Imperial Woman

By Pearl S. Buck

7,050 ratings - 4.05* vote

Imperial Woman is the fictionalized biography of the last Empress in China, Ci-xi, who began as a concubine of the Xianfeng Emperor and on his death became the de facto head of the Qing Dynasty until her death in 1908.Buck recreates the life of one of the most intriguing rulers during a time of intense turbulence.Tzu Hsi was born into one of the lowly ranks of the Imperial Imperial Woman is the fictionalized biography of the last Empress in China, Ci-xi, who began as a concubine of the

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Book details

Paperback, 384 pages
December 1st 2004 by Moyer Bell and its subsidiaries

(first published 1956)

Original Title
Imperial Woman: The Story of the Last Empress of China
1559210354 (ISBN13: 9781559210355)
Edition Language

Community Reviews


Before I attempt to say anything about this novel, I simply wish to note that I do not in any way award these five stars out of some misguided sentiment that this book accurately portrays China and all its entailing history as its own cultural members would. The most concrete experience I have with the country is having been taught the Chinese phrases for 'left turn', 'right turn', and 'straight ahead' during a road trip many years ago, and I assure you, neither my intercultural credibility nor my accent has improved since then. What I do award these five stars for is the wonderful piece of work that Buck created, a fictional recounting of the life of the last Empress of China.

It wasn't too long ago that I read Memoirs of Hadrian, another novel concerned with the fictional portrayal of a historical personage who ruled for much of their life over a vast and complex culture. Both that novel and this required my reader self to step back a moment from their usual outpost of critiquing from the realms of factual accuracy and moral codes, and instead plunge headfirst into the lives of these individuals, both of whom entire empires held in reverence. Within this respective novel, the girl Orchid, the imperial concubine Yehonala, the Empress Mother Tzu Hsi, and the venerable Old Buddha play out their shared life within the bodily confines of a single woman. A woman who grew from one of millions to be one of the chosen hundreds to finally the one venerated above all others, who stayed that way through thriving peace and cultural upheaval until the end of her days. A woman who never needed full approval from neither her kinsman nor the reader, but simply a willingness to follow her. And follow her I did.

The ease with which I immersed myself in this fictionalized biography of a foreign land is a credit to Buck and her lovingly thorough storytelling. For the difficulty with historical fiction, a difficulty that only increases when the fiction chooses to follow a single personage of notable fame, is the ever present competition between the enraptured gaze of the reader and the desire to fact check. What worsens the latter distraction even more so is when the cultural setting is completely foreign and, as noted previously, tempts the reader to view the book penned by an outsider as a true glimpse of the inside. And with the feeling of reading truth, comes the ease of subsequent judgment and all too frequent condemnation.

Thus, I could have tired of Buck's page after page of detailing the life of this young Manchu girl who grew to become the Empress of China, the traditional values, the cultural artifacts, the countless court proceedings that meandered as slowly as was needed to recount the days with full insight into the visual splendor and historical significance. I could have become frustrated with the Empress herself, achieving such power and all the self righteous confidence that often accompanies it, adhering to standards of living that seem so strange in comparison to my own. I could have turned the final page with a feeling that my time would have been better spent with an accredited biography, or even a book written by an actual denizen of that far off mainland.

But I didn't. I watched this Empress grow from the impetuous courage of youth to the venerable wisdom of old age, and I rooted her on in every page. I delighted in the beauty of both the aesthetic and the erudite contained within the walls of the Forbidden City, as well as the sheer wealth of this culture that despite my long familiarity with I in truth know so little about. I watched as the future took its horrific toll on the heartfelt desire to maintain the value of the past, and mourned the tragedy of one world power colliding with another in an overwhelming miasma of violent misunderstanding. From this fictional seat in the so called East, I watched as the West and its drastically different histories flung itself upon these shores so foreign to its inherent sociocultural natures. From the mind of an Empress, I understood the disparity between the power a ruler has, and what is truly required of them in order to successfully rule.

In short, while the setting was foreign and the facts perhaps not in full adherence, the story was a human one, something I can recognize in any form. I felt for this Empress and the country she cherished in her own brilliant and steadfast ways, and perhaps even learned a few things about an ancient world that exists alongside my own to this day. And when it comes to the realm of historical fiction, that's all that I ask for.

