, October 29, 2012
(view all comments by sentina)
An expansive vision of Chinese history and one of the world's early feminists.
One caveat about this edition: the print is rather small, and I had to get stronger reading glasses in order to read it, but it was worth it.
The story begins with the Empress recalling and describing her own birth process, with birth images that are the most unique I've ever heard before, clearly conveyed without ever saying "birth" and making me feel like I was being born. The story ends with her still being aware and conscious during and after her death, so that she is both experiencing and observing.
The little known Empress Wu was China's "first and only female emperor, who emerged in the 7th Century during the great Tang Dynasty." Her reign was significant, but as with many important women in history, she has been vilified and denied after her death. Author Sa has done extensive research, including drawing from the several books that Empress Wu wrote, and has given an in-depth, mind-opening picture of Empress Wu and her culture.
Although Wu had great power, she was in important ways still a slave -- she gave birth to several children, but wasn't allowed to nurse or raise any of them, so they barely had any relationship with her. "In all of China, I had no other master but myself; I had become my own jailor, and I was my own prisoner."
Her entire career as royalty required her to wear elaborate headpieces weighing as much as 24 lbs, so she was in constant pain, plus extreme make-up and costumes. One of her innovations was to simplify her clothes and those of the ladies around her, but she never gave up the head weights and make-up.
Another innovation was that she opened her government to requests and information from the general population outside the walls of the royal compound; although she ordered the killing of anyone who might be considered a possible enemy, she cared more about the people than any other emperor up until then. Under her rule, trade via the rivers and between towns increased greatly... "... gone were the intransigent segregaton and the fatal lack of social mobility," and "A people's energy was now more important than their aesthetic learning..."
The amount of hateful infighting and casual killing, even among family members, was shocking. Every time anyone disagreed with anyone in power, including Empress Wu, got murdered. When someone was killed like this, their whole families were murdered, too, and this happened to Wu's family after her death. Even her lovers were killed by her enemies when she was much older.
One stunning living condition was that 10,000 young single women had to live together in special quarters, where they are never allowed to have children and homosexuality is their only sexual outlet, with their only hope for improving their lives is to be selected by a male emperor to have babies with. Wu herself he experiences incest with her brother and has both female and male lovers.
There were also separate similar quarters for 10,000 young men. Women and men were "prisoner(s) of the forced inactivity of the imperial court."
Everyone had dramatic names such as Heavenlight (the Empress), Little Phoenix, Delicate Concubine, Harmony, Purity, Splendor, Prosperity, Simplicity, Gentleness, & Little Treasure; and sets of years were called the Eras of Eternal Magnificence, Lowered Arms and Joined Hands, and so on.
Even 600 years ago, the Chinese were so heavily populated that a procession had thousands of people and went on for miles.
Some more favorite lines:
"Our ... quest for a spiritual essence denied the warmth of the senses and the shims of the heart."
"Every religion was a blade that allowed its faithful to carve up the lie that is life."
"The Court started to imitate my warrior-nun style." "I had in my hand an invisible sword that sliced through every illusion."
"The mannerist poets disappeared from court: their superficial moaning was replaced by powerful verses with simple rhythms full of vibrant emotion."
In an interesting parallel to the Jesus story, an emperor was considered
"... worthy of being the one and only initiated person on Earth, ... the sublime sacrifice that the people made to the gods, ... the Savior of the World."
"... I felt ashamed for living in artificial abundance within a fortified city. This Court bathing in its happiness was a miraculous island in an ocean of misery."
Even though she was very old, when Wu accepted two new lovers, she increased her "ecstasy by night" and her "lucidity by day." Her "reawakening to life stimulated the rebirth of the empire. The years of famine and epidemics were forgotten. Grain stores were filled...; there were abundant meat, game, and fish ..."
"I left it to the Court to adward me the pompous and ambiguous title of Divine Mother Sacred Emperor that interwove masculinity and femininity."
"My sacred mission would be accomplished only if I inaugurated a new dynasty based on peace, compassion, and divine justice... This change of dynasty would see no bloodshed or violence." (She wins against the sexist males who want to push her out and regain male power after her husband dies.)
"... my last mission on this lowly earth -- pacifying the murderous conflict between Buddhism, Taoism, and Confucianism. My dynasty would recognize these three doctrines and three pillars of Chinese thought... the three religions had the same veins through which the one and only source of Wonderment flowed."
"Why did anyone invent mirrors to glorify and assassinate women?"
"The more I was surrounded, the more I was alone."