Empress: A Novel

Empress: A Novel

by Shan Sa
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Empress: A Novel by Shan Sa

Such is the voice of Shan Sa's unforgettable heroine in her latest literary masterpiece, Empress. Empress Wu, one of China's most controversial figures, was its first and only female emperor, who emerged in the seventh century during the great Tang Dynasty and ushered in a golden age. Throughout history, her name has been defamed and her story distorted by those taking vengeance on a woman who dared to become emperor. But now, for the first time in thirteen centuries, Empress Wu (or Heavenlight, as we come to know her) flings open the gates of the Forbidden City and tells her own astonishing tale—revealing a fascinating, complex figure who in many ways remains modern to this day.

Writing with epic assurance, poetry, and vivid historic detail, Shan Sa plumbs the psychological and philosophical depths of what it means to be a striving mortal in a tumultuous, power-hungry world. Empress is a great literary feat and a revelation for the ages.

Product Details

ISBN-13: 9780061983139
Publisher: HarperCollins Publishers
Publication date: 10/06/2009
Format: NOOK Book
Pages: 352
Sales rank: 402,670
File size: 1 MB

About the Author

Shan Sa was born in Beijing and had her first poems, essays, and stories published at the age of eight. In 2001 her novel The Girl Who Played Go won the Goncourt Prize. The author of Empress, she is also a celebrated artist who has had prominent exhibitions in Paris and New York.

Read an Excerpt

Endless moons, an opaque universe, thunder, tornadoes, the quaking earth. Rare moments of peace; forehead up against my knees, arms around my head, I thought, I listened, I longed not to exist. But life was there, a transparent pearl, a star revolving slowly on its own axis. I was blind. My eyes stared into that other world, that other existence that dwindled a little every day. Its colors were extinguished, its images blurred. I was still left with cries of astonishment and feeble sobbing. I was oppressed by the impotence of these vague recollections, burned by their melancholy. Who am I? I asked Death as it crouched at my feet.

Death moaned and gave no reply.

Where am I? I could hear laughter, voices saying, "It will surely be a boy, my Lord. He is moving. He is full of life."

It mattered little who I would be. I was already weary of this vastness. I was weary of hoping, of waiting, of being myself-the center of the world.

I was soothed by the rustle of the wind. I listened to the trickle of rain. Across my sky in which the sun never rose, I could hear a little girl singing. I was lulled by her gentle, innocent voice. My sister, I foresaw great sorrow for her. A hand tried to caress me. But a wall lay between us. Oh Mother, the shadow outlined against the screen of my thoughts, do you realize I am already old, condemned to live within the prison of your flesh?

IN THE DEPTHS of the lake, in the sepia-colored waters, I swiveled round, curled up into a ball, spread my limbs, turned circles. Day by day my body grew, weighing heavily on me, strangling me. I would have liked to be the prick of a needle, a grain of sand, the .ash of sunlight in a drop of water; I was becoming .esh, an exploding .esh, a mountain of folds and blood, a marine monster. One breath raised me up and rocked me. I was irascible. I was furious with myself, with the woman who was my jailor, with Death-my only friend.

They waited for me. I heard someone whisper that the boy would be called Heavenlight. The rustle of preparations hampered my meditation. They spoke of clothes, celebrations, wet nurses: plump, white, and sturdy. They were forbidden to speak my name, for fear that demons would possess my soul. They were waiting for me to pick up where their own destinies had left off. I felt pity for these fervent creatures, so affable and eager. They did not yet know that I would destroy their world to build my own. They did not know that I would bring deliverance- but with fire and ice.

One night I awoke with a start. The waters were seething. Furious waves broke over me. I held myself tightly, struggling with my fear and concentrating on my breathing, on my gnawing pain. When the tide surged, I was launched into a narrow opening. I slid between the rocks. My body bled. My skin tore. My head imploded. I balled my fists to stop myself from screaming.

Someone pulled me by my feet and slapped my buttocks. With my head hanging down, my cries spewed from me. I was wrapped in a cloth that .flayed me. I heard a man's anxious voice: "Boy or girl?"

No one replied. The man grabbed me and tried to tear open my swaddling.

