Imperial Woman

  • by Pearl S. Buck
  • Narrated by Kirsten Potter
  • 17 hrs and 46 mins
  • Unabridged Audiobook

Publisher's Summary

The story of Tzu Hsi is the story of the last empress in China. In this audiobook, Pearl S. 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 17 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.
Pearl S. Buck’s knowledge of and fascination with the empress’s life are contagious. She reveals the essence of this self-involved and infamous last empress, at the same time she takes the listener through China’s struggle for freedom and democracy.

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The Last Empress and the Destruction of China

This is the story of Tzu Hsi, a woman who rose from obscurity to rule first as regent to her son, the boy emperor, then ultimately as the last Empress of China from 1861 to 1908. Her death heralded the end of the old China. The empire collapsed only three years after her death, in 1911.

First chosen as one of many concubines to the young emperor – no more than a child himself – she manipulates herself into position as his favorite, cultivates his favor until he depends on her completely. Still in love with her childhood sweetheart, a single night of love produces a son, the next emperor.

Intelligent, highly (self) educated Tzu Hsi makes herself essential to her debauched, physically weakened, opium-addicted husband. His early death leaves her regent to her son. She is forced to preside over the destruction of Chinese culture. Her fight against white imperialism is hopeless. As the representative of the last Dynasty, she tries to find her way while the China she has known is assaulted by wave after wave of western imperialist pirates under the guise of missionaries, traders, and ambassadors.

Once the rape of China begins, she is powerless to stop it. Even the rare victory is no more than a holding action. Despite all evidence, she cannot believe China can lose to these invaders and she never loses her unyielding belief in the superiority of Chinese culture … the ultimate irony given the unyielding belief of the Western powers of their superiority. The unstoppable force meets the immoveable object and the result is – as might be expected – tragic.

In a way, she was more right than she knew. The old China collapsed but from its ashes, the new China has gained more power than the old ever had.

There are a number of ways to read this book. It’s a brilliant, detailed picture of a vanished civilization … beautiful and to modern minds, bizarre. Certainly it’s the story of Tzu Hsi, her life, her deeply flawed, complex personality. Her bad decisions based on the logic of a world already gone where the rules no longer applied.

You can also read Imperial Woman as a much larger story, how the western nations took the oldest culture on earth and destroyed it so we could plunder it for opium.

How we destroyed thousands of years of art and treasures so each country from the west — who had no right to any of China — treated the Chinese people as if they were the barbarians because they did not want to become just like us.

The European powers with the help of the United States transformed China into a monster. Then we have the gall to complain we don’t like the way it turned out. China would never have become what it is today or taken the path it did without the brutality and devastation wrought by European imperialism. And of course, look what opium and all that has followed in its wake has done to improve our society? Karma is a nasty bitch.

Written in 1956, the story is probably more relevant today, 30 years after the collapse of the Soviet Union and subsequent to the transformation of Communist China into the world’s biggest, baddest economic superpower. On many levels, for a lot of different reasons, it serves us right. We destroyed China. Now, in its own way, China is destroying us. One good turn deserves another.

I read Imperial Woman a few years after it first came out. I was in my early teens and it was just a story. An interesting, even fascinating story, but at the time, it meant no more than that.

Listening to it today had a lot more impact. Not only has my perspective, knowledge and interest in China’s extraordinary history expanded a huge amount, but the world has changed in way that were unthinkable when I read the book in 1960.

Written at the peak of the Communist witch hunts in the U.S. and the hottest part of the Cold War, we live in an entirely different world today. If you have knowledge of history, a sense of destiny and fundamental belief in Karma, you will find Imperial Woman contains many layers of meaning. It’s elegantly written, not even slightly dated.

Imperial Woman is available on Audible.com. Beautifully narrated, it's a perfect balance with enough feeling to make the story live, but not so overdone that it distracts from the telling. That's the best kind of narration.

As for the story, it's a classic, even more meaningtul today then when it was first published.
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- Marilyn Armstrong

China - a new look

Would you listen to Imperial Woman again? Why?

Certainly. It is completely enjoyable listening. You are swept along thru Chinese culture and its people.


What other book might you compare Imperial Woman to and why?

All Pearl Buck's books. She is the enchanter of Chinese story telling.


Have you listened to any of Kirsten Potter’s other performances before? How does this one compare?

Yes I have. Ms Potter's style and voices are so perfectly suited to cary the english speaking listener into China that it makes you feel like YOU are the "Old China Hand".


Was this a book you wanted to listen to all in one sitting?

No. The chapters were arranged so as to present perfect stopping points.


Any additional comments?

Don't miss this book. And that goes for all of Pearl Buck's stories. With good readers, you are swept INTO the story, you become one with the story. It makes you feel as though you belong.

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- Paul

Book Details

  • Release Date: 02-22-2011
  • Publisher: Oasis Audio