"My skin was tanned by the sun; my figure was slim with bronzed muscle. I was like a challenge to those pale faces and concealed bodies. . . . To other women the choice of clothes was a form of ingenious exhibition, a shameless seduction. To me, dresses were like a breastplate that I put on to set off to war against this life."
-- from Empress
Such is the voice of Shan Sa's unforgettable heroine in her latest literary masterpiece, Empress. Empress Wu, one of China's most controversial figures, was its first and only female emperor, who emerged in the seventh century during the great Tang Dynasty and ushered in a golden age. Throughout history, her name has been defamed and her story distorted by those taking vengeance on a woman who dared to become emperor. But now, for the first time in thirteen centuries, Empress Wu (or Heavenlight, as we come to know her) flings open the gates of her Forbidden City and tells her own astonishing tale -- revealing a fascinating, complex figure who in many ways remains modern to this day.
Heavenlight's story begins with her birth into the humble yet noble Wu clan. Her parents had wanted a boy, but destiny will carry their precocious daughter farther than they ever dreamed. At the age of twelve, she is called by decree to serve the emperor as a Talented One of the fifth imperial rank. Leaving behind her beloved mother and sister, she is escorted to the Forbidden City and enters the imperial gynaeceum, which houses ten thousand concubines.
In her lavish yet sequestered new life, Heavenlight soon discovers that the great halls are teeming with seductions, plots, murders, and brazen acts of treason. Propelled by a shrewd intelligence, an extraordinary will, and a close friendship with the imperial heir, the girl who gallops horses and performs archery as brilliantly as any man sheds her childhood and rises through the ranks to the very pinnacle of power. On the one hand, she proves herself to be a political mastermind who can quell insurrections and open wide the routes of international trade; on the other, she's a passionate patron of the arts who brings Chinese civilization to unsurpassed heights of beauty and sophistication. And throughout her extraordinary reign, we are privy to her innermost struggles.
Writing with epic assurance, poetry, and vivid historic detail, Shan Sa plumbs the psychological and philosophical depths of what it means to be a striving mortal in a tumultuous, power-hungry world. Empress is a great literary feat and a revelation for the ages....Continua
I thought it was interesting that she came across as such a sexual creature, and that all the rumors about her sex life were confirmed (and more that were never said were admitted to) but that all the claims about ruthlessness that went along with her rise to power were denied. Personally I would have liked to see her a little more like Livia in I Claudius. But it was still fun for a novel, and nice to see her using translations of the actual edicts that Wu gave.
One thing I did find rather annoying was the translation of most (but not all) of the Chinese names. In particular I don't know why Chang An had to be referred to always as Long Peace whereas every other city was given the transliteration of its name. Similarly having Tai mountain instead of Mount Tai, when all the other mountains were referred to as Mout X seemed rather annoying.
Still a good read, not one to be taken as history, but still an enjoyable novel....Continua
This book was only the fourth book I've ever read in French. I think being do familiar with the historical subject really helped with my comprehension though there were several times I started to feel a bit lost. I decided I was getting enough to not need to get the English translation to read alongside however now I've finished I definitely want to read the English translation when it comes out in paperback this summer to grasp some of the finer details. Sa definitely seemed to have romanticised Wu a little, though as she was writing to combat the Confucian stereotypes given against her, and it was a novel and not history, I think she didn't take too many liberties. Empress Wu came across as a softer and gentler character, the secret police and the reign of terror were mentioned but not dwelt on. She didn't really appear to be as scheming and clever as I would have thought, and she seemed to have been genuinely in love with both the Emperor and her Buddhist architect. Of course this may have been because the book was written in the first person and the French came across as very beautiful, when I go back and read the English she may appear much more harsh!
The book seemed to have been very well researched. I was very excited to read passages that I recognised as being taken directly from recorded speech of Empress Wu in the historical sources. All the major events in her life seemed to be included. Events that are argued about in scholarly works were included, for example its not known if Wu entered a nunnery when she was a girl, or just after the death of her first husband the Emperor Tai Zong. Sa had Wu enter the Buddhist nunnery as a girl, and come across as a lifelong Buddhist, which I thought was a very interesting choice.
The book was very enjoyable, it was interesting to see the story played out in a new and different way. The one thing that I felt was lacking a little was the splendour of the Tang dynasty and the richness and diversity of the times. There was not the feeling of opulence of a very grand and diverse court. Again of course this could just have been my trouble with the French, but I felt that it was lacking a little. It was just so nice to read something new about Empress Wu and I can't wait to read it again in English. The more people know about this interesting piece of history the better!...Continua