The Empress of China

MooninthePalaceWe tell our sons they can grow up to be president. But do we assure our daughters that they, too, have a chance to be the leader their country? It’s a hard case to make in the United States since up to now not one of our 44 presidents has been a woman.

395px-Gilbert_Stuart_Williamstown_Portrait_of_George_Washington384px-President_Barack_ObamaBut wait. My daughters are half-Chinese. Surely there’s a Chinese role model for them. Surely in the 2235 years since the unification of China there have been a few female emperors.

Empress DowagerAnd I’m not talking about Cixi. The Empress Dowager ruled as a regent, not as an emperor in her own right.

Well, it turns out there was a real female empress: Wu Zetian, the Empress of China from 690-705. A long time ago, but still … a woman.

And today, I’m pleased to introduce to you the author of two novels about Empress Wu, Weina Dai Randel.

Weina Dai RandelFirst, a little background: Weina was born and raised in China. She received her M.A. in English at Texas Woman’s University, and she currently lives in Flower Mound, Texas, with her husband and two children.

I had lots of questions for Weina about the empress and about Weina’s novels, The Moon in the Palace and The Empress of Bright Moon. I started out asking if Empress Wu was well known and admired in China and if she was presented in school as a model for girls to look up to.

This is what she said.

Weina:

Empress Wu is a household name in China. If you ask any people who were born and live there, they will nod their heads and say, “Oh, Wu Zetian.” which is her formal ruler’s name.

Is she admired? Absolutely. She’s the only woman in the Chinese history, the long two thousand years history, to become the ruler. She has done the unthinkable, and no other women could ever duplicate her fame. She is admired by many men as well, since she was not born in the imperial family and given the throne like many emperors. She is well known for her exceptional understanding in strategies and talent as a ruler. Many scholars nowadays have realized that she was responsible for bringing prosperity and tolerance to Tang China. Her legacy would always separate her from Cixi, whose ruling more or less had something to do with the demise of the Qing Dynasty.

So this may explain why almost fourteen hundred years after her death, she still fascinates people in China. Many scholarly articles and books studied her life, and for decades, she remains to be the fascination for movies and TV shows in Hong Kong and mainland China. Currently, China is broadcasting more than one hundred episodes of The Empress of China, performed by a big Chinese movie star who draws millions of viewers.

But is Empress Wu a role model? No. Not really. In fact, the history book I learned at school gave few descriptions about her reign, and those descriptions were not always kind and just. This may sound strange, but if you know how deep-rooted Confucianism was in China, the belief many Chinese scholars held for almost two thousand years, then you’ll understand.

Confucian scholars frowned upon women who fiddled with politics as they believed women must serve men, not the other way around. And to have men kneel before a woman and take a woman’s order is simply abominable. That’s why you’ll find many derogatory, and even vicious, comments about her, if you dig deeper into her story.

Nicki:

It couldn’t be easy for a woman to rise to power in a nation that until that time hadn’t been ruled by a female. How did the future empress begin her rise to power? What kind of woman was she that she was able to overcome all the obstacles to her unlikely ascent to the throne?

MooninthePalaceWeina:

In The Moon in the Palace, readers will discover the Empress’s rise in the palace, and in The Empress of Bright Moon, readers will learn how she comes into power. Of course many episodes of her life, especially in The Moon in the Palace, are fictionalized, but those two books provide essential steps to her ascent to the throne.  

Empress of Bright MoonNicki:

China in the 7th century would be unrecognizable to those of us who live in the 21st century. The details of life inside an emperor’s court would be even more mysterious. How much research did you have to do before you started writing your novels? Where did you go to gather information?

Weina:

I spent six years researching Empress Wu, the palace life, the politics of Tang Dynasty, and the ancient world of China. I read Confucius’ Analects, Lao Tzu’s Tao Te Jing, Sun Tzu’s The Art of War – I read the original and five translations of the book until I decided I liked Lionel Giles’ the best. I also studied poetry composed during and before Tang Dynasty and examined many ancient paintings that contained landscape, people, architecture, and even some paintings with forbidden themes – they were very helpful!

