Imperial Woman: The Story of the Last Empress of China

Imperial Woman: The Story of the Last Empress of China

by Pearl S. Buck

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Product Details

ISBN-13: 9781480421189
Publisher: Open Road Media
Publication date: 05/21/2013
Sold by: Barnes & Noble
Format: NOOK Book
Pages: 376
Sales rank: 13,037
File size: 7 MB

About the Author

Pearl S. Buck (1892–1973) was a bestselling and Nobel Prize–winning author. Her classic novel The Good Earth (1931) was awarded a Pulitzer Prize and William Dean Howells Medal. Born in Hillsboro, West Virginia, Buck was the daughter of missionaries and spent much of the first half of her life in China, where many of her books are set. In 1934, civil unrest in China forced Buck back to the United States. Throughout her life she worked in support of civil and women’s rights, and established Welcome House, the first international, interracial adoption agency. In addition to her highly acclaimed novels, Buck wrote two memoirs and biographies of both of her parents. For her body of work, Buck received the Nobel Prize for Literature in 1938, the first American woman to have done so. She died in Vermont. 
Pearl S. Buck (1892–1973) was a bestselling and Nobel Prize–winning author. Her classic novel The Good Earth (1931) was awarded a Pulitzer Prize and William Dean Howells Medal. Born in Hillsboro, West Virginia, Buck was the daughter of missionaries and spent much of the first half of her life in China, where many of her books are set. In 1934, civil unrest in China forced Buck back to the United States. Throughout her life she worked in support of civil and women’s rights, and established Welcome House, the first international, interracial adoption agency. In addition to her highly acclaimed novels, Buck wrote two memoirs and biographies of both of her parents. For her body of work, Buck received the Nobel Prize for Literature in 1938, the first American woman to have done so. She died in Vermont. 

Date of Birth:

June 26, 1892

Date of Death:

March 6, 1973

Place of Birth:

Hillsboro, West Virginia

Place of Death:

Danby, Vermont

Read an Excerpt

Imperial Woman

The Story of the Last Empress of China

By Pearl S. Buck


Copyright © 1956 Pearl S. Buck
All rights reserved.
ISBN: 978-1-4804-2118-9



It was April in the city of Peking, the fourth month of the solar year of 1852, the third month of the moon year, the two hundred and eighth year of the Manchu, the great Ch'ing dynasty. Spring was late and the northern winds, carrying their load of fine yellow sand from the Gobi desert, blew cold as winter over the housetops. Sand drifted down into the streets, sand whirled in eddies and filtered through doors and windows. It silted into corners and lay upon tables and chairs and in the crevices of garments, it dried upon the faces of children when they wept, and in the wrinkles of old people.

In the house of the Manchu Bannerman, Muyanga, in Pewter Lane, the sand was more than usually tiresome, for the windows did not fit tightly and the doors hung loose upon their wooden hinges. On this particular morning Orchid, his niece and the eldest child of his dead brother, was wakened by the noise of wind and creaking wood. She sat up in the large Chinese bed she shared with her younger sister and frowned when she saw the sand lying upon the red quilt like tinted snow. In a moment she crept out softly from the bedclothes, so that she might not awaken the sleeper. Under her bare feet she felt the sand on the floor and sighed. Only yesterday she had swept the house clean, and all was to be swept again as soon as the wind died.

She was a handsome girl, this Orchid, seeming taller than she was because she was slender and held herself erect. Her features were strong but not coarse, her nose straight, her eyebrows clear, her mouth well shaped and not too small. Her great beauty lay in her eyes. They were long and large and exceedingly clear, the black and the white pure and separate. Yet such beauty might have been meaningless except for the natural spirit and intelligence that informed her entire being, although she still was very young. She was self-controlled, her strength apparent in the smoothness of her movements and the calm of her manner.

In the sand-gray light of the morning she dressed herself swiftly and noiselessly, and putting aside the blue cotton curtains that served as a door, she went into the main room and from that into the small kitchen adjoining it. Steam rose from the large iron cauldron set into the earthen stove.

