The True Story of the Only Woman to Become Emperor of China
My recent Chinese escapades left me with a burning desire to find out more about the country’s history and culture, so I couldn’t resist this biography of Wu Chao, a remarkable woman in the 7th century who clawed her way up from the status of a lowly concubine to become Emperor of China in her own right. She was, predictably, a fascinating character and her court, in its intrigues, corruption and eventual dissipation, makes the worst excesses of Westeros look like a village fete. Her rise and fall are worthy of a Greek tragedy but, alas, this book isn’t the best way for a newcomer to encounter her story.
And that’s a shame, because what a story it is! Born the daughter of an honoured official, Wu Chao was chosen at the age of thirteen to join the harem of the Emperor T’ai-tsung. As a junior concubine at the Imperial Court in Chang’an, she was educated in both the liberal arts and those of the bedchamber. With regard to the latter, Cawthorne has dug up a mass of information on Tang dynasty sexual practices, which seem to have revolved around the concept of yin and yang. Specifically, the idea was for a man to sleep with as many women as possible to absorb their feminine yin energy, without ejaculating and thereby losing any of his yang energy. If he did it properly, the energy flowing into his body would enable him to become immortal. Virgins were highly recommended, as they hadn’t yet expended any of their yin energy, and certain Tao masters advised that men should really be getting through more than ten women a night if they were serious about preserving their health. One rather imagines the reverse might be truth… but then, I’m not a Tang physician.
Wu Chao obviously paid close attention to her sentimental education, but the hierarchy of the harem was so rigid that she had little chance of making her mark on T’ai-tsung. She realised, however, that real power might lie in another direction and turned her attentions to the Crown Prince Li Chih, who was certainly willing to be charmed by this beautiful and slightly older woman. After T’ai-tsung’s death, when the late Emperor’s entire harem was shipped off to a convent to become nuns, this connection between his heir and Wu Chao became her lifeline out of obscurity. Funnily enough, though, it wasn’t Li Chih – who had now become Emperor under the name of Kao-tsung – who called her back. It was his wife, Empress Wang, who was eager to find a way to distract her husband from another of his court ladies, Hsiao. And so Empress Wang arranged for Wu Chao to be brought back to the Imperial Palace, offering her up to her husband as a gift. Perhaps she hoped that she could make Wu Chao her creature. Perhaps she saw this as a way back to her husband’s heart.
It was, of course, a mistake. Wu Chao was ruthlessly intelligent and, during the next few years, she made herself indispensable to Kao-tsung both sexually and politically. Playing off the ambitious courtiers one against the other, stoking factions and encouraging new men to rise up against the establishment, she began to build her path upwards. First, the Empress Wang had to go. Then she had to winkle herself into the vacant position. With a suggestible Emperor at her side, and a flair for cutthroat politics (often taking the term literally), Wu Chao could do anything. Considering the long-established Confucian prejudice against women in positions of power, her rise was remarkable enough. That she stayed there for so long was even more astonishing. She had become one of the few Empresses to make her own policies through her puppet-ruler husband; but more was possible. For what would happen after Kao-tsung’s death? Wu Chao suddenly had the reins of power in her hands, and she wasn’t going to let them go without a struggle. This is a story of murder, terrifying ambition, sexual politics and authoritarian might – a daunting picture of a formidable woman in, as the Chinese say, interesting times.
That is an extremely simple overview to whet your appetites. But every stage of Wu Chao’s fascinating rise is knotted about with court intrigues, double-bluffing, and a cast (it often seemed) of thousands. And this is where I ran into problems. As I’ve indicated, I’m completely wet behind the ears so far as Chinese history is concerned. I’m still hazy about the order of the dynasties and, as an ignorant Westerner, I’m daunted by the fact that many of the names in this book are so similar one to the other. There is a glossary of names at the back, but that isn’t much help in a Kindle version. To make matters more confusing, we’re dealing with primarily royal characters and so the names change: suddenly someone is given the rank of a duke or prince and so they’re referred to by their new title, and of course emperors adopt their temple names once they ascend the throne. And, even more baffling, Cawthorne uses a different style of Westernised transliteration than that given on Wikipedia, for example. As if keeping track of this wasn’t hard enough, dates are always given in two formats: once using the Western system and once using the traditional Chinese system, in which years are counted from the beginning of a reign name. And reign names change to something different whenever the Emperor wishes it.
It’s also difficult to maintain narrative tension – which is important, even in a biography, and especially so in a life as dramatic as Wu Chao’s – when the book is weighed down with detail about absolutely everyone and everything we encounter. For example, in the first couple of chapters we encounter Wu Chao for the first time and follow her to Chang’an. But, along the way, we have block digressions on female beauty in the Tang era, on the desired physical attributes of virgin women, the layout of Chang’an, the positions and specialisations of the markets, a detailed overview of the road system with measurements given in feet, and the Chinese system of calculating house numbers. On balance, it feels as if half the book is about Wu Chao and the other half is a primer on Tang life. I find it hard to actually criticise this. Of course I want to get a flavour of the times when I read a biography! And it’s often fascinating to wander through the chapters, picking out quirky facts here and there. But it frequently felt like an in-depth textbook for someone with some grounding in this fiendishly complicated period and culture.
From a technical viewpoint, there are several issues with the Kindle version which don’t help to make the book more accessible. The formatting is erratic, with names sometimes appearing hyphenated and sometimes not, words merging together, and lines of text sometimes being scrambled out of order. And there are unfortunate malapropisms: ‘incest’ for ‘incense’; ‘filmed’ for ‘famed’; ‘brides’ for ‘bribes’. A sharp editorial eye over the digital edition wouldn’t have gone amiss.
This is not a bad book, but it isn’t easy to read either. I suspect I’d have fared better with a preexisting knowledge of Tang China and that, if I came back to this book in the future, more informed, I’d get much more out of it. Of course, I’m completely unable to judge its accuracy: I note that Cawthorne is not a Chinese specialist and has written more than 150 books on a range of subjects, from Teresa May to alien abductions to sex scandals, World War II and bizarre English laws. How is this possible? Does the man ever sleep? Yet his story seems to be backed up: there are plentiful quotations from period sources, but there are no footnotes and no author’s note, which might have been good in so ambitious a history. Hmm. My Tang adventures don’t end here. I’ve spotted another biography of Wu Chao by Jonathan Clements, which looks slightly more straightforward, and I’m also tempted by a basic introductory study of life in Tang China. However, despite my qualms, there’s no doubt I’ve learned an awful lot and Wu Chao has been added to my list of feisty historical ladies to look out for. If you feel more at home in Tang China than I do, go for it! There’s a box set’s worth of intrigue, blood and sex in these pages…
I received this book from the publisher via Netgalley in exchange for a fair and honest review