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Empress by Shan Sa
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Empress (2003)

by Shan Sa

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English (14)  French (3)  All languages (17)
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“Alone, I manipulated the pawns on the vast chess board of an empire orphaned by its master. I was nothing more than a mind, a mind contemplating the world below with chilled compassion.”

Empress traces the rise of Heavenlight, a seventh-century Chinese woman who becomes its first and only female emperor, Empress Wu Zetian. Shan Sa takes us through Heavenlight’s life, from (bizarrely enough) the womb to her death. Her parents are born noble but rule a humble household (well humble in comparison to the monstrosity of the emperor’s palace), her mother cold and distant. Her father dies when she is young and her family is ill-treated by his clan (she is his second wife).

Heavenlight is an unusual girl for her time – a tomboy. For her ninth birthday, she receives armour from her father, and another sends a falcon. And she attracts the attention of a general who sends her to the Emperor Eternal Ancestors’ court, and given the rank of Talented One of the fifth rank, now officially overtaking the rest of her clan.

Being the nonconformist she is, unlike the rest of the women there, interested only in cramming themselves with food (the Court liked fat women) and gossiping, Heavenlight finds refuge in books, visiting the Inner Institute of Letters where learned eunuchs gave lessons:

“Books became wings that bore me far away from the Palace. The annals of former dynasties tore me from the immobility of the present. I lived in those vanished kingdoms and I took part in plots, galloped across battlefields, and shared in the rise and fall of heroes.”

It is her less than ‘feminine’ ways, especially her skill with horses, that makes her stand out and allows her to make friends with Little Phoenix, who is the King of Jin and one of the grandsons of the Emperor (I think – the hierarchy is confusing). Heavenlight and Little Phoenix (who is three years younger) grow up together and eventually become lovers. And though not not a direct heir, through some chance of fate, Little Phoenix becomes the Emperor of China. Heavenlight’s intellect and wiles helps him maneuver his way through all the politicking and seal his power. And she eventually wrangles her way to become Empress. She is ruthless and doesn’t hesitate in delivering punishments (sometimes death) where she thinks it necessary.

Heavenlight’s story is a fascinating one. Despite being surrounded by plenty of supporting characters, she is lonely and struggles to keep her place (and that of the emperor) as all that wrangling for succession plays out.

“There was still the Tang dynasty and its vast provinces. The millions of souls in the Empire had become a huge family in which I was the embodiment of an energetic and authoritarian mother.”

Empress is a colourful historical novel. It shines with its descriptions of palace life, of life in the Tang Dynasty.

“The Side Court was a kingdom within the Empire, a painted box inside a golden trunk; it was a labyrinth of tiny rooms separated by walls of adobe clay, bamboo hedges, and narrow passageways. Official pavilions, little gardens, tunnels of wisteria, and countless bedrooms were linked by long covered galleries. Thousands of women came and went with a rustling of sleeves and a murmuring of fans, without ever exposing themselves to the sun or the rain. Imperial hierarchy was scrupulously respected despite the confines of that overpopulated world. The further down someone was on the social scale, the smaller her room, the simpler the decor, and the more modest the furniture. The slave quarter was packed with ramshackle little houses, gloomy rooms, and cold beds; the women there were like insignificant stitches in a vast embroidery.

But this story does get bogged down by a little too many details of courtly life like formal ceremonies, politicking and its many side characters. A bit of a slow-paced read of the life of an unforgettable historical figure.
  RealLifeReading | Jan 19, 2016 |
The ‘great man theory’ of history is out of fashion, and I don’t know how often historical fiction, either, sets out to portray greatness – whatever that is – in the political sphere. In this book I found myself convinced I was in the presence of greatness, a person I want to call great, and to add to that uncommon experience, she’s a woman.

If any of that sounds easy, I don’t think it is. At a point in this book it dawned upon me that in historical fiction, I haven’t met a great woman before – at least in the world of political leadership and statecraft. That may be down to the hf I read, or not. I avoid hf with titles like Empress, Princess, Queen, Consort or Concubine, because I can’t live in the women’s quarters for fun: therefore I don’t know what’s inside those novels, but I do know that this novel – which I nearly didn’t read on title – bulldozed those prejudices of mine, in seconds flat. In here I found quite an awesome human being. And I thought, it isn’t only that the historical subjects are rare (great stateswomen), but in order to create them on the page, you must have to rigorously do your thinking behind your writing. I sensed a rigour of thought behind the presentation of this woman.

From early on Heavenlight (Wu Zetian) gives the impression that her abilities swamp those around her, and moreover, she has a confidence in this. When, later in life, she finds herself more effective in worldly affairs than her emperor husband, she steps up to the job without… cognitive dissonance. She’s never been a hanger-on of others (who happen to be men). This mentality must have been necessary for a woman who makes herself Emperor of China.

