Empress, by Shan Sa

If you like history, and strong, intelligent women, you will likely find Empress by Shan Sa a fascinating book.

Empress is the story of Heavenlight, or as she later becomes known, Empress Wu, China’s first and only female emporer, who ruled during some of the most golden years of the Tang Dynasty.

A commoner, Heavenlight is raised humbly but it does not take long for her quick mind to be noticed and before long she is made a concubine in the Forbidden City. From there she becomes a nun and then the wife of an emporer. Finally she rises in the ranks until she is the supreme ruler. We follow her every step of the way–all of the horror and the beauty. We watch as she disposes of her enemies (or perceived enemies) and as she cold-heartedly makes her way through lovers (men, women, and children–even her own sister does not escape her desire), and finds rare glimpses of love.

Weighed down by the constant attention she must pay and be paid as leader and by the ever present pressure to name a successor, there is no place she feels more free than when she is upon a horse (just as when she was a child), where she can once again contemplate mortality and realize that one day she will die:

On some days at the end of the afternoon, I would go for a long riade through the Imperial Park on one of my horses. The thought of this period of escape brightened by mood from the moment I woke. The vermillion glow of the setting sun tinted the tops of the trees and turned the River Luo into a ribbon embroidered with golden waves. A retinue of animals followed me: dogs, leopards, giraffes, and elephants. There were many men to dispute the honor of leading my steed by the bridle: my nephews the kinds; Lai Jun Chen, the magistrate; and the Great Ministers. It was when I was inspired by the melancholy calm of these rides that I improvised my most beautiful poems.

Deep in the forest, eunuchs would free thousands of birds: blackbirds, orioles, skylarks, and thrushes launching themselves into the skies. Their song, an exuberant hymn to life full of virtuoso trills, moved me to tears. The more I was surrounded, the more I was alone. Dusk was falling. It would soon be everlasting night.

It is a beautiful, continually interesting book. I wasn’t sure at first about the narration, but soon I realized that I was climbing inside the head of a complex woman for whom I had complex feelings–I loved the way she saw beauty, but I despised the way she treated other human beings with such callous disregard. Still, that Shan Sa was able to give me these sides of her subject is astonishing–I could easily have found Empress Wu entirely distasteful, but instead I found that at times I was able to find compassion for her and her situation. Like most humans–even those in charge of huge empires who may seem to lack any sense of humanity–she was multi-faceted, and in the dark of night when she was with her thoughts of death, she was alone and might have been scared.

Ultimately, this book recounting a time 1300 years old, feels relevant today–especially as I live in a country which has yet to elect a female president. Does a woman need to rule like a man in order to become elected? Must she lose some of her natural proclivity toward compassion? And, most importantly, might she not do a better job than many of the men around her? Might she not, in fact, shine and bring in a new, golden age?

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