Imperial Woman by Pearl S. Buck – Book Review

Why, yes, this is my fourth review of a book about Cixi. I’m a little obsessed. (You can read my take on Anchee Min’s books here and here and Jung Chang’s here.)

When I saw that Pearl S. Buck had a novel about Cixi, I just had to read her version of this fascinating woman. While Buck was not a contemporary of Cixi, she lived in China while some of Cixi’s contemporaries still lived, and her legacy was still fresh in the minds of the people. Buck even says in her forward that she visited remote villages where people thought Cixi was still alive and reigning decades after her death. I was interested to see if her version of Cixi would be different than writers today. While the novel itself was interesting enough, from a historical perspective, I found the novel sorely wanting.

In her forward for Imperial Woman, Buck says “Western writers, with few exceptions, describe [Cixi] unfavorably and even vindictively.” I find it amazing that Buck realized that at the time. Today, Min and Jung (and anyone with internet) has access to mountains of information about Cixi, and it is easy to look at a survey of works written about her during her lifetime and shortly after and see the damning campaign that was waged against this powerful woman, both in China and in the West. For Buck to see that Cixi was painted as a villain mostly for political reasons, if they had a reason at all, was very astute. Buck says, “I have tried in this book to portray [Cixi] as accurately as possible from available resources and my own memories of how the Chinese whom I knew in my childhood felt about her.”

However, Buck seems to fall into the same old rhetoric used by authors she started out criticizing. Throughout the novel, Buck has no problem portraying Cixi as “evil” and a “tyrant,” using those words with abandon. Cixi is exceedingly selfish and makes one bad decision after another. When she reached out to the wives of foreign dignitaries, a significant milestone in the China/Western relationship, she is portrayed as exceedingly fake, not wanting to engage in any real dialogue or wanting to improve relationships at all, which was bitterly disappointing.  I’m not saying Cixi was perfect (as I have written before, her complexity is what makes her so amazing), but Buck’s portrayal was not the enlightened, balanced novel I was hoping for. The last decade of Cixi’s life, the time when she made the most revolutionary changes to China that ushered the country into a new age, takes only the last few pages of the book.

The book, as a novel, was entertaining enough. Her descriptions are vivid, and her story is compelling. It’s a bit long, but certainly not a hard read. It was at least better than Min’s The Last Empress. I wouldn’t say the book was terrible or don’t read it, but I came to the book with very high expectations for a brilliant and fair novelization of Cixi, so the fact that I was disappointed was probably more my fault than Buck’s.

What do you think? Have you read any novels about Cixi that you would recommend? Have you ever started a novel with unfair expectations? How did it turn out?