Richard Derus

Rating: 3.5* of five (rounded up)

The Publisher Says: Imperial Woman is the fictionalized biography of the last Empress in China, Ci-xi, who began as a concubine of the Xianfeng Emperor and on his death became the de facto head of the Qing Dynasty until her death in 1908. Buck recreates the life of one of the most intriguing rulers during a time of intense turbulence. Tzu Hsi was born into one of the lowly ranks of the Imperial dynasty. According to custom, she moved to the Forbidden City at the age of seventeen to become one of hundreds of concubines. But her singular beauty and powers of manipulation quickly moved her into the position of Second Consort. Tzu Hsi was feared and hated by many in the court, but adored by the people. The Empress's rise to power (even during her husband's life) parallels the story of China's transition from the ancient to the modern way.

My Review: Few women in China's very long history have been as well-documented as rulers as has Cixi. I suspect that Mrs. Buck, daughter of missionaries to China and a reluctant missionary herself, wrote of this larger-than-life figure because she felt great kinship with her. Cixi was an outsider in a closed world, the Imperial Court, but whose sterling native qualities gave her tremendous influence over that closed world. Buck was in much the same situation vis-a-vis the Chinese culture she was native to for the first forty years of her life. Her parents raised her to be bilingual in Chinese and English, gave her no model for a racist view of the Chinese, and allowed her to mingle with the children of their Chinese converts to Presbyterianism mostly without interference. This made her a fish out of water everywhere, but also gifted her with an amazing insight into the cross-cultural communication disasters that have plagued China's relations with the world forever.

Cixi was an intelligent young woman of relatively modest, though not humble, birth, gifted with great personal grace and beauty. Her enormous elevation to the relatively modest in Imperial Court terms position of Imperial Concubine afforded Cixi the opening to become a powerful woman; her excellent fortune in giving birth to the Emperor's only son allowed her to move well beyond the considerable but constrained power of a favored concubine/consort into a full governing partnership as a Regent for her son, with a council appointed by her late Imperial master.

Buck portrays Cixi as a schemer, but not a wastrel as she is often portrayed. Her intrigues had at their heart a sincere and abiding belief that dynastic continuity was the sole means by which the Chinese body politic could be served by their government as foils against the colonial depredations of the Western powers. All the pomp and the excess Cixi loved was put on for the demonstration of her dynasty's power and dominance. All the machinations she undertook were meant to keep her position—but so that she might continue to fight against China's diminution and beggarment.

Fundamentally, Cixi behaved no differently than the Communist Party has since Chairman Mao's death in 1976. She was a strong leader, and a flawed person; she was also too late to do much about the long, slow fall of her form of government. History's tides catch up with all governments eventually; the Party's current grandees know this, and are behaving in their stewardship of China as Cixi herself did 125 years ago.

As all Pearl S. Buck novels are, this gracefully told tale is a pleasure to read and a treasure house of outside/insider information and opinions now irreplaceable with the death of the author. It is an exciting story, a well-told tale, and a still-invaluable look into a difficult life lived in service to a misunderstood ideal. A must-read for all Sinophiles.

Ahmad Sharabiani

Imperial Woman: The Story of the Last Empress of China, Pearl S. Buck
Imperial Woman is the fictionalized biography of the last Empress in China, Ci-xi, who began as a concubine of the Xianfeng Emperor and on his death became the de facto head of the Qing Dynasty until her death in 1908.Buck recreates the life of one of the most intriguing rulers during a time of intense turbulence.Tzu Hsi was born into one of the lowly ranks of the Imperial dynasty. According to custom, she moved to the Forbidden City at the age of seventeen to become one of hundreds of concubines. But her singular beauty and powers of manipulation quickly moved her into the position of Second Consort.Tzu Hsi was feared and hated by many in the court, but adored by the people. The Empress's rise to power (even during her husband's life) parallels the story of China's transition from the ancient to the modern way.

