“Empress” by Shan Sa

Empress by Shan Sa, 2006, Harper, original language: French.


My carriage was already traveling through eternity. I was tiny, alone, and naked. I was moving toward a god, and an empire.

There’s something deeply compelling about someone’s rise from obscurity to power, be they evil or good, especially if the obscurity is great and the power is immense. When that rise to power involves a woman who raises herself to a position no woman was ever meant to hold, well, count me in.

This is a fictionalized account of person, apparently often neglected, from Chinese history: Empress Wu Zetian. The first woman to wear the imperial robes and become regent.

It’s a beautiful novel, told in lush and evocative prose – a prose that is at times a little too poetic and removed from the people it talks about, although very fitting for the type of story it tells. It’s a truly grand and compelling look at Empress Wu, or Heavenlight’s, journey inside the walls of the Forbidden City, as lover to concubines and emperors, as mother of a nation, as an Empress destined to lead her people to prosperity and glory. Shan Sa tells the story with conviction and power, easily portraying the intricate and delicate web the court of any Emperor or Empress is made of, how one false step or moment of distraction can mean your downfall and humiliation. To place oneself on such a seat of power, to rule a nation, means to adopt a style of swift brutality, whether it be just or not.

Empress Wu’s life, her real life, is of course obscured by the passing of time, as well as attempts at covering up her reign and, obviously, the misogyny of historians, past or present. It’s not something I know a lot about, however, so I’ll talk about this specific book instead. But a lot of the things we do know about her life are shrouded in mystery or ambiguity. And the style, the way it was told, added to the sense that we’re all merely riding on the wings of history, that this life is but a moment of eternity, as well as a moment that will last eternally. And Sa’s constant juxtaposition of death and immortality, of private and public, is necessary and wonderfully done.

Nonetheless, any historical figure with this much power, commanding such a nation and ruling it with such an iron fist, deserves a book such as this. My one regret was that the prose, despite being beautiful and perfectly fitting, obscured the character of Empress Wu a smidgen. I never felt I knew what sort of person she was, what she believed in, what toll it took on her to do the things she had to do, to protect herself, her nation and her family. I understand this might have been a conscious choice. As we know very little of Empress Wu or what she was really like, designing her character based on what scraps we have might have felt dishonest – or maybe it’s to signal that she defies characterization. That she slipped into and out of roles, depending on the situation. Or maybe it’s a style and something was lost in translation. Sadly it made me feel detached from her and her story. I felt as if I was looking at it from afar, and less like I was in the middle of it, because so often the emotions were subdued. Empress Wu felt very little like a real person to me, with real emotions and dreams, and that I regret, but perhaps it was necessary. It’s entirely a question of personal taste, I think. And it did add to the sweeping, consuming feeling of it, as if you were inside a poem, an ancient poem telling the story of things ling forgotten. It was beautiful, but in a slightly detached way.

The somewhat shallow – or rather ambiguous – characterization of Empress Wu, and most other characters too, was as I’ve said a perfect fit for the grandeur, the massive scale of her reign and the superficiality of the court, how everyone hides behind fake pleasantries, and masks, while they plot your downfall, that this novel had to portray. Honestly writing it any other way may have made the novel seem too cheap.

Empress is majestic, splendid, lush, relentless and beautiful in all the ways you’d expect it to be – and that it deserves to be. An excellent fictional look at a neglected, but fantastic piece of the past, and a wonderful way to get swept away by the winds of history.

It’s a stunning work.


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