He was interrupted by a woman's quiet wail:

"Another girl, my Lord."

"Ah!" he cried before dissolving in tears.

A dozen women watched over me as I grew. Three wet nurses took turns quenching my thirst. My appetite was frightening. I was already laughing. My eyes were great black pearls rolling in their sockets. I looked on the world day and night, never wanting to sleep. My mother was worried by my constant agitation; she called on a number of exorcist monks. But no one succeeded in expelling the demon from me.

I eventually grew weary of their fears. Behind the gauze of my mosquito net, I pretended to sleep to have some peace, while a woman sang as she rocked my cradle. Another waved a fan to waft away the odd fly that had strayed into the perfumed universe. With my eyelids closed, I let my thoughts fly away.

The kingdom that Father ruled as absolute master was divided into two parts. The Front Quarter was reserved for men. Stewards, secretaries, accountants, cooks, pages, valets, grooms, guards, and lackeys busied themselves from the .rst light of dawn. Government officials took their orders and set off on horseback. Troops of soldiers undertook training exercises all day long in the great courtyard to the side. This virile world ended before the vermillion gate where the gynaeceum began. Behind the high, snow-colored wall lived hundreds of women: old, young, and little girls. They wore their hair in topknots pinned with .owers and had jade rings threaded into their silk belts. It was the eighth year of Martial Virtue;1 fashion favored the pallor of early spring: dresses were crocus yellow, the soft green of narcissus leaves, the pleasing pink of cherry blossom, and the crimson of the sun reflected in a lake. Sweepers, servants, seamstresses, embroiderers, bearers, wet nurses, cooks, governesses, stewards, gracious attendants, singers, dancers . . . all of them moved slowly, with composure, and spoke in hushed tones. They rose at dawn, bathed at dusk. They were the flowers of my father's garden, blossoming to compete with the beauty of one person alone.

Mother dressed soberly. Her least little cough was a command, her every gaze an order. She was naturally elegant. Fashion changed, a flitting butterfly, Mother maintained an eternal springtime. She was of the Yang clan from the Hong Nong region; one of the thirty most noble families in the Empire. As a daughter, niece, and sister to eminent ministers, a cousin to imperial brides, and a close relation to the Emperor and the princesses, Mother wore her dignity like a jewel, a cloak, a crown. She gave alms in the monasteries and distributed food to beggars. She was a fervent Buddhist, observing a vegetarian diet and showing no interest in the turmoil of this lowly world. She copied out the sutras in her careful hand and dreamed of reaching the land of Extreme Joy, the kingdom of Buddha Amida, He who launches countless rays of light.

Mother was cold, delicate, soothing. Her gentleness was cutting and opaque and reminded me of the jade disc that hung over my cradle. I wanted her. I grew agitated waiting. She would appear from time to time after several days' absence. When she arrived, her long silk train and her endless muslin shawl set the curtains to my room aquiver. The ground kissed by her slippered feet whispered with pleasure. Her perfume went before her. It smelled of sunlight, snow, the East Wind, flowers laden with happiness.

She never took me in her arms, happy to contemplate me from a distance. My eyes consumed her hungrily. Her lips were two scarlet petals. Her face was as perfectly smooth as a mirror. Beneath her eyebrows, which had been shaved and redrawn in the shape of cicada wings, her eyes betrayed her disappointment. She had desired a boy.

THE POMEGRANATE TREES exploded into blossom and the summer arrived. My one hundredth day was grounds for a celebration. Mother had the pavilion in the middle of the lake opened up and gathered together her noble friends and relations for a sumptuous banquet.

In that room surrounded by the glittering water, I was passed from hand to hand. I was stroked and petted. Servants came up the steps to lay down gifts. One lady offered me a pair of emerald bracelets-she was convinced that my sparkling black eyes were a sign of intelligence. Another had nine gold ingots brought on a silver tray, saying that my wide forehead was an omen: I had been placed under the sign of a wealthy and happy marriage. Another bedecked me with nine rolls of brocade-she said that my straight nose, my chubby cheeks, and my round mouth foretold exceptional fertility: I would have many sons.