تاریخ نخستین خوانش: سال 1984 میلادی
عنوان: آخ‍ری‍ن‌ م‍ل‍ک‍ه‌ چ‍ی‍ن‌؛ نویسنده: پ‍رل‌. س‌. ب‍اک‌؛ مت‍رج‍م‍: م‍ه‍دی‌ ش‍ه‍ش‍ه‍ان‍ی؛ ت‍ه‍ران‌: س‍رن‍ا‏‫، 1362؛ در 747 ص؛ چاپ دیگر: تهران، پگاه، چاپ سوم 1369، 1370؛ در 747 ص؛ چاپ ششم 1365؛ چاپ دیگر: تهران، چکاوک؛ 1371؛ چاپ دوم 1373؛ چاپ دهم 1388؛ شابک: 9789648957167؛ چاپ دیگر 1390، شابک: 9789646503052؛ موضوع: داستانهای نویسندگان امریکایی - سده 20 م‬

تسوهسی آخرین ملکه ای بودند، که بر چین حکمروایی کرد. ایشان زنی فوق العاده باهوش، با استعداد، و ثروتمند، و دارای شخصیت پیچیده ای بود. در مخالفت و یکدندگی، شهره بود، به گونه ای که توصیف همه جانبه، و قطعی شخصیت ایشان بسیار مشکل است. دورانیکه او زندگی میکرد، نقطه ی عطفی در تاریخ چین محسوب میشد. و کشور به درگیری، و منازعه با بیگانگان، از راه قوای نظامی کشیده شده بود. در این زمان، انجام یک سلسله اصلاحات، و رفورمهای اجتماعی، اجتناب ناپذیر مینمود. «تسوهسی» اندیشه های محافظه کارانه، و نیز عدم وابستگی خود را، کماکان حفظ کرد. دشمنانش از او میترسیدند، و از وی نفرت داشتند. آنان دوستان او را سرزنش میکردند، و از احترام به «تسوهسی» بر حذرشان میداشتند. او با هرگونه نوآوری، تا آنجا که میتوانست، مخالفت میکرد، چون بنیادهای کهن را، از هر چیز نویی بهتر میدانست، ولی با این حال هنگامیکه میدید دگرگونیها اجتناب ناپذیر هستند، نسبت به آن، روی موافق نشان میداد. مردمانش او را دوست داشتند. البته انقلابیون، و افراد عجول، از او خوششان نمیآمد، چون باور داشتند روند پیشرفت خیلی کند و آهسته است. آنها از او نفرت داشتند، و ملکه نیز با همان شکل، نفرت خود را به آنها نشان میداد. دهقانان و طبقات محروم ساکن شهرهای کوچک، به او احترام میگذاشتند. ا. شربیانی


Portrait of Tzu-hsi by Hubert Vos, 1906

In the Foreword to this book, the author says the following:
TZU HSI, THE LAST ruling Empress of China, was a woman so diverse in her gifts, so contradictory in her behavior, so rich in the many aspects of her personality, that it is difficult to comprehend and convey her whole self. She lived in a crucial period of history, when China was struggling against encroachment while at the same time the need for modern reform was obvious. In this period Tzu Hsi was conservative and independent. She was ruthless when necessary. Those who opposed her feared and hated her and they were more articulate than those who loved her. Western writers, with few exceptions, describe her unfavorably and even vindictively...

...To them she was the imperial woman. Good and evil mingled in her, but always in heroic dimension. She resisted modern change as long as she could, for she believed that the old was better than the new. When she saw change was inevitable, she accepted it with grace but an unchanged heart...

...Her people loved her—not all her people, for the revolutionary, the impatient, hated her heartily and she hated them. But the peasants and the small-town people revered her. Decades after she was dead I came upon villages in the inlands of China where the people thought she still lived and were frightened when they heard she was dead. “Who will care for us now?” they cried. This, perhaps, is the final judgment of a ruler.
The empress passed away on November 15th, 1908.

To get books from the TO READ-shelf to the READ-shelf, a few days of dedication must happen. One book at a time. I'm currently shifting books around on GR, from the one to the other shelf. A New Year's resolution. A frantic urge to get it done.

This is one such read. Pearl. S. Buck's trilogy made me want to read this book as well.
(i) The Good Earth (1931) (House of Earth, #1) - a Pulitzer Prize and William Dean Howells Medal winner;
(ii) Sons (House of Earth, #2)
(iii) A House Divided (House of Earth, #3)

I read these three books long before joining GR, and they brought my first real glimpse of China's history and people. But they also saved me from myself in turbulent times of my own history in my own country. It opened up a new world to me, reading about China's history for the very first time. Since then it remained a passion.

Like Willa Cather, Pearl S. Buck fascinates me for unknown reasons. They just do. And I am this willing follower of both authors. Ms Buck was not as good a writer as Ms Cather, but she was one of the biggest humanitarians of the previous century and she used her income from her books to change the lives of millions of children. Her life story is worth reading too.

