EMPRESS by Shan Sa

This fictionalized biography of the Empress Wu (17 February 624 to 16 December 705 CE) aka Wu Zetian, Wu Zhao, Wu Hou (Empress Wu) or Tian Hou (Empress Tian) shows the unbelievable rise of a tomboy of a girl who loved horses, archery, and masculine pursuits, who caught the eye of a general when very young (about ten or eleven), was sent to the Imperial Court as a concubine of the 5th degree (she had to compete with 10 THOUSAND other girls for Emperor Taizong’s notice), was actually noticed for her horsemanship (rather than her beauty) and became friends with the Emperor’s ninth son (who eventually became the Heir to the Throne.) After marrying the ninth son (now Emperor Gaozong), Wu dismissed (and murdered) her rivals (her husband’s Chief Wife and his Chief Concubine) bore the Emperor six children (including four sons and two future emperors) and rose to power as her husband sank into a quagmire of depression, self-doubt, and eventual death. Wu became the Ruler behind the Throne, the Regent, and lastly the only female Emperor (or Regnal Empress) that China has known.

Her father was in the timber business and her family were relatively well off, so they had servants to work for them. But how does the middle daughter of a timber merchant become the Regnal Empress of China? In the Seventh Century?

Of course, her father saw to it that she was extremely well-educated, and, according to this novel, did not insist that she spend her time on such girlish pursuits as sewing. But such a person would have had to have a natural aggression, unfeminine confidence and overweening ambition to even think of aspiring to the highest position in the land.

How I loved the music of the wonderful prose that graces this book. How I loved reading that Wu, in one of her many defenses against her enemies described her reputation as “fragrant.” How I loved that all the Chinese names and titles were translated into English, so that we know that Wu’s name was Heaven-light. No wonder she had such self-confidence!

Her children’s names are equally revealing and ironic. Splendor, the eldest son and heir who died at an early age, was a scholarly fellow who (apparently) didn’t want the throne. Wisdom was NOT wise. His relationship with his mother/aunt deteriorated, and eventually he was accused of treason. His mother/aunt saw to his murder-by-suicide. Future (aka Emperor Zhongzhong) was outspoken and independent. His mother stripped him of his titles and forced him into exile for his insolence against her Regency. His reign lasted six weeks. Miracle, the youngest son (aka Emperor Ruizong) also apparently didn’t want the throne, and according to this novel gave the throne to his mother. (Or, perhaps, he was weak like his father, and his mother imprisoned him in the Inner Quarter so that she could take power.)

I won’t go over the viperish power-struggles and jealousies of the various women in Wu’s family and at court, but suffice it to say that if you enjoy that sort of thing, this novel will give you a great deal of pleasure. Five stars.