This is definitely a book which forced me to read from the viewpoint of another time and place. It tells the story of Tzu-Hsi (pronounced “Tsoo Shee”), born in 1835, and her rise from a middling Manchu family to the throne of Imperial China.
In novelized format Pearl S. Buck engagingly portrays this woman who, at the age of seventeen became a concubine to the emperor. Giving him his only son placed her in a position of power, which she exploited to the fullest. A crafty woman who was a devoted friend and a dangerous enemy, Tzu-Hsi continued to rule China as regent to her son after the death of his father. I did some research on her after I finished the book and learned that many historians believe that her refusal to allow China to interact with world traders and diplomats-attempting to continue the isolationist policies of the rulers before her-despite the new world economy that was evolving, very likely led to the end of any likelihood of a modernized Imperial China and thus opened the door to communism.
She did, towards the end of her rule, have a softening in her stance, as a result of the Boxer Rebellion of 1900. A new willingness was expressed for social reform, to the extent of extending the possibility of a constitutional monarchy; unfortunately, her evolving position came too late for it to be willingly embraced by her people.
Author Buck does a wonderful job with Tzu-Hsi’s character, clearly showing her evolution from naive country girl to woman of power to aging ruler trying to rectify her mistakes. Everything that I read about the empress after reading Buck’s novel shows that the novel is well researched and factually correct. The author’s love and knowledge of China shine through in this novel; cultural issues are dealt with even-handedly and with perfect instinct for what a western reader might need to have further explained.
I listened to the new audio which Oasis put out last year. It was ably done-not one which will make my top audio of the year, but very good nonetheless-for audio readers I definitely recommend it.
Overall I would say that this is a wonderfully absorbing tale about a fascinating woman living in a traditional country on the cusp of the modern age. I think that most readers of historical fiction would find her life’s journey an interesting and enjoyable read.