Even when I was writing and plotting the story, I was still researching the details so I could have the feeling that I was living in the palace, strolling down the winding corridors of the palace hall in my rainbow-colored gauze gowns, hearing the twittering of the orioles, and smelling the thick perfume from the sachet hanging on my belt.

I usually tried to borrow the books from libraries first, but I often ended up buying them because I liked them so much and wanted to keep them in hand. I’m a hoarder! I’m still buying books about ancient China even though the novels are finished!

Nicki:

Did you have a favorable impression of Empress Wu when you started? Do you now? Do you sympathize with her? Did your opinion change after researching her?

Weina:

That’s a good question! You know, when I had the idea to write about her twelve years ago, the thought whether I liked her or not never crossed my mind. I just wanted to write about a strong Chinese woman who created her own destiny. But after I researched about her and read many negative views of her, I told myself this couldn’t be true. She couldn’t be as evil as some scholars described and yet ruled the whole country for almost fifty years and brought the country to prosperity! (She was in power almost thirty years before she formally founded her own dynasty.)

Do I sympathize her? I have to say that I sympathize with the character I created. I admire her intelligence, her strength, her sense of loyalty, and her tolerance too. And yes, I absolutely like her.

The Moon in the Palace, which will be released on March 1st, is now available for pre-order in all bookstores: Barnes & Noble, Books-A-Million, Amazon, IndieBound, Half Price, and the independent book stores as well.

Her next novel, The Empress of Bright Moon will be released on April 5th.

If you’d like to see what other readers think of The Moon in the Palace, read some of the glowing editorial reviews on Amazon. Here’s one:

Randel writes with a fresh, poetic style, bringing to life a time
remote from our own, yet filled with the same intrigues, power struggles, — and love affair. For those confined to a claustrophobic existence in the palace, to offend the wrong person was to risk a horrible death. Yet strong women could bend the intrigues to their own benefit — if they dared. This is history but also a stay-up-all-night read.” – Mingmei Yip,author of The Nine Fold Heaven and Song of the Silk Road

Thank you, Weina, for visiting Behind the Story and for sharing the behind-the-scenes account of the writing of your two historical novels.

Now, Weina has been kind enough to share with us an excerpt from The Moon in the Palace:

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The Fifth Year of Emperor Taizong’s Reign of Peaceful Prospect

Summer

CHAPTER 1

            The day my future was foretold, I was just five years old.

I was practicing calligraphy in the garden where Father hosted his gathering with the nobles, scholars, and other important men of the prefecture. It was a brilliant summer afternoon. He was not wearing his governor’s hat, and the sunlight sifted through the maze of the oak branches and illuminated his gray hair like a silver crown.

A monk, whom I had never seen before, asked to read my face.

“How extraordinary!” He lowered himself to look into my eyes. “I have never seen a face with such perfection, a design so flawless and filled with inspiration. Look at his temple, the shape of his nose and eyes. This face bears the mission of heaven.”

I wanted to smile. I had fooled him. I was Father’s second daughter, and his favorite. He often dressed me in a boy’s tunic and treated me as the son he did not have. Mother was reluctant to go along with the game, but I considered it a great honor.

“It is a pity, however, that he is a boy,” the monk said as people came to surround us.

“A pity?” Father asked, his voice carrying a rare shade of confusion. “Why is that, Tripitaka?”

I was curious too. How could a girl be more valuable than a boy?

“If the child were a girl, with this face” – the monk, Tripitaka, watched me intently – “she would eclipse the light of the sun and shine brighter than a new moon. She would reign over the kingdom that governs many men. She would mother the emperors of the land but also be emperor in her own name. She would dismantle the house of lies but build the temple of the divine. She would dissolve the kingdom of ghosts, but found a dynasty of souls. She would be immortal.”

“A woman emperor?” Father’s mouth