"Lu Ma," so she greeted the serving woman. "You are early this morning." Self-control was in the extreme gentleness of her pretty voice, held resolutely low.

From behind the stove a cracked voice replied. "I could not sleep, Young Mistress. What shall we do when you leave us?"

Orchid smiled. "The Emperor's Dowager Mother may not choose me—my cousin Sakota is far more beautiful than I am." She looked behind the stove. Lu Ma was crouched there, feeding wisps of dried grass into the fire, making the most of every blade of the scanty fuel.

"You will be chosen." The old woman's tone was definite and sad, and emerging at this moment from behind the stove, she looked desolate, a small hunchbacked Chinese, her blue cotton garments faded and patched, her bound feet stumps, her face shrunken into a net of brown wrinkles outlined with pale sand. Sand lay on her gray hair and frosted her eyebrows and the edge of her upper lip.

"This house cannot do without you," she moaned. "Second Sister will not so much as sew a seam because you have always done everything for her. Those two boys, your brothers, wear out a pair of shoes apiece in every moon month. And what of your kinsman Jung Lu? Are you not as good as betrothed to him since your childhood?"

"In a manner we are betrothed," Orchid replied in the same pretty voice. She took a basin from the table and an iron ladle from the platform of the stove and dipped the hot water from the cauldron. Then, reaching for a small gray towel that hung on the wall, she put it in the water and, wringing it steaming dry, she wiped her face and neck, her wrists and hands. Her smooth oval face grew pink with the damp heat and she looked into the few inches of mirror that hung above the table. There she saw only her extraordinary eyes, lively and dark. She was proud of her eyes although she never allowed a sign of pride to escape her. When neighbor women spoke of her moth eyebrows and the leaf-shaped eyes beneath them she seemed not to hear. But she heard.

"Aie," the old woman said, staring at her. "I did always say that you have a destiny. It is in your eyes. We must obey the Emperor, the Son of Heaven. And when you are Empress, my precious, you will remember us and send down help."

Orchid laughed soft controlled laughter. "I shall be only a concubine, one of hundreds!"

"You will be what Heaven ordains," the old woman declared. She wrung the towel out of the water and hung it on its nail. Then she lifted the basin and went to the door and poured the water carefully on the earth outside.

"Comb your hair, Young Mistress," she said. "Jung Lu will come early this morning. He said that today he might be the bearer of the golden summons."

Orchid did not reply, but she walked with her usual grace into her bedroom. She glanced toward the bed. Her sister was still sleeping, the slight form scarcely rounded under the quilt. Quietly she unwound her long black hair and combed it through with a Chinese wooden comb, perfumed with the fragrant oil of a cassia tree. Then she wound her hair in two coils over her ears, and into each coil she put a small flower of seed pearls surrounded with leaves of thin green jade.

Before she had finished she heard the footsteps of her kinsman Jung Lu in the next room and then his voice, deep even for a man's voice, asking for her. For the first time in her life she did not go to him at once. They were Manchu, and the ancient Chinese law and custom, forbidding the meeting of male and female beyond the age of seven, had not kept them apart. She and Jung Lu had been playmates in childhood and cousin-friends when childhood was past. He was now a guardsman at the gates of the Forbidden City and because of his duty there he could not come often to Muyanga's house. Yet he was always here on feast days and birthdays, and at the Chinese feast of the Crack of Spring two months ago he had spoken to her of marriage.

On that day she had neither refused him nor accepted him. She had smiled her brilliant smile and she had said, "You must not speak to me instead of to my uncle."

"We are cousins," he had reminded her.

"Thrice removed," she had rejoined.

Thus she had replied without yes or no and, remembering now what had passed on that day, and indeed she thought of it always whatever she did, she put aside the curtain. There in the main room he stood, tall and sturdy, his feet planted well apart. On another day he would have taken off his guardsman's round cap of red fox fur and even perhaps his outer tunic, but today he stood as though he were a stranger, holding in his hand a packet wrapped in yellow silk.

She saw it at once and he knew she saw it. They caught each other's thought, as always.

