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by Shan Sa

About.com Rating 4 Star Rating


In 1985 my wife and I went to China for the first time and saw many of the tourist sites including the Great Wall (It cannot be seen from outer space!), the Forbidden Palace, the terra cotta warriors, and the Ming tombs. We also visited the tomb of the Empress Wu Zei Tian just outside Xian. My brief notes from that visit indicate she was born in 624 A.D. in Shaanxi Province. Her father was a merchant and friend of the first Emperor of the Tang Dynasty. She traveled with her father and became a lady in waiting at age 12. At her father's death she became a concubine of the second Emperor. When she was 20, the Emperor died and she went to a convent for a couple of years. Emperor number 3 also chose her, and she became wife number 1 within two years of her return. She was known for her brutality.
My slim notes were accurate so far as they went. Shan Sa has made these facts come alive in a marvelous "first person" account of the life of Empress Wu Zhou. That is the same Empress from my notes; Chinese spellings are very Elizabethan in their mutability and depend on the particular orthography used at a given time. Wu Zhou was the only woman to rule China in her name. Do not be confused by the Empress Tzu-Hsi, who is billed as the "Last Empress" of China. She was a dowager empress who ruled as a regent for her young son in the late 19th Century. After his death, she ruled but was not given the title of Emperor. Her time was marked by even worsening conditions for peasants and the Boxer Rebellion. Nearing death, she named her nephew as emperor (see the 1987 movie "The Last Emperor"). His was a puppet government and the end of thousands of years of government.
Wu Zhou, on the other hand, was an able administrator. She was smart, and she was determined to overcome all obstacles. She was skilled in the ways of the court. Historians are reasonably certain that she had her son poisoned so that he could not ascend to the throne and remove her from power. Other opponents were ordered to hang themselves or died the death of a thousand cuts. Thousands of tiny cuts were made in a person's body until he bled out. Ironically, Empress Tzu-Hsi outlawed this practice 1,200 years later!

This "autobiography" traces the life of Wu Zhou from her birth to her death, for once truly a "womb-to-tomb" story. It is a lively story filled with the minutiae of daily life and the grand spectacle of an emperor's travel and the thousands of retainers required to move the court. The descriptions of court life are never stilted and flow freely as if Wu Zhou were actually alive and telling the story. The historical details cover 80 years of Chinese history so much has to be left out. Nevertheless, the story is engaging. Hundreds of named characters inhabit this story and one can easily get lost in their names and their relationships to one another. Helpful charts are provided at the beginning.
Empress would make an excellent beach read. It has a good straightforward story. There is intrigue, murder, and an exotic location, eloquently described. There is a lot of sex. But, to call it a "beach read" belittles the literary quality of this wonderful novel. The historical setting is accurate. Characters are well-rounded. The language is sensuous and poetic at times. This is clearly one of the best novels of the season.

Shan Sa was born in Beijing. Her first poems, essays, and short stories were published at the age of eight. In 1990 she moved to Paris where she continued to write [Empress was originally published in French.] and worked for the famous painter Balthus. Her novel The Girl Who Played Go won the Goncourt Prize in 2001 and earned critical acclaim worldwide. Shan Sa is also a celebrated painter with prominent exhibitions in Paris and New York.

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