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
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
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