Mother was happy. With a nod of her head, she ordered for a carpet of silk to be unrolled in the middle of the banquet, for me to be freed of my swaddling and to be seated. The servants laid a dozen objects out around me. I forgot this gathering of pale women in all their .nery, caught hold of an ice-cold toy and tried to lift it. There was a general murmuring and one woman said: "She chooses neither the makeup box of Beauty, nor the jade of Nobility, nor the flute of Music, nor the book of Wisdom, nor the quill of Poetry, nor the abacus of Commerce, nor the rosary of Spirituality. My dear cousin, your daughter's future will be singularly unusual. It is truly a shame that she is not a boy."

"Indeed, your Highness, it is a great shame," agreed another.

"Ah well, we must not let this distress us," exclaimed a sonorous voice, ringing with pride. "In our time women can demonstrate prowess in a thousand ways. Long ago the great Princess Sun of Ping fought for her father, the August Sovereign. At her funeral, His Majesty called for the trumpets and drums to be sounded, an honor reserved for men. Your daughter has a curved forehead to accept the celestial breath, she has luminous eyes, a strong jaw, generous lips; she has touched of her father's sword. Excellent! My dear, from this day you must dress her as a boy. Give her an education worthy of her own determination. The daughter of a general likes commandment. I can see her as the mistress of a noble warrior household!"

Soon I felt the need to venture out into the world rather than receiving it from my cradle. Unable to stand upright on my feet, I crawled.

One step toward the unknown meant coordinating all my muscles. Pinning my eyes on an object, keeping my ears alert and my mouth open to roar silently, I raised an arm, a leg, I crawled my way through the universe. A bearded man leaned toward me. He was wrapped in a silk coat lined with sable, and seemed to have come from far, far away. When I saw him, I heard the thundering of hooves, the wailing of the wind, the unbridled moans of the courtesans. The bestial smell of him made me shiver. His gruff kisses tore my cheek.

There was a little girl watching me. I was fascinated by her pink complexion, .ne features, sturdy legs, dark eyes, and the wooden duck she trailed behind her. After looking carefully up and down, she put a .nger in my hand, and I squeezed it until she .ushed red and began to cry. "You must not hurt your sister," my wet nurse told me. She did not know that later, as she had in those days of innocence, Elder Sister would beg me to be her torturer.

In the ninth year of Martial Virtue, the Emperor abdicated in favor of his son. Twelve moons later, the new sovereign recalled Father from the noble province of Yang where he had been sent on a quest, and named him Governor Delegate of the province of Li where an insurrection under Prince Li Xiao Chang had just been repressed.

I was two years old. I stumbled around among the wooden cases and the carriages covered in oiled drapes, unaware of the suffering of a father exiled from Court. The horses and the oxen trod the endless road that dissolved into the horizon. I devoured the world through an opening in the carriage door. Outside, the colors jostled and furrowed, spreading out and contorting. We shall see each other again, Long Peace, my native town!

The wheels' rattles over the stony track kept me awake. We crossed a vast plain where the arid soil had been cracked and crazed by the sun. Hordes of children in rags came and prostrated themselves as we passed by. I was astonished that such thin, dirty creatures existed at all. Mother asked for food to be handed out to them: biscuits, bread, and rice meal, which they swallowed while it was still scalding hot.

I was tormented by questions. I kept asking them all day long: "What is hunger? Why do the fields need to be cultivated? What is wheat? How is bread made?"

After a month of traveling, the caravan embarked into the misty mountains. The track was carved into the cliffs and, further down, the Jia Ling river roared as it hurled itself against the tormented rocks. Forts rose up from the peaks; military outposts opened their barriers for us. The imperial soldiers were brutish men who drank from chipped bowls and ate haunches of beef with their bare hands. In the evenings, around the camp fires, they beat their drums and sang. The moon rose, and I fell asleep listening to the roar of tigers. When the first hint of dawn appeared, birds launched themselves in pursuit of the sun, while monkeys .ed the light, screeching as they swung from one strand of creeper to the next. "Why is the sky going red? Why are the trees so still? Why do the boatmen slash their own faces?" Streaming with blood, they raised anchor and threw themselves into the torrents.

