Book Reviews

Empress by Evelyn McCune, published by Fawcett Columbine / New York

Despite the atrocious cover which totally misrepresents the time period of Empress Wu Jao (Qing dynasty costume instead of Tang), I actually find the book very enjoyable. Before making the purchase, I had read a well-written critical review on Amazon, and had been uncertain, but after reading the first page I decided to give it a try after all. I’m glad I did because it turned out I liked the book for the same reasons that the reviewer hated it. I guess we simply have different preferences.

First of all, the book is quite different from the epic court dramas I have seen on TV or online, which tend to focus on power struggle among the consorts. This book has a minimum details on that aspect, and instead focuses on the growth of Jao, or rather on the events befell her during the years since she had been summoned into the palace at age fourteen. It is true the character Jao is quite flat in the book. She starts out as a generous, sympathetic and strong person, and remained so towards the end. On her way to the palace to become the consort of the most famous emperor of Tang dynasty, she shows her courage and wit in deal with her dominating brother, who steals her luggage. She also makes friends with the abbess who will become an important part of Jao’s life in the future.

Wu Zhao is mostly known to the Chinese as Wu Zetian and  she is normally portrayed as cruel and domineering. As McCunne points out at the end of the book, Zhao is seldom referred to by western historians without the prefix notorious. She is said to have risen to power by killing her own infant daughter in order to frame the empress at the time, who had visited Wu Zhao shortly after she had given birth to her daughter. Later she is said to have murdered the crown prince Hong Li, her eldest biological son for gaining the throne as well. She had her rival consort Xiao Shu Fei tortured and mutilated. Even in recent TV shows, Wu Zhao’s media image has not improved. She was the evil empress in the Netflix show Detective Dee Netflix, played by Hong Kong star Karina Lau.

in Author’s Words , McCunne clearly expresses her goal in writing the book: exonerate Wu Zhao from prejudice she’s suffered for centuries. However, although the author has done her best in portraying Zhao as an amicable, loving mother and wife, she has not provided much convincing evidence on the empress’ ruling talents and contributions to the nation. What has she done to deserve the credit of China’s prosperity during her husbands’ and her reign? Little is said about how she takes care of domestic or foreign affairs, although a plethora of court life and power struggle during her rule are included. The period where Zhao reigns as an emperor seems to consist of rebellions and executions only. And these atrocious deeds are said to be the fault of ambitious court officials such as Wei and Zhao’s cousin Chungsu, without Zhao’s knowledge. It is not clear why Zhao is not aware of them or why she would confer so much power to the two. Clearly, the purpose of the ambiguity is to maintain the impression of the loving empress, even though readers can guess she has little choice but going along to maintain political stability. Less people know her for her accomplishment as a ruler. She respected able court officials and punished the corrupted ones severely. She was a poet, a musician, and a calligraphic artist. She assisted her second husband Emperor Kaozhong during his three decades’ ruling, and ruled for fifteen years after his death. Under Kaozhong and her ruling, the country was invincible and prosperous.

The writing style is simplistic and elegant, without overt dramas, and thankfully lacks the jealousy fights between consorts that are the main themes of most of the modern historical dramas related to the court and the imperial families. The center of the book is Wu Zhao’s relationship with the two emperors and the historical events seen through her eyes. True, there isn’t much on her reflection on the circumstances, and not much growth on the character. (The  author seems to avoid diving deep into her character’s mind, afraid of discovering any dark sides.) Wu Zhao seems to take everything stoically, without much ambition, and yet he wins fortune’s favor solely because of her submissiveness to her fate. However, this is not to say, McCune’s Wu Zhao is passive, on the contrary, she is a cheerful heroine who sees the bright side of things. When she follows the late emperor Taizhong’s consorts into the nunnery, she takes an active role and adapts to her new life, instead of complaining or falling into depression like the others. Her strong will is what impresses Kaozhong so much that he issues decree of summoning her back to court and become his own consort.

The loving relationship between Kaozhong and Wu Zhao is probably exaggerated, but Zhao gave birth to half of his children that were recorded, including four out of eight sons, and two out of four daughters. In some scenes the couple and their children are portrayed more as ordinary people rather than the royal family, which is quite interesting.

Another major theme is politics including war and diplomacy between China and Korea, and other ethnicities, which presumably is the author’s expertise because of the details and insights.

After the death of Emperor Kaozhong, Wu Zhao is portrayed as a loving mother who decides to take the responsibility of ruling from her children’s shoulders because they are all incapable to rule. This is very different from the popular belief that Zhao seized the throne from her sons because of her lust for power. Where I do not know which interpretation is more credible, the author is at least consistent in her presentation of an all-good, lovable queen.

When recounting Zhao’s love affairs with Haiyi Xue, the tone is not only positive, but romantic as well. Descriptive sexual details appear the first time after four hundred something pages, bring the story to a different angle, and shredding new lights on Zhao’s character as a woman. Haiyi is a godsend to the empress who’s stressed out by her heavy responsibilities. They meet each other when he is in his fifties and she in her sixties. He is brought to her by her daughter Princess Taiping. Medicine peddler by trade, he is depicted to be a philosopher,  a skillful architect, and later even an army general besides being an exceptional lover. These and other romances not only distract the reader from the chaotic political upheaval of the time, but also distance Zhao from the responsibilities of the mass murder of her opponents  because she seems to be preoccupied with sensual aspects of her life.

Overall, the author is successful in creating a character according to her view of Wu Zhao, and in the meantime, depicting a fascinating period of Chinese history.