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Shan Sa – Empress

Book Cover

Reigning for ten thousand years. It may indeed seem that long…

Publisher: Harper Perennial (HarperCollins)
Pages: 319
Type: Fiction
Age: Adult
ISBN: 978-0-061-14787-6
First Published: 2003; 2006 in English
Date Reviewed: 16th June 2016
Rating: 3/5

Original language: French
Original title: Impératrice (Empress)
Translated by: Adriana Hunter

Wu Ze Tian, as she would become known to history, begins life as the child of a privileged mother and a well-known but commoner father. After spending some years in a convent she is recommended to the Imperial City; a man who once aided her has found her a position as a royal concubine. Ze Tian finds no favour with her husband, the Emperor, but her ability as a horsewoman attracts the attention of his son who comes to desire her. She agrees to be his wife and thus starts a controversial era wherein for the first and only time a woman will rule China as Emperor.

Empress is an epic, fictionalised, account of Empress Wu’s life from her time in the womb to past death (it’s told in the first person). It’s the sort of book to read if the history intrigues you but you want to begin your lessons slowly.

Sa’s character is a difficult one. In Ze Tian you have a woman who was pulled from her life and put in a position that was both a source of envy and a horrible prospect – to be a concubine or wife was a high position in society, but most of the thousands of women kept in the City for the Emperor’s enjoyment would spend their days waiting for acknowledgement in vain. But you also have a woman who, once she gained power, was incredibly ruthless. Sa has balanced it all exceptionally well. For the most part the kindness of Ze Tian is kept to her early years – admittedly a lot shorter, page wise, than her reign – and her tyrannical decisions to said later reign. Sa does allow for moments of goodness and kind thoughts during Ze Tian’s time as emperor, but considering there is little chance at this point of your feeling any sympathy for the monarch, the author keeps it in the region of self-absorption and reflection. Sometimes this reflection just makes the horror worse, but one senses Sa just had to shrug her shoulders.

Ze Tian made a lot of positive changes in her time, even if many were later reverted. She set up a system wherein the regular person could state a grievance that would be listened to, she adjusted exams for hopeful scholars so that commoners could have a shot at governmental roles. She was a role model for women. So Sa gives the woman what positivity she can but is realistic about the tyranny. Of course there’s always the thought in the background, which Sa addresses in the first person narrative – how much of the punishment Ze Tian metes out is due to any evil versus how much does she deem crucial to the success of her status? The narrative revolves around Ze Tian’s thoughts, everything that happens is couched in its relevance to her, how it impacts her, so, again, Sa ensures you’re getting as objective a picture as you can, at least as far as the limits of first-person go. (The book is limited by this narrative choice.)

Jousting with the graphic violence for Most Gratuitous Aspect is the sex. There’s no getting away from sex in this book; the women in the Inner Court had no choice and neither do you – there’s a lot of it, in various guises, sometimes because it’s a reflection of the facts and sometimes because – unfortunately – it seems Sa has run out of ideas. What’s interesting is that you eventually become numb to the idea of incest and old women having sex with consenting-but-under-pressure-to-do-so teenagers because it’s just so prevalent; and it’s interesting that you become numb because there’s a great possibly that that’s something Sa is wanting you to feel – the conquests were acceptable in the situation and so by becoming attuned, study-wise, to it yourself, you stop feeling so nauseated by it and start to see the societal concepts behind it.

The writing is very poetic. The translation reads well and it certainly matches the poetic nature of historical Chinese writings and artwork enough that we can assume in it a faithful version. In terms of the writing’s impact on one’s reading, however, the book is very slow and can be a bit too flowery – sometimes it seems as though Sa is exploiting poetry in order to make her story longer than it should be. There is also a lot of info-dumping, Sa likes to go into meticulous, few-pages-long detail about events that could be summarised in a paragraph, and friends supposedly of many years pop up without you having heard of them before. It’s difficult to remember who anyone is in this book, the repetition makes everything so similar. No one is as important as Ze Tian and it shows.

And this is where we come to the main problem with the book – after a point, about two thirds of the way through, once Ze Tian is firmly ensconced on her throne, the novel becomes a series of repetitions. Ze Tian will worry about getting older; someone will suggest another is out to steal the throne; said accused person is condemned to death; Ze Tian is sad because she liked them; someone turns up in the royal bedroom to help the monarch remain young and energetic; that person is taken away; a pilgrimage or other journey happens; Ze Tian dreams of gods and her goodness… over and over again. Undoubtedly there was boredom to the routine of life at court and in the tedious nature of every action, every breath, having to adhere to etiquette… perhaps it is to show that tedium, and the slow decline of the body, but it’s overdone.

You’re never going to feel sorry for Ze Tian. You’re not going to like her and quite frankly it’s a relief to get out of her head. But if you can deal with the ennui I’ve mentioned, or if you’re happy to skip those sections, you might want to flick through Empress. Ze Tian’s reign was an important one, and if you’re at all interested in history your interest will be improved by knowing about her.

Or you could look for articles on the Internet and be just as, if not better, informed.

But I became a symbol of a corrupt woman… Novelists invented a life of debauchery for me, attributing their own fantasies to me.

This may be ironic.

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Booker talk

October 28, 2016, 6:45 pm

Hm, not sure I would have the energy to plough through this. Wasnt there another book published recently about this woman – a non fictional account?? I can’t imagine there were many female emperors

Charlie

November 10, 2016, 3:11 pm

Bookertalk: I’m not sure. There was one about Ci Xi by Jung Chang but I’m not sure about Ze Tian.

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