In 1852, a Manchurian girl named Orchid, with the clan name Yehonala, was summoned to be viewed by the Emperor of China.
On the twentieth day of the sixth moon, the last Empress of China was chosen. By right, her cousin, Sakota, was the Emperor’s consort, but she gave birth to a girl. Yehonala gave birth to a boy and became the Empress, Tzu Hsi. Once the Son of Heaven died, Tzu Hsi and the consort, Tzu An, became the Empress Mother and Regent. Since Tzu Hsi was the stronger of the two, it seemed as if she was the only Empress. Her son grew up to be the Emperor of China. All his decisions were still made by his mother, but he died young. Tzu Hsi had to find the next heir before any trouble started. She took her sister and the sixth prince’s son to be raised as the next Emperor.
Once the Heir grew up, Tzu Hsi retired to the Summer Palace. Again, she was called back to be the ruler of China since her nephew had made foolish decisions. The people of China called her the Old Buddha. According to the novel, Yehonala was a beautiful woman with a fierce heart. Since she was a virgin, she was summoned to be viewed by the Dowager Mother and the Son of Heaven. She could not disobey the command.
Yehonala wanted to marry her third cousin, Jung Lu, but the Emperor of China chose her to be one of his concubines. His mother opposed this decision because she noticed Yehonala had a strong spirit. Concubines were not meant to have ambitions; they were meant to be pretty and serve the Emperor in any way. Yehonala’s cousin, Sakota, was chosen to be the consort. Earlier, an older Sakota was the Emperor’s chosen one, but she had died. By tradition, the Emperor must fulfill his duties to the dead consort by choosing Sakota to be his new consort.
Once Sakota conceived, the Emperor’s duties were done, and he turned to Yehonala. The Emperor did not leave his bedchamber for three days. According to the records, no concubine or consort had stayed with Emperor Hsien Feng for such a long time. Yehonala became pregnant, but she did not say anything. If Sakota bore a son, then Yehonala would be useless. However, if Yehonala bore a son, and Sakota bore a girl, then Yehonala would have the title of the young Dowager Mother.
As it turns out, Sakota did give birth to a weak girl. Yehonala started to educate herself so she would be a proper ruler. The Dowager Mother had died at the announcement of the girl’s birth and Yehonala’s pregnancy. In the third moon of the spring year, Yehonala gave birth to a son.
According to tradition, Sakota had a duty to protect the heir like her own child. Because of her status, Yehonala manipulated the Emperor to allow her to have an equal position as Sakota. Her name was changed to Tzu Hsi. Before her life was simple; now she has to defend her life and her son’s life from the younger brothers of the Emperor. Prince Cheng, Prince Yi, and the Grand Councilor plotted to kill Tzu Hsi and the Heir while the Son of Heaven was dying. Tzu Hsi very cunningly persuaded the dying monarch to declare the child the heir and the two Empresses as Regents.
All of this was her burden to take on, and she was only twenty-six years old. As her son grew up, there was some speculation about the little emperor’s paternity. Tzu Hsi had made Jung Lu the new Grand Councilor, and there was talk about who was the real father. Once the little Emperor was in his teens, he became the Emperor of China, but Tzu Hsi still had power behind the throne. The Dowager Mother did not want foreigners taking over her country, so she forbade any sort of foreign object in her court.
She believed the people were trying to ruin China without her “sister’s,” Queen Victoria’s, knowledge. China was divided into two halves. One half believed in the old customs, while the other wanted to become more like the mysterious Western world. Tzu Hsi believed in the old traditions. She expected her son’s first duty was to his mother. However, when it came to choose the Emperor’s consort, the Emperor would not listen to his mother and married Alute, a daughter of Duke Chung Li.
Alute had the same ambitions as Tzu Hsi had when she was chosen. The Empress Mother was scared of Alute replacing her. Tzu Hsi allowed a concubine, Jasmine, to be near the Emperor while Alute was gone. Jasmine was a perfect foil to Alute in body.
Because of the competition between Alute and Jasmine, Tzu Hsi still had power over her son. For some unknown reason, the Emperor fell ill and died. Jasmine was sent to the palace of Forgotten Concubines, and Alute, out of duty, swallowed opium. In order to save the throne, Tzu Hsi went to the son of her sister, the wife of the Prince Ch’un. She claimed him as the new Emperor. As the new Emperor grew, he became curious about the “white men”.
Once the Empress left her title and retired, many attempts were made on her life. The way Tzu Hsi lived was very extravagant, and money was taken out from the military. Tzu Hsi did not think of herself as a burden. As an elder, she believed she had the right to be respected. The Emperor did not believe in the old traditions. He did something that shocked Tzu Hsi back into the throne. He slept with his concubine, Pearl, but his wife stayed a virgin. The Emperor was still the Emperor, but he was like a puppet. His strings were being pulled by Tzu Hsi.
The last Empress lived so long that people began to call her Benevolent Mother, Ancient One, and Old Buddha. The Imperial Woman shows a side of the last Empress that the Western world could not believe. In many novels, Tzu Hsi was noted as a cruel tigress, but because of her stubbornness to the old traditions and burdens, she tried to make China for her son. Once her son died, she did not care how China was, but to fulfill a duty to find a new Emperor and train him.
Yehonala did not care for her nephew, but it was her duty to train him. There are many historical mistakes in ‘Imperial Woman’. For example, Yehonala and Sakota were never cousins. As property of the Emperor, it would have been impossible for Yehonala to bear a child of another man. Even the Emperor’s concubines, who were nothing but chattels, were heavily guarded. It would not be proper for two women to have the same lord. However, ‘Imperial Woman’ is highly recommended to learn more about the last Empress of China.