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Imperial Woman Imperial Power

Analysis of Imperial Woman (Pearl Buck) and the manner in which Buck exposes the palace intrigues of the Forbidden City.

Karen Bishoff
19 April 2001
Imperial Woman: Imperial Power

After writing My Several Worlds, Pearl S. Buck turned to one of her personal heroines in Chinese history as inspiration for her next book. In her historically based novel, Imperial Woman, drawn from the life of the Empress Tzu Hsi, Pearl Buck panoramically displays personal and historical events as the young, unsophisticated girl slowly evolves and ages into the Old Buddha, Empress Dowager of China. In this story, Buck manages to work carefully around actual, recorded events and still maintain a vital plot of broad human appeal, full of spirit, love, and intrigue centered on the unrecorded parts of Tzu Hsi?s life. Pearl Buck deals with the central themes of power?its excesses and perversions within the Chinese court?showing the magnitude of the control of the eunuchs and the intrigues of the court attendants (all of which eventually lead to the end of the hierarchical ruling class in China); Buck draws on her own life experiences, empathizing and identifying with the Empress.
The positions and names through which Tzu Hsi moves are third rank concubine, first rank concubine, Fortunate Mother, Sacred Mother (Tzu Hsi), Consort, Empress of the Western Palace, Empress Mother, Empress Regent, and finally, Empress Dowager?the Old Buddha. Buck spells Tzu Hsi's original name ?Yehonala? but Sterling Seagrave says it is actually ?Yehenara? according to the Imperial Court Records. The name comes from the name of the tribe to which her family belonged (Yehe), added to her clan name of Nara (Seagrave 18). Either way, the young woman who became the last Empress of China had many names and titles; they changed as her position in life and within the Imperial Court altered.
Tzu Hsi comes to the palace originally as a potential concubine for the Emperor. His consort having died, the Emperor takes Tzu Hsi?s cousin, Sakota, as his new consort (12), and then prepares to select new concubines. Because the ruling family is Mandarin and not Chinese, Imperial concubines must come from the ranks of the Mandarin families in the realm. The Empress Dowager attends the review of the 600 Mandarin maidens and personally places Tzu Hsi in the last (third) rank for viewing by the Emperor; the Empress Mother sees Tzu Hsi as willful, unfit to be a concubine for her son. The old Empress hopes he will not notice the girl or that the review will end before the presentation of Tzu Hsi.
Following her mother?s advice to separate herself, Tzu Hsi lags behind all the others; she is slow to come when called for her turn to promenade in front of the Emperor. This behavior intrigues the Emperor; Tzu Hsi beguiles him with her calm and unconcerned manner. She is brave and daring as she looks directly into the Emperor?s eyes, instead of looking modestly below his chest as befits a chaste maiden (14). This scene demonstrates the personal force and strength of purpose within this young woman as she defies social conventions from her first days within the Palace. Unused to such bold, brash behavior in a woman, the Emperor is intrigued with her and selects Tzu Hsi to join the ranks of the Imperial concubines. Buck?s plot works like a typical love story of the Romantic era, while staying close to the bona fide events as they occurred in real life. Identifying closely with Karen Bishoff Page 2 4/24/01
this strong-willed woman, Buck saw herself as another who would look the Emperor straight in the eye and come out a winner, as did Tzu Hsi.
Having secured a place in the palace as a concubine, Tzu Hsi sets out to work her way into the affections of the Empress Dowager; her mother has told her that she must serve the Empress even above the Emperor (14). With time and guile, she is able to inveigle herself into an intimacy with the old woman. To come to the Empress? notice, Tzu Hsi takes to studying in the great library, taking painting lessons, and performing small useful tasks for the elderly royal. She studies daily with a scholarly old eunuch, which gratifies the Empress Mother. Well aware her son is often bored; she knows that concubines must be ready to amuse him with witty sayings, bits and pieces of poetry, and their skills in the arts, thus Tzu Hsi?s diligence in improving herself brings the elderly ruler satisfaction as to the intent of the concubine to mold herself into a model of education and decorum.