She spent half her life in China as the child of a missionary and brought back a wealth of stories to share. Pearl S Buck was a gentle soul. A curious mind. A great narrator. She was an original voice. She's worth reading.


My friend sent me this book without warning. She thought I might like it, and she was right.

Imperial Woman was a fascinating story of the Chinese Dowager Empress Cixi, or Tsu-Hsi as she's called in the book. Cixi joins the court of the Emperor as a concubine and manages to become the main influence over the Emperor, and eventually Empress - by means that are sometimes ruthless, sometimes kind, but always with the goal in sight of extrapolating herself from a position of servitude.

Buck's portrayal of Cixi was fascinating. It cannot have been easy to create even a fictional character in such a lifelike fashion when the characters life depended on her keeping her thoughts and feelings to herself, and whose legend is blurred by rumours and superstitions that were rife during her reign, and where a breach of confidentiality or a breach of loyalty may well have carried a death sentence.

I had some issues with the book after the first half, where the story dragged a little and where I got a bit lost in trying to figure out how and why Buck wanted to force a love story into a plot that was already filled with political intrigue, suspense, historical events, and fascinating tidbits about life at the Chinese court during the late Qing dynasty. It just didn't need a love story that may or may not be based on historical fact. To me this just distracted from Cixi's mission to restore China as a respected, economically autonomous country, free from the colonial grip of the 8 Nation Alliance.

This historical setting, the discussion of China's struggle against the powers that tried to claim China as their own, was what made the book stand out for me.

Buck challenged the notions of colonialism from an unusual perspective. She does not paint China, or the Chinese court in any case, through a romanticised view by any stretch - there were plenty of descriptions that made me wince - but I thoroughly enjoyed reading this story from a point of view that does not presume the respectability and civility of the Western European governments as part of the story. The issues of colonialism were fascinating in this book. The only other aspect that eclipsed this for me was Buck's portrayal of a woman in a man's world, trying to save a bankrupt empire from disaster. Even though some of the historical events are given in general terms rather than details, this was an informative, entertaining, and though-provoking work of historical fiction.

Alice Poon

This historical novel was first published in 1956, some forty eight years after the death of the last Qing Empress Cixi (named “Tzu Hsi” in the book). It tells her extraordinary life story from childhood to the time near her death.

The author skillfully weaved intricate historical accounts of Cixi’s 47-year reign (her reign was in most part unofficial) which was marked by her tyranny, paranoia and xenophobia, with enthralling fiction that paints a lively portrait of her person, complete with colorful characterization and romantic love.

After so many years, although there is general consensus that Cixi was a strong-willed and manipulative ruler, opinions are still divided as to whether she was shrewd and fair-minded in state affairs or whether she was obsessed with vainglory and self-interest. It would seem that Pearl Buck did succeed in presenting a somewhat balanced view, with sympathetic undertone.

There is no lack of evidence showing Cixi’s hard-heartedness and scheming nature in dealing with whoever she perceived to be her enemies, but then she was after all just a lonely, insecure and helpless woman locked within the unforgiving Forbidden City, trying first to preserve herself and later to shoulder an impossibly heavy state burden in times of great turmoil (with internal rebellions and foreign enemies at the gate). On the one hand, she could be extremely petty-minded, vengeful and ruthless when her feathers were ruffled, on the other she could also be gentle, considerate and gracious to those who loved her and were loyal to her. As sympathetic as Buck tried to be, she didn’t make any effort to gloss over the Empress’s lust for extravagance, pomp, jewelry and luxury as well as her reckless self-indulgence. However, in order to soften Cixi’s image, the author lent her power of imagination and created a life-long, handsome lover for the Empress, who is said to have fathered her only son – Emperor Tongzhi (named “Tung Chih” in the book). This creation not only served to bring out the woman side of the Empress, but also helped to spice up the entire novel a good deal.

I think it would be fair to say that Cixi was not any different from other tyrannical despots, past or present, east or west. When a nation leader has absolute power, unchecked in any way, he/she is bound to fall into the trap of megalomania and varying degrees of narcissism, to the detriment of all those under his/her rule.


This book has been on my bookshelves waiting to be read for decades (literally) and I am so glad that its turn finally arrived.