He said, "You recognize the imperial summons."

"It would be foolish not to know it," she replied.

They had never spoken with formal address, nor used the courtesies and small talk of man and woman. They knew each other too well.

He said, his eyes not moving from hers, "Is Muyanga, my kinsman, awake?"

She said, not moving her eyes from his, "You know that he does not rise before noon."

"Today he must rise," Jung Lu retorted. "I need his signature of receipt as guardian in your father's place."

She turned her head and called. "Lu Ma, wake my uncle! Jung Lu is here and must have his signature before he returns to the palace."

"Aie-ya," the old woman sighed.

Orchid put out her hand. "Let me see the packet."

Jung Lu shook his head. "It is for Muyanga."

She let her hand fall. "Yet I know what it says. I am to go to the palace with my cousin Sakota nine days from now."

His black eyes glowered under heavy brows. "Who has told you before me?"

She looked away from him, her long eyes half hidden under the straight black lashes. "The Chinese know everything. I stopped yesterday on the street to watch their wandering actors. They played The Emperor's Concubine—that old play, but they made it new. In the sixth moon, on the twentieth day, the play said, the Manchu virgins must appear before the Dowager Mother of the Son of Heaven. How many of us are there this year?"

"Sixty," he said.

She lifted her straight long lashes, black above her onyx eyes. "I am one of sixty?"

"I have no doubt that in the end you will be first," he said.

His voice, so deep, so quiet, went to her heart with prophetic force.

"Where I am," she said, "you will be near me. That I shall insist upon. Are you not my kinsman?"

They were gazing at each other again, forgetful for the moment of all except themselves. He said sternly, as though she had not spoken, "I came here purposing to ask your guardian to give you to me for my wife. Now I do not know what he will do."

"Can he refuse the imperial summons?" she asked.

She looked away from him and then, her smooth grace accentuated, she walked to the long blackwood table which stood against the inner wall of the room. Between two high brass candlesticks, under the painting of the sacred mountain of Wu T'ai, a pot of yellow orchids bloomed.

"They opened this morning—the imperial color. It is an omen," she murmured.

"Everything is an omen now, in your mind," he said.

She turned to him, her black eyes bright and angry. "Is it not my duty to serve the Emperor if I am chosen?" She looked away from him and her voice lowered to its usual gentleness. "If I am not chosen, certainly I will be your wife."

Lu Ma came in, peering at one young face and the other. "Your uncle is awake now, Young Mistress. He says he will take his food in bed. Meanwhile your kinsman is to enter."

She went away and they heard her clattering in the kitchen. The house was beginning to stir. The two boys were quarreling in the outer courtyard by the street gate. In the bedroom Orchid heard her sister's plaintive call.

"Orchid—Elder Sister! I am not well! My head aches—"

"Orchid," Jung Lu repeated. "It is too childish a name for you now."

She stamped her foot. "It is still my name! And why do you stay? Do your duty and I will do mine."

She left him impetuously and he stood watching her as she put the curtain aside and let it fall again behind her.

But in that brief anger her will was set. She would go to the imperial city of the Emperor and she would, she must, be chosen. Thus in an instant she decided the long argument of her days. To be Jung Lu's wife, the mother of his children—many children there would be, for they were passionate, he and she—or to be an imperial concubine? But he loved her only and she loved him and something more. What more? On the day of the imperial summons she would know.

On the twenty-first day of the sixth moon month she woke in the Winter Palace in the imperial city. Her first thought was the one upon which she had fallen asleep the night before.

"I am within the four walls of the City of the Emperor!"

The night was over. The day had arrived, the great and momentous day for which she had secretly waited since she was a small child, when she had watched Sakota's elder sister leave home forever to become the Imperial Concubine. That sister had died before she could become the Empress, and none of the family had ever seen her again. But she, Orchid, would live—

"Keep yourself apart," her mother had said yesterday. "Among the virgins you are only one. Sakota is small and delicate in beauty and since she is the younger sister of the dead Consort certainly she must be favored above you. Whatever place is given you, it is possible for you to rise beyond it."

