Historical novels drawn from the 5,000 years of Chinese civilization are experiencing a recent rebirth thanks to authors like Anchee Min and Shan Sa. The former author, already renowned for her books RED AZALEA and BECOMING MADAME MAO, last year released EMPRESS ORCHID, the story of China's tragically powerful empress dowager Yehonala, infamously known to most Chinese people as Ci Xi. It was in fact Ci Xi who supposedly uttered her last, prophetic words from her deathbed in 1908: "Never again allow a woman to hold the supreme power in the State."
The year 2006 brings the story of another powerful woman from Chinese history. In EMPRESS, Shan Sa recreates the story of Empress Wu Ze Tian. Heavenlight, as she is referred to in the novel, was the first and only woman to achieve the regal title of Empress in China's entire 5,000 year history. Ruthless in her ascent and maintenance of the throne into her 80's, Wu Ze Tian is nevertheless remembered for her efforts to make life better for her poorest subjects by lowering taxes and raising the status of women. She also worked diligently to increase China's agricultural output and supported that effort through extensive road building and other public works projects.
To tell Heavenlight's story, author Shan Sa resorts to a first person narrative, taking us inside the mind of a politically astute and highly intelligent Empress who navigates her way from obscurity as a Talented One (an imperial concubine) within the Forbidden City to a place beside her husband, Emperor Gao Zong - Little Phoenix in the book. The story opens, somewhat bizarrely, with the Empress-to-be still in her mother's womb, about to pass into the world outside her mother's body. From her early years living in a joyless home with a strikingly non-maternal mother to her banishment to a Buddhist nunnery to her invitation to enter the Emperor's service as one his ten thousand concubines, Wu Ze Tian's story emerges as that of a nonconformist. Heavenlight is a man trapped in a woman's body, preferring horseback riding and archery to the womanly arts of singing and sewing. She emerges as a pragmatic problem-solver, willingly delving into court traditions and laws, honing her understanding of imperial politics, and generally eschewing the chase for the Emperor's sexual favors. In doing so, she gains the Emperor's attentions and ultimately his confidence and his heart.
Shan Sa's writing in EMPRESS is far denser than it was in her more affecting THE GIRL WHO PLAYED GO. She is sometimes so caught up in endless details that it seems she has gone out of her way to insert her extensive research into the novel regardless how it affects the pacing. Nevertheless, EMPRESS is filled with a palace's worth of supporting characters, although most of them are somewhat underdrawn. They function mostly as role players in Heavenlight's life, or in the palace intrigues. Regretably, we as readers get little sense of their perspective since we are seeing the world through Wu Ze Tian's eyes only, and from her Olympian view, they are mostly beneath consideration other than as allies or threats.
The strongest aspect of Shan Sa's story line is the sense of loneliness and emotional isolation Wu Ze Tian suffers as Empress. Every day is a struggle to manage her husband (until he dies of illness), dozens of scheming Court officials, and her family members jockeying for their place in the imperial line of succession, not to mention the problems of the Tang empire itself. It is decidedly not, as they say, "good to be the king (or queen, or empress)," since much of that life is a daily battle of wits for survival accompanied by ruinous emotional barrenness.
EMPRESS is an intriguing if somewhat slow-paced read, and it gives a strong sense of a very significant figure in Chinese history (although it regretably does not give the reader much context with respect to the Tang Dynasty in Chinese history and Empress Wu Ze Tian's role therein). Still, as powerful and wealthy as Wu Ze Tian was, Shan Sa conveys the definite sense that her job was at least as much a prison as it was a palace. That alone is a fascinating perspective, one that I have also encountered in Su Tong's recently translated novel, MY LIFE AS EMPEROR - another excellent read for those interested in Chinese history and culture.