Sunday, July 10, 2011

Do Women Do It Better? : A Week of Lady Emperors!

This post is slightly belated, and was pushed over for my July 4th post but that doesn't mean it's any less special =)

So, my last book post was about Shan Sa's The Girl Who Played Go. This post, I am following up with Shan Sa's Empress, a fictionalized account of the life of Empress Wu Zeitan, a.k.a. "Heavenlight". The story has to be fictionalized mostly because as far as hard facts, only bits and pieces are known about the real woman, mainly due to the fact that one of her many power-hungry sons forced her to abdicate her throne, handing it over to him when she was in her seventies. He later had nearly any mention of her wiped from China's history.  A little more on that later...

Chiang Ping, China (once known as Long Peace)
the native land of Empress Wu before she entered the Forbidden City

Louyang, a province Empress Wu once ruled over

Louyang monastery

This woman, Wu, amazed me with how she was able to come from nothing, just happen to have a chance acquaintance with someone close to the Emperor, be inducted into the Forbidden City,  rise through the ranks of such an elite society and become such a powerful politician and respected ruler in her own right! Empress Wu came from very meager beginnings from an impoverished country family (who actually had a respected bloodline, just no wealth to it). She by chance happened to meet a political advisor to the Emperor when she was a child, who became charmed with her youthful curiosity and intelligence. She was recommended for entrance into the Forbidden City at the age of 13,  became accepted and entered at age 14. Her position was technically that of a low-ranking concubine but her official title was Talented One Wu. As far as the novel describes, Wu was never taken to the Emperor for sexual favors (perhaps because she was considered one of the less physically attractive concubines in court) but was instead invited into the Emperor's presence after he became impressed with her show of intelligence. 

Aerial view of the Forbidden City, home to Emperor of China

Forbidden City

When Wu was nearly out of her teen years, the Emperor died, leaving the thrown to a trusted son who actually didn't want the throne. As fate would have it, this son had been friends with Wu for years (the two of them being close in age) and had secretly been in love with her for some time. Through normal court rituals, the new emperor had been married years before (I think when he was 15-16 yrs old) and already had an Empress but he was still offering Wu the throne and anything else he could think of - even monogamy, which was an unheard-of practice for emperors in that day! Wu was interested but knew the stink it would stir up. Plus, there seemed to be a stigma attached to her technically being a concubine (even if this was never physically fulfilled) of the last emperor. She felt it would shame the new emperor for him to publicly show attention to his father's "sloppy seconds" in a way. Her solution is her joining a Buddhist monastery as a nun for 3 years, telling the Emperor that should he come for her in 3 years, her soul would be considered pure and no one could speak bad of him taking her back into the Forbidden City.

Wu goes through with her plan, and much to her surprise, at the end of three years, the emperor does come for her and asks her to return to the Forbidden City, his attitude being "to hell with what the Empress says!". Taking it one step further, he takes the liberty of impregnating Wu, and then saying, in so many words, "well, now you have to come back, you got a royal in there!" 

Wu and her emperor love return to the Forbidden City and set her up as the royal favorite (aka - back to being a concubine!) until after so many years some sneaky court shenanigans come to throw the emperor's wife and her lady in waiting off the throne, out of court and into the Cold Palace (by description it seems like this might have been the Chinese version of the Tower of London - lots of torture, starvation, and 'ooh oops they died while imprisoned' kind of stuff). Once Wu is made Empress Wu and gets involved in Chinese politics, she finds that this man she married is actually a pretty ineffective leader on his own. He admitted to never wanting the throne and apparently over the years never developed any interest other than for the ladies. That's right... Wu married a playa! (remember what I said about the monogamy thing back then... )

Alyssa Chia (Jia Jing Wen) as Empress Wu

Ru Yue Ling Kong
The Shadow of Empress Wu (2007)
Is anyone else reminded of Padmé Amidala?
 (Natalie Portman's character in the Star Wars prequel trilogy)