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Empress 3.7 out of 5 based on 0 ratings. 37 reviews.
Anonymous More than 1 year ago
I thought that this book was very captivating and moving, and it is a favorite of mine. Sa is a fantastic author, and shows her talent best in this book with her vivid, imaginative settings and elegant prose. Some of the side characters are easy to forget, but there is a family tree at the beginning that helps to keep them straight. I didn't find this book "disgusting" in the least, apparently unlike some others who have reviewed. It's written from the eyes of another culture and age, and in particular the passage from pages 59-60 was meant to show Gracious Wife's cruelty and abusive nature. Her actions aren't praised in the novel at all. There are other scenes in the book that may seem odd to the Western reader, but understanding it in the context of a different culture is essential. With this in mind, I probably wouldn't suggest it for younger or less mature readers. Overall, a beautiful piece of literature.
Anonymous More than 1 year ago
A beautifully written book! Although I would not recommend it for young or immature readers because of the prose in which it is written, it might be misconstrued as boring and not enough of a "story". But I found it intriguing with such detailed descriptions of the politics, customs, and scenery of that era, as well as Empress Wu's struggle to maintain power in a male dominant arena. Very poetic and an awesome read for history buffs!!
PeachRose More than 1 year ago
A different approach to storytelling. sometimes it was a bit difficult to follow, but helped me visualize the politics and customs of a time that I knew little about. I would recommend it.
Nicola_The_Reader More than 1 year ago
Shan Sa's eloquent writing style-from page one-reveals an exotic and elegant world. The book is a unique and intriguing perspective on the biography of a time faded powerful female figure. While the book is generally hard to follow and the intellectual writing style is hard to decode, I highly recommend it-especially to anyone interested in history.
W-in-CA More than 1 year ago
I've seen a few Chinese dramas and read some short historical accounts of Empress Wu. The author's style of taking the reader through the tumultous years of this unusual woman's life is riveting. I couldn't put the book down. Some of my friends and relatives have preconceived ideas about how power-hungry and ruthless Empress Wu was. It is easy to forget what kind of world she was born into and that a "progressive-thinking" woman was not always tolerated. Women were sometimes treated as nothing more than heir-producing machines and momentary diversions to be used and discarded at the leisure of their masters. Some historians may judge her harshly but I think she deserves an unbiased viewpoint and be given some credit for her ability to survive the political career for as long as she did. Empress Wu has earned her place in history along with other powerful queens: Hatshepsut, Cleopatra, Queen Elizabeth I, to name a few. Her ruthless intrigues and other characteristics do not make her a stellar ruler but she is definitely unforgettable and impressive figure in Chinese history.
Guest More than 1 year ago
The plot has a few exciting moments, but overall it moves quite slowly. Too many details (for example, pages of lists of parade participants!) make the book downright tedious at times. The main character is arrogant, and minor characters are poorly developed.
Megan_E More than 1 year ago
AP World History Review- I loved the book. It was an amazing read about Empress Wu. I beleive the book served its purpose in telling about the life and times of Empress Wu. It tells everything about how ahe grew up to how she died. I feel like I know so much more about the Imperial court now.I would recomend this book to anyone who would want to know about how women got into politicl and went againt the standards set to them by men in the early times of human civilaization. Sa is an amazing author and showed what happened so much i felt like i could see it. Over all I thought the book was an amazing read and am kind of sad it is over. The knowledge I have gained through this book is great and i cant wait to learn more about empress Wu.
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Anonymous More than 1 year ago
There is undoubtably extreamly complex language but it is readable an the farther you read the more intresting and twisted the scheme evolves into. The author shows a very human like veiw of the characters point of view with deep yet smothered emotional characteristics. Im in high school and find this book deeply compelling. Definetly a must read.
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Very interesting and educational...but bloody!
momoftwinsMM More than 1 year ago
I normally love historical fiction and was excited to read about Empress Wu; however, I was completely disappointed. The writing was too descriptive and almost read like a monotone drone. There was alot of historical detail (normally good), but the characters lacked emotion and there was no climax. Sadly, I was happy once the empress finally died and the story could end.