This is a fictional biography of Tzu Hsi, the last Empress in China. Although she was born (1835) into one of the lowly ranks of the Imperial dynasty, she managed to be chosen as one of the hundreds of concubines of Emperor Xianfeng when she was only 17. From here, she quickly rose to the position of Second Consort and gave birth to a son. After the Emperor's death, when she was only 26, the young boy became Emperor, but because he was still a child, Tzu Hsi assumed regency.

Tzu Hsi is not a consensual historical figure, the most common version being that she was a ruthless despot. However, some historians claim that the communist regime deliberately discredited her image to fit their political reforms. Whatever the truth is, Tzu Hsi was loved by her people. In the foreword to this edition, Pearl Buck says that decades after the Empress death, she came upon villages in the inlands of the country where the people thought she still lived and were frightened when they heard she was dead: “Who will care for us now?” they cried.

Fictional though it is, this book is clearly very well researched. The author managed to make a vivid and wonderfully well written portrait not just of her main character, but through her, of China as well, during a tumultuous historical period. It was a delightful read that had me searching the web for info about the history of China and left me curious to rummage my mother’s bookshelves, as I know she was a big fan of this author.

Dana Stabenow

I think perhaps Buck didn't know exactly what she wanted to write here. You can't have the love interest off stage for 90 percent of the time if you're writing a romance. If you're writing an historical epic you can't confine your character to one location of such a vast country. If you're writing a cautionary tale about power corrupting, there needs to be a gradual descent into evil, not jump from a simple country maid to an off-with-their-heads bitch in a page and a half (see Daenerys Targaryen). And if you're going to attempt the rhetorical heights of J.R.R. Tolkien, you'd better by the Creator of the One Ring have a story that matches that rhetorical style.

There are elements of all these things here, told with wearying repetition and far more telling than showing. In the end the main character has learned very little and that little far too late, and there is no one to like or root for. Except maybe for Jung Lu, whom I pitied and despised in equal measure. There is some humor, particularly in the interactions between the Imperial Court and the encroaching westerners, but nowhere enough leaven to raise this thick a dough.

The thing is, there is a better story to be told, if there is any truth to the Wikipedia entry on Cixi (, the real person Buck based this novel on. She was much more complicated and interesting than this fictional representation.


Good and evil mingled in her, but always in heroic dimensions.

3.5 stars. This is the story of Empress Tzu-hsi, who ruled the Manchu dynasty in China for 47 years. In 1852 she was selected as a concubine for the Emperor. She was extremely strong-willed and decided that she would become the Emperor's favourite. She did this by studying 5 hours every day, staying up to date with all gossip, studying all edicts, becoming very close with the Dowager mother and ,according to this novel, giving up her one true love. She captivated the very weak Emperor, and ensured that he loved no other liked her, and even allowed her to rule the country in his stead.

Tzu-hsi is one of the most complex characters I've ever come across. She could be gentle and kind, but also cruel and vain. She was always strong and majestic. Unfortunately her negative characteristics became more pronounced as she got older, causing me to become quite averse to her by the end of the book.

I always enjoy reading books about other cultures, and this books was especially fascinating, because of the time period and country. Reading about the Forbidden city (where the Emperor was the only male allowed at night. To stay in the city past twilight you had to be a woman or a eunuch.)and all the royal rituals was intriguing.

Although I realize the importance of the portrayal of the wars and resistances, I have to say it became a bit too longwinded. That said I will be reading The Good Earth by this Nobel prize winning author soon.

"You have chosen greatness," he said in her silence. "Therefore you must be great."

Lorina Stephens

It isn't often I give up on a novel. Generally it's my policy to finish a book whether I'm enjoying the journey or not, because often I'm surprised in the last moments, finding the author has brought all the elements of the story together in a brilliant finish.

Such is not the case with Imperial Woman, by Pearl S. Buck.

Buck presents what should be a fascinating story about the last, and most famous, empress of China, Tzu Hsi. Instead Buck has taken the easy route and presented what is very nearly a Harlequin romance, instead of a tightly written novel rife with the subtleties and intrigues of the Imperial Court. There were moments I asked myself how many times we were going to be told about the beauty and grace of the Empress.

When Buck does present historical facts, it ends up being a dry, drawn-out narrative heavy on the expository and devoid of deep character point of view or input.

The result is a novel which feels interminable, plodding between longings of the heart and retention of power.

I am sure many readers would take issue with my assessment. That is the joy of debate and variety. But for me, this is a novel which falls into an epic fail category.