As I understand, Wu Zetian was hopelessly traduced and trashed in the historical sources, so that we can’t expect to recover the ‘truth’ about her. What Shan Sa has chosen to do is salvage her with possible interpretations – possible, and positive. The resultant portrait may or may not resemble the historical person, but again I’ll say, is possible, and even just for that is a useful exercise. For myself, in future, I’m going to have a hard time picturing Wu Zetian any other way than the Heavenlight of this novel.

On style. This is told in intense first person; it’s about her and from her; her feelings for others are conveyed, but not so much the others’ existence in themselves. No doubt our subjectivities are as self-centred as this – it isn’t that she struck me as a selfish person. There is a brevity (one large life in 300 pages): in the middle parts I felt this a skimming-over, but in the late parts this brevity worked as an extraction of the essential or the right lines (the author’s a painter). Maybe that was me, getting used to the style. It had enough exclamation marks to play toy soldiers with... I don’t like to complain of such trivialities in translations from the French, but they got hard to ignore. At times I was plunged into the emotional life of this novel; at other times it failed to engage me. Again, I don’t whether that’s me, and I’ll see what happens next time I read this.

I mentioned that I can’t stand to live in the women’s quarters: here the Inner Palace is a prison and an insane asylum, and that meant I was fine. These women are overwrought, but they are seen to be made insane. It’s fair enough.

I’d note the parallels of youth and age in her sex life. As a young girl she suffers an obsession for one of the emperor’s older wives; when she herself is fifty she is once again infatuated with a fourteen-year-old girl. For years she serves as emperor’s wife; in her widowhood she acquires a young man, and he is kept, for her uses, in such a turned-upside-down way, equivalent to how the emperor treated his concubines… that I think Shan Sa is interested in exploring these matters.

I’m a fan of the use of translated names. Zetian is Heavenlight, and so we notice the light themes that coalesce about her. Children of hers are named Splendor, Future, Miracle. Lucky they are, because she can have little to do with her children, and these names were far more memorable for me than, in my ignorance, the Chinese. It exploits the ironies: Wisdom? uh-uh. Intelligence? a distinct lack of. It adds to the atmosphere and the intelligibility of the world, it tells us about their values. The city Chang’an is Long Peace. Our experience is more real when we know what the names mean, as, obviously, the novel’s inhabitants know. ( )
  Jakujin | Jul 28, 2014 |
I don't really know how to describe this book. Its good in a sense that you really get a feeling of the imperial court of China, probably an inside look that few get.

However with all the descriptions it is easy to get lost. The titles go on forever and ever, Empress this, Emperor that, Royal this Royal that...um ok I get it they love long titles and everything.

Oh well, I don't really know what else to say. ( )
  avidreaderlisa | Jun 1, 2013 |
I'm giving up on this one 100 pages in. I have an old ARC of this book (obviously old - the book was published in 2003) and so I expect some typos and the like. But there have been a noticeable number of times the wrong word was used ("peel of laughter," for example) and it's just driven me crazy. The writing is not nearly good enough to make up for the editing problems. Repetition of words in a sentence ("all of them are all like beasts of burden....") and other mistakes just pull me right out of the story.

It's a shame because I'm sure the story is very interesting, but the way its told here (even aside from the mistakes) just isn't compelling enough to keep me reading. ( )
  ursula | Feb 1, 2013 |
drawn by the exotic magic of the East, faszinated by the daily and forced traditions at the court in China 600-700A.D. Almost a family drama, a soap opera, an epic tale. This book had everything in it. However, the last third became a bit redundant. Still, I like it because this time in China was unknown to me and I liked reading about the court affairs. Yes, everbody with everybody. no regards of the gender, but then again, it made an interesting read. Will look for the author's other book. ( )
  kakadoo202 | Dec 28, 2012 |
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Amazon.com Product Description (ISBN 0061147877, Paperback)

In seventh-century China a young girl from the humble Wu clan entered the imperial gynaecium, housing ten thousand concubines. Inside the Forbidden City, she witnessed seductions, plots, murders, and brazen acts of treason - but shrewdly masterminded her way to the ultimate position of power. From there she instigated positive reforms in government and culture. And yet, from the moment of her death to the present day, her name has been sullied, her story distorted, and her memoirs obliterated by men taking vengeance on a women who dared become Emperor. This amazing historical novelisation reveals a fascinating, complex figure who in many ways remains modern to this day.

(retrieved from Amazon Thu, 12 Mar 2015 18:11:44 -0400)

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'Empress' is an historical novel of one of China's most controversial figures, Empress Wu, who emerged in the Tang Dynasty and ushered in a golden age.

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