Tuesday, October 27

Empress: A Novel

One could say that I have become rather adventurous with 'history' books since my encounter with 'The White Mughals.' Recently I came across a fascinating novel by Shan Sa about the Chinese Empress Wu Zetian, or Heavenlight as she is know in the book.

'Empress: A Novel' is the story of the Chinese Empress who rose from a humble background to establish her own dynasty, the Zhou dynasty. Though I was initially skeptical about the monologue format of the book, the uniqueness and historical significance of its central character demands that we understand Heavenlight. A regular novel format could not have given us a proper insight into the mind of such an intelligent and shrewd ruler. Shan Sa's prose-like writing opens up a portal into the mind of Heavenlight and takes us through a journey of a China some 1500 years ago. It is almost a 'Being John Malkovich' feeling. We glide through the highs and lows of Heavenlight's life, her years of servitude and lordship. The insider's view of her intelligence and potential, the hardships of her childhood, the longing of her adolescence help to justify her almost despotic rule. Though she would like us to believe that she never desired power, once she knew she could have it the Empress showed little mercy. She plotted against and killed her family members and could not give up power even in her 70s.

But Shan Sa continuously shows the Empress being apologetic about her actions. There is a undertone of remorse and regret. This works both in favor and against the novel. One can understand that a truthful depiction of a woman in the 600- 700 AD who had numerous lovers and sexual encounters, and who killed her family members requires the apologetic tone. But looking at it as an outsider in the 21C one wishes that the author had done more justice to her courage. It was not only destiny, but also the strength and intelligence of the woman that bestowed upon her the distinction of being the only female monarch of China.

The book is a fictionalization of history and one has to read it as that. It introduces us to a fascinating woman and a gorgeous China all those years ago. As a woman it makes you reflect upon your life and the status of women today. It makes you wonder if we have really come a long way in being equal. Or if a woman like Wu Zetian would have to be apologetic even today.