Warned against the eunuchs by her mother before coming to the Forbidden City, Tzu Hsi tries to skirt them and their influence. ?Their maleness, stemmed and denied, turns evil in them. It becomes malice and bitterness and cruelty and all things vile. Avoid the eunuchs from the highest to the lowest. Pay them money if you must. Never let them see that you fear them? (13-14). This one comment by her mother shows something of the power that eunuchs wield within the Imperial Palace, and why Tzu Hsi must eventually come to an understanding and arrangement with them.
Once Tzu Hsi is living in the palace, she cannot avoid the eunuchs; they are the Karen Bishoff Page 3 4/24/01
only ?men? allowed overnight in the Forbidden City, they are her teachers and escorts; she must deal with them on a daily basis. Time passes and she becomes aware that a young eunuch, Li Lien-ying desires to be her servant; Tzu Hsi questions his motives. She has no money to pay him, yet he is insistent in his desire to serve her. He tells her ?I know what your destiny is ? When you rise toward the Dragon Throne I will rise with you, always your servant and your slave? (17). From the cachet her power imparts to her servants, he hopes to increase his own power and standing within the eunuch ranks.
Li makes himself useful to her, bringing her news and gossip, especially that concerning the Emperor, his consort, and the progress towards conceiving an heir. This assistance is essential to Tzu Hsi?s plans; she cannot function within the Imperial palace without such knowledge as Li Lien-ying can garner for her. She ties her fate to that of the eunuch when she accepts his assistance and the use of his influence in securing her position within the walls of the Emperor?s palace. Li sets to work to win the interest of the Emperor in Tzu Hsi, bribing the eunuchs who serve in the Imperial quarters to mention her name at any signs of restlessness on the Emperor?s part. Buck presents Tzu Hsi as increasingly conniving and manipulative as her power within the hierarchy of the Imperial city, willing to do whatever she must for ever-stronger power and increased position.
Li brings Tzu Hsi a ripe melon of the kind especially loved by the old Empress. Tzu Hsi serves it to the old woman herself, allowing no one else to touch the melon. Her manner and filial piety are correct and touching; the Empress saves half of the melon for her son, Hsien Feng to eat when he comes to visit with her in the evening (21). In this Karen Bishoff Page 4 4/24/01
manner, Tzu Hsi charms the old woman and comes to the attention of the Emperor without giving the appearance of trying to do so. Tzu Hsi comes to appreciate the mother of Hsien Feng, to feel some genuine affection for her and she is dismayed the elderly woman eventually dies.
The interesting point brought up in this interchange between the Empress and the concubine is the Empress? acknowledgement of the evil ways of the eunuchs?if she allowed them to take the melon and chill it in a well for her, she will never see it again. They would eat it and then say someone had stolen or that it dropped into the bottom of the well and they could not retrieve it, or else they would substitute an unripe one for it (20). This tacit acceptance of the ways of the eunuchs, with no attempt to change it, shows how very powerful they are; even the old Empress will not challenge them, although she knows them to be corrupt she does not speak against them above a whisper. The eunuchs have ruined the Emperor, Hsien Feng?s health through riotous living, drugs, drinking, and consorting with prostitutes, both male and female. They have encouraged him in vices of all kinds so that they could control him through his weaknesses and baser needs.
Following the birth of her son, Tung Chih, Tzu Hsi sees that the factions within the palace are trying to use Sakota against herself and her son, to have him set aside or worse. Sakota never pays the prescribed birth visit to the young heir; thus insinuating that she has joined one of the factions taking sides against the child, Tung Chih. Going to Sakota?s rooms soon after her son?s birth, Tzu Hsi uses her strength of personality and Sakota?s own obedience social conventions to compel her cousin, to bind her allegiance to Karen Bishoff Page 5 4/24/01
the infant. Sakota is ill, not yet recovered from the birth of her daughter and not able to stand for long, yet by custom and court etiquette she should not sit until Tzu Hsi, her guest, is seated (65). ?[C]ourtesy demands reciprocity? is a commonly acknowledged proverb in Chinese culture (About 1), and societal demands of courtesy to those lower than oneself are not easily bypassed. Even Confucian addressed the issue of the treatment of others as one would desire to be treated, especially those of lower standing than oneself (de Bary 25-27).