Instead of farewell her mother, always stern, gave her these plain words and they were alive in her mind. She had not wept when in the night she heard others weeping, fearful lest they be chosen on this day of the Emperor's choosing. For if she were chosen, and this her mother told her plainly, then might she never see again her home and her family. Nor could she so much as visit her home until she was twenty-one years old. Between seventeen and twenty-one there stretched four lonely years. Yet must they be lonely? When she thought of Jung Lu they were lonely. But she thought also of the Emperor.

That last night at home she had been sleepless with excitement. Sakota, too, was wakeful. Somewhere in the silent hours she had heard footsteps and recognized them.

"Sakota!" she had cried.

In the darkness her cousin's soft hand felt her face.

"Orchid, I am frightened! Let me come into your bed."

She pushed aside her younger sister, lumpish in sleep, and made room for her cousin. Sakota crept in. Her hands and feet were cold and she was trembling.

"Are you not afraid?" she whispered, cowering under the quilts against her cousin's warm body.

"No," Orchid said. "What can harm me? And why should you be afraid when your own elder sister was the Emperor's chosen one?"

"She died in the palace," Sakota whispered. "She was unhappy there—she was sick for home. I, too, may die."

"I shall be there with you," Orchid said. She wrapped her strong arms about the slender body. Sakota was always too thin, too soft, never hungry, never strong.

"What if we are not chosen into the same class?" Sakota asked.

So it had happened. They were separated. Yesterday when the virgins appeared first before the Dowager Mother of the Son of Heaven, she chose twenty-eight from the sixty. Sakota, because she was the sister of the dead princess was placed in F'ei, the first class, and Orchid in Kuei Jen, the third.

"She has a temper," the shrewd old Dowager said, staring at Orchid. "Otherwise I would put her in the second class of P'in, for it is not fitting to put her with the first class with her cousin and the sister of my daughter-in-law, who has passed to the Yellow Springs. Let her be in the third class, for it is better if my son, the Emperor, does not notice her."

Orchid had listened in seeming modesty and obedience. Now, a virgin only of the third class, she remembered her mother's parting words. Her mother was a strong woman.

A voice called through the sleeping hall, the voice of the chief tiring woman, whose task it was to prepare the virgins.

"Young ladies, it is time to rise! It is time to make yourselves beautiful! This is your day of good fortune."

The others rose at once upon this summons, but Orchid did not. Whatever the others did she would not do. She would be separate, she would be alone. She lay motionless, all but concealed beneath the silken quilt, and watched the young girls shivering under the hands of the women servants who came to attend them. The early air was cool, the northern summer was still new, and from the shallow wooden tubs of hot water the steam rose in a mist.

"All must bathe," the chief tiring woman commanded. She sat in a wide bamboo chair, fat and severe, accustomed to obedience.

The young girls, now naked, stepped into the tubs and serving women rubbed their bodies with perfumed soap and washed them with soft cloths while the chief tiring woman stared at each in turn. Suddenly she spoke.

"Twenty-eight were chosen from the sixty. I count only twenty-seven." She examined the paper in her hand and called the names of the virgins. Each virgin answered from where she stood. But the last one did not answer.

"Yehonala!" the old woman called again.

It was Orchid's clan name. Yesterday, before she left his house, Muyanga, her uncle-guardian, had summoned her into his library to give her a father's counsel.

She had stood before him, and he, not rising, his large body clad in sky-blue satin and overflowing the seat of his easy chair, gave his advice. She felt an easy humor toward him, for he was negligently kind, but she did not love him, for he loved no one, being too lazy for love or hate.

"Now that you are about to enter into the City of the Emperor," he said in his oily voice, "you must leave behind your little name, Orchid. From this day you will be called Yehonala."

"Yehonala!" Again the chief tiring woman shouted and still she did not answer. She closed her eyes and pretended to be asleep.

"Has Yehonala escaped?" the old woman called.

A serving woman answered. "Mistress, she lies in bed."

The chief tiring woman was shocked. "Still abed? And can she sleep?"

