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. For the first time in thirteen centuries, Empress Wu flings open the gates of her Forbidden City and tells her own astonishing tale-revealing a fascinating, complex figure who in many ways remains modern to this day.
At first, I really liked this book a lot. But then, as Ms. Sa got into the court intrigues, I began to be repulsed. Debauchery runs amok. Torture is the penalty for disloyalty or even disfavor; the emperor keeps a harem full of conniving women who want to be the first to bear the son that will carry on the legacy; Empress Wu, also known as Heavenlight, consorts with several women including her sister (which leads to an extremely disturbing and incestuous subplot that very nearly turned me off the book completely); and it’s basically just one big, royal mess. I couldn’t finish it to the end. I tried, but by page 213 I no longer had any vestiges of respect or liking for the main character.
Now, I’m not sure how historically accurate this book is, but I suspect it could be very close to the truth because court intrigue tends to be one of those things that are stranger than fiction. In fact, reading about this particular group of Chinese royalty reminded me of the Tudor court and the viper’s nest that it was — and who could forget the lovely Borgia family. Anyone? So people who don’t like their histories packaged up prettily and tied with string that bears the subtle hint of nationalism might really like this book. I’m generally in that camp, but the incest and violence and sheer cold-blooded cunning made it a little too difficult to swallow.
If there is anything good to be gained from this book, it is that it really makes you appreciate how far China — and the world, in general — has come with regard to the rights of man, equality between the sexes, and simple human compassion. I certainly wouldn’t have wanted to be a woman in 600 A.D. — not in China, nor anywhere else for that matter. It’s certainly nice to know that I can go about my daily business without being considered chattel!