Pearl S Buck
by Quistgaard

Buck uses a stylised form of prose suggesting perhaps a translation of the formal language of the court. Whether this tone is authentic, I don’t know, but I’m afraid I found it intensely irritating after a while. The book is filled with descriptions of clothes, palaces, jewellery and the minutiae of how the Empress lived and, while this is interesting at first, it quickly becomes repetitive, pulling the story down to a slow – very slow – crawl. Although told in the third person, we see exclusively through Tzu Hsi’s eyes which means that, like her, we are isolated and cut-off from the world outside the imperial court – a missed opportunity, it seemed to me, to get a feel for the realities of what was happening in China at the time.

I’ve struggled to rate this book. On the one hand, the stylised prose and the over-detailed descriptions meant that the long slog of reading dampened any sense of tension or excitement that should rightly have been created by the events being related. On the other hand, Tzu Hsi’s story is a fascinating one and certainly worth the telling, and overall I’m glad to have read it – so recommended, but with reservations.

NB This book was provided for review by the publisher, Open Road.

Amazon UK Link
Amazon US Link

8 thoughts on “Imperial Woman by Pearl S. Buck

  1. You know, I’ve always liked Buck’s personal story at least as much as her fiction. She wrote a very moving memoir once called The Child Who Never Grew, about her own daughter who had mental retardation. I agree with you that her style is an acquired taste and it has slowed me down, too. Still, the stories she wrote quite good.

    • Yes, the biography at the end was very short but enough to show that her own life must have been an interesting one. I may read The Good Earth at some point since it’s her best known…but not for a while!

  2. When I was a young teenager I read what I thought were all of Pearl S Buck’s books (The Good Earth, Dragon’s Teeth, etc) and loved them, but I have not read this one so my guess is that it was not in print in the sixties. Thinking about the books now, I am glad to have read them – I can still remember the names of some of the main characters, always a good sign – but I find that I have no urge to re-read them, so I think thirteen was probably the right age for that kind of chinoiserie.

    • She’s been on my radar for a while but never quite made it to the top of the pile, so I was pleased to get this from the publisher. The basic story was interesting but the style did make it feel like hard work. Like you, I’m glad to have read it, though, and might attempt another one of these days.

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