?Sakota rose from her chair and she stood half bowed, clinging to its arms. ?Sit down, Cousin,? she said in her plaintive voice? (65). As Sakota begs her cousin to sit, she is tacitly asking Tzu Hsi to accept that they are on different sides. Through her continuing to stand, Tzu Hsi hopes to force Sakota to give a promise of safety for the child. When Sakota refuses to do give in, Tzu Hsi compels her through physical force--much as she did when they were still children living together at home in . ?Yehonala leaned down and grasped those two small soft hands and crushed them so fiercely that the tears rushed to Sakota?s eyes. ?. ?I?I promise,? Sakota said in a broken voice. ?And I promise,? Yehonala said firmly? (66). Thus does Tzu Hsi get Sakota?s agreement to not participate in any plots by the eunuch and court factions against the child.
Having solidified her position and power within the court, Tzu Hsi gives advice to her ill husband on matters of state, on which she has long been educating herself. She advises him to not allow white men into China, to refuse the reception of envoys from their countries. He sees the wisdom of her advice and replies, ?You are worth more to me than Karen Bishoff Page 6 4/24/01
any man ? even than my brother? (75). Tzu Hsi forges an alliance with the chief eunuch and begins to give orders in the name of the Emperor. Sitting screened off behind his throne as he holds audience, she later gives him advice on all matters of state brought before him. At this point, she passes her son off into the care of the chief eunuch; she has obtained the power she sought.
The Emperor Hsien Feng dies when his son is only five years old, but long before this time, Tzu Hsi?s position has been elevated equal to the first consort for the protection of the heir. After the death of her husband, Tzu Hsi tries to ameliorate the influence of the eunuchs on the young Emperor, but is not able to stop them from leading her son to his moral ruin and ultimate death. He weds but dies young; his wife commits suicide by swallowing opium. Tzu Hsi installs two other unsuccessful Emperors on the throne; one succumbs to the urgings of his eunuchs to change the country and she strips all power from him, coming out of retirement to rule once more; the final one is only a child when she dies. Through all her life as Empress, Tzu Hsi conspires with the eunuchs to maintain control of the ruling house and the country, as well as to keep out the alien influences of the whites seeking trade with the Chinese.
Biographer Peter Cohn addresses Buck?s importance in bringing the Chinese culture to the awareness of Americans. ?Never before or since has one writer so personally shaped the imaginative terms in which America addresses a foreign culture. For two generations of Americans, Buck invented China.? He wrote of Buck, as she could perhaps have written of the old Buddha, ?I have not written a saint's life. Pearl Buck, as I have Karen Bishoff Page 7 4/24/01
gotten to know her, was a troubled, conflicted, often limited woman, capable of cruelty as well as kindness? (Cohn) Just as he says this of Buck, so does Buck show her readers all parts of her Empress.
The Empress Dowager was symbolic of Pearl Buck: as a saddened Tzu Hsi was dealing with a husband who was slowly dying and leaving her, so was a devastated Buck dealing with the mental decline and death of her own husband, Richard Walsh. The parallels in the lives of these two women are enormous?both were women with missions and both saw them through to the end; both suffered the loss of someone they loved dearly; both had to fight for control of their own lives; both women were consumed with being in control and being loved. The China Pearl Buck portrayed for her readers in Imperial Woman passed away with the dying of the Old Buddha, destroyed by the excesses and misuses of power by the Empress, the royal Manchurian clans, and the eunuchs o f the Forbidden City.

Karen Bishoff Page 8 4/24/01
Works Cited
Buck, Pearl S. Imperial Woman. New York: John Day. 1956.
Chinese Manners: Daily Life. About.com.
Cohn, Peter. Pearl S. Buck: A Cultural Biography. Preface Page. University of Pennsylvania Website. 1998.
de Bary, William Theodore, ed. Sources of Chinese Tradition. New York: Columbia University, 1960.
Seagrave, Sterling. Dragon Lady: The Legend and Life of the Last Empress of China. New York: Knopf, 1992.

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