Shan Sa, the author of the prizewinning The Girl Who Played Go, has reached much further back in time for her latest effort, Empress, a fictional biography of Empress Shengshen, China’s only female emperor and one of history’s most legendary wicked women. As the sole woman to occupy a throne at the meeting point of heaven and earth, this extraordinary personage is perhaps a perfect fit for Shan’s grandiose writing style.
Referred to as Heavenlight in the novel, Empress Shengshen had many names. Shan takes her moniker from the empress’ chosen name, Zhao, a new character created by the empress and comprised of the characters ming (“light”) and kong (“sky”). A descendant of the Wu clan, a prominent aristocratic family of antiquity, Heavenlight was the sole ruler of the abortive Zhou dynasty from 690 AD to 705 AD—and the victim, Shan argues, of centuries of misogynistic manipulation.
Patient readers will suffer the opening passage, a torturous description of life inside the womb, and with any luck, the last fetal monologue I will ever read. Our heroine wakes as the boisterous daughter of a minor bureaucrat and his pious wife. Heavenlight’s father belonged to a once-aristocratic family, a prominent military advisor before a palace coup thwarted his ambitions. A chance encounter saves Heavenlight from a humble rural existence—she is elected as a Talented One, an imperial concubine of the fifth rank.
Shan supposes Heavenlight never slept with her emperor, a reasonable assumption as only a tiny percentage of the thousands of women in the palace were ever favored by his attentions—most remained virgins their entire lives or formed attachments to fellow concubines. The former wilted away from frustration and loneliness; the latter, at least according to Shan, had violent, desperate affairs, exploitative arrangements based on differences of age and rank. Shan’s penchant for frantic, overwrought love scenes finds ample material here, where lives of stifling boredom find release in scenes of hysterical madness.
Like the hundreds of other concubines never selected to sleep with the emperor, Heavenlight busies herself with the treacherous world of women, where she becomes the lover of a sadistic older concubine. This brutal introduction to sexual love is contrasted with her chaste affection for Little Phoenix, the emperor’s son and heir, to whom she serves as a counselor and guide.
After the emperor’s death, Heavenlight follows the other exiled concubines into a Buddhist nunnery before she is rescued from obscurity by Little Phoenix and rises to a concubine of the second rank by his side. When Heavenlight returns to court, she finds herself in a precarious position, embroiled in a rivalry between the empress and the favored concubine Lady Xiao. In short order, she outshines them both and bears the emperor two children. Shan wants us to believe that Heavenlight wins the heart of the emperor without stooping to the coquetry and deceit of the other concubines, relying instead on her wisdom and character. But even a generous historian must admit that Shan’s favorite was not above playing dirty.
After the mysterious death of Heavenlight’s infant girl, suspicion falls on the empress. Historians later claimed that Heavenlight killed her own daughter in order to frame the empress, allegations Shan dismisses. Whatever the true story, both the empress and Lady Xiao were eventually tortured and executed at Heavenlight’s insistence, clearing the way for Heavenlight to claim the title Mistress of the World and, at last, proclaim herself empress. Increasingly paranoid and powerless in her old age, she is overthrown, her title revoked, and the Tang dynasty reestablished, setting in motion thirteen hundred years of rumors, slander, and vilification.
Empress bears all the marks of a biographer who has fallen blindly in love with her subject, an affair nearly as melodramatic and reckless as any of her characters’ assignations. No one can accuse Shan of taking the easy road. She tries to rehabilitate a woman who could be charitably accused of murdering two of her own children. Nor can Shan’s evident feminist agenda mask Heavenlight’s depredations on others of her sex, including the murder and torture of various rivals and the virtual enslavement of her older sister.
Instead of denying the empress’ murderous past, Shan tries two tactics to win over her readers. Her first, and least effective, lies in dramatizing (and melodramatizing) Heavenlight’s interior life, revealing the doubts and torments that accompanied every decision to slay a rival.
Despite her ruthlessness, our imperial narrator is fond of moony, schoolgirl prose, gushing that “love and hate were the two heads of the demon.” Ouch. Some of these stylistic gaffes may have crept into the translation from the original French text; then, too, Heavenlight’s real life was filled with so many unbelievable twists of fate that Shan’s constant, portentous foreshadowing is largely excusable. But Shan’s otherwise even pacing and compelling story stumble over the same kind of sloppy metaphors that occasionally plagued The Girl Who Played Go. Heavenlight muses that “the pages of life that had already turned could not be opened again,” and later declares, “Like the moon, I would be reborn of annihilation.”
Shan is far more effective when she describes Heavenlight’s surroundings. Her sense of place is sublime. Shan’s strongest argument for defending the Mistress of the World is not that Heavenlight was more emotionally complex than history has taught us, but that her values and circumstances were so drastically different than our own that we simply can’t pass judgement.
The violence and intrigue that surrounded Heavenlight from the very moment of her birth guaranteed a life of both wisdom and wickedness. Shan succeeds most masterfully at emphasizing the absolute, radical alterity of imperial China and life in the Forbidden City, daring her readers to confront a protagonist whose otherness all but obliterates conventional sympathy, and to share a life utterly unlike any other in history.