Empress Wu began doing her husband's job behind the scenes, having him sign off on her decisions (almost makes me wonder if we ever had a First Lady that secretly ran the country for her husband lol). This continued until his death until she was elected as the first and only full power female emperor in Chinese history (different from just being Empress through marriage - she was actually considered the Emperor after her husband's death). Her husband officially left the throne to one of his son's but funny enough, he left it to the one son that didn't want it! So the son passed the buck to his mom. Guess her son wanted the privileges of court life without the actual work lol. Empress Wu had a number of other sons who were "chompin' at the bit" but she didn't feel any of them showed qualities of an effective leader so she continued to rule herself until well into her golden years when one of her sons, nearing his senior years himself, got tired of waiting and just threw her out of her throne, sending her off to some distant palace outside of the Forbidden City. Wu's response was essentially "I'm not sure how impressive it is - stealing your throne from a defenseless old woman." Wu was then forced to sit back and watch her son systematically destroy decades of her hard work in a matter of a few years. Her son was a bit bitter about having to wait so long to throw around his power, so he had his mother's name erased from historic scrolls, had her temples, shrines and monuments destroyed, and essentially tried to make himself and everyone around him forget she ever existed. Pretty cold-blooded, huh!

from the 1963 film Empress Wu

"Every woman in the Forbidden City -- beautiful or ugly, intelligent or foolish, refined or vulgar -- was fragrant dust. The whirlwind of history would carry them away, making no distinctions." 
Empress Chapter 4 pp86-87

Reading this book had me imagining a woman that must have had an amazing presence! She was quiet and as fair-minded as possible, but could be cold-blooded when she felt threatened (even having some of her own family executed simply to show she did not show favoritism when it came to upholding the law - wrong is wrong). She was not known for being a stellar beauty but clearly had magnetism, in a way that both men and women responded to. She loved using her feminine power but like any other woman was ever fearful of her body losing its allure. She worried about her weight, wrinkles, keeping up with the younger girls at court. Yet, at the same time she had a powerful lust for life and the afterlife, knowledge, just being a part of everything. She commissioned the building of a massive Buddha statue still in existence today, and climbed Mt. Song in her seventies!

"Why does the body shrivel and dry, when the soul, this fathomless voice, still longs to flourish? Why did anyone invent mirrors to glorify and assassinate women? Why should I, Emperor of the Zhou Dynasty, Master of the World, a Divinity on Earth, be obsessed with my ephemeral form? And why should I, who knew celestial beauty, still strive so desperately to look after my earthly face? Why should I choose this torture when I aspired to deliverance?"
Empress Chapter 13 pg 291

The Buddha Empress Wu had built for her people

Mt. Song
Right before her death, Empress Wu wrote her epitaph, spelling out what she wanted written on her royal monument. After her death, her son, the emperor, did not agree with what she wrote, but could not decide on any sort of wording himself, so her stone monument was famously left blank - something that can still be seen to this day (the only emperor in history to be left with this void after their death). 

Empress Wu's blank stone monument

Etchings on Empress Wu's sarcophogus

"Heroes are damned. No mortal conquers death." 
Empress Chapter 4 p 87

The story of Empress Wu reminded me of the struggles of Queen Elizabeth I, having to push past established gender roles, to go on to be one of the most effective leaders in history. While Elizabeth I had similarities, Empress Catherine of Russia's life was eerily parallel to Empress Wu of China! Both were married young to men they soon found to be puppet-leaders. They both took it upon themselves to rule their countries secretly until opportunity came about to rule as the officially accepted leader. They both had to face the disappointment of mothering children that were nowhere near being suitable to manage a country's throne.  If you like stories of powerful women, court intrigue, rising above the inconveniences that life places in front of you - the biographies of both these women are not to be missed. Not to mention the fact that Empress is just one of those books you want to live in simply because of Sa's stunning talent for creating environments!

By the way, I recently saw a pretty interesting documentary done by PBS called Catherine the Great

Also, though I don't think it is specifically attached to this documentary, there is a book I read that really parallels the sequence of events in this documentary, making it a good companion piece - the biography Great Catherine: The Life of Catherine The Great, Empress of Russia by historian Carolly Erickson.

Next post I'll be discussing some military / patriotic inspired reads in honor of the month's holiday. Stay tuned!