The servant went to the bed and looked. "She is sleeping."

"What hard heart is this?" the old woman cried. "Waken her! Pull away the quilts, pinch her arms!"

The servant obeyed, and Yehonala, feigning to wake, opened her eyes. "What is it?" she asked drowsily. She sat up, her hands flying to her cheeks. "Oh—oh—" she stammered, her voice as soft as that of a mourning dove. "How could I forget?"


Excerpted from Imperial Woman by Pearl S. Buck. Copyright © 1956 Pearl S. Buck. Excerpted by permission of OPEN ROAD INTEGRATED MEDIA.
All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.
Excerpts are provided by Dial-A-Book Inc. solely for the personal use of visitors to this web site.

Table of Contents


Part I: Yehonala,
Part II: Tzu Hsi,
Part III: The Empress Mother,
Part IV: The Empress,
Part V: Old Buddha,
A Biography of Pearl S. Buck,

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Imperial Woman: The Story of the Last Empress of China 4.4 out of 5 based on 0 ratings. 13 reviews.
Mirella More than 1 year ago
Feared and hated, Tzu Hsi (Cixi) was the last Empress of China, a decadent woman known for her insatiable desire for power, greed, and murderous shrewdness. Imperial Woman is a detailed, fictionalized accounting of her life. Written with great historical detail and abounding emotion, this epic novel brings to life not only the world of the Qing dynasty, but the hardships and intrigues of the Chinese royal court within the Forbidden City. Beautifully written with a compelling voice, it is a vivid portrayal of this much-maligned woman.  If you’ve never read one of Pearl S Buck’s novels, then you are in for a rare, exotic treat, a journey like you’ve never before taken. It is no wonder that she is one of the world’s most beloved authors, her books classics. This is definitely a must read book, one that will linger in your memory for years to come, and one that will teach you about a period in history well worth learning about. 
Anonymous More than 1 year ago
This is the story of the real last Empress of China and arguably the last true monarch before the decades of unrest gave rise to Communism. No one can know what really transpired in the Forbidden City, but Buck weaves what little is truly known into a compelling tale of a culture very alien to modern westerners and of a remarkable woman who rose to and mantain extraordinary power in a male dominated society.
Anonymous More than 1 year ago
I would recommend this book to anyone that loves history or the culture of China. Very good work!!
Anonymous More than 1 year ago
Beautiful story. I love this writer. I plan to read more of her books.
Anonymous More than 1 year ago
My favorite of Pearl Bucks novels and in my top 5 favorite books of all time. The good earth is in that list as well.
Anonymous More than 1 year ago
I read anything by Pear Buck, she has a wy of capturing the everday voices of people and is able to make the reader feel as.though they are there, seeing, smelling, tasting and hearing the expirience. Another of Pearl Bucks wonderfull stories, it does not disapoint.
Anonymous More than 1 year ago
i did a book report of this book over 60 years ago and i still think it was a wonderful book. i was 12 years and remember most of it. pearl buck was and is one of my favorite authors.
JKathleen More than 1 year ago
I have a great interest in this period and story, but a read about this is hard to find. Buck is boring with constant repetitions, but I suppose that is how it often was. The history is worth the read. As she said, sometimes the concubines never saw their husband and only lived their little world in their room. If you've ever stood in The Forbidden City, it is an awesome feeling reading this history.
Anonymous More than 1 year ago
Anonymous More than 1 year ago
Regardin meals clothes ceremonies that tend to hide tha person in exotic clouds. She was certainly s person who survived at every one else's expense mental health is the ability to survive in whereever you find yourself and do it well well she did and became the same
Anonymous More than 1 year ago
Pearl S. Buck is one of my favorite authors
Anonymous More than 1 year ago
I first read Pearl Buck my junior year in High School. Trust me this is a book you won't be able to put down.
Anonymous More than 1 year ago
And the numeration of actions food clothing seem like four different books trying to mesh. Often the first for honors is the best. However nook has many that are out of print and hard to find like her none asian novels never reprinted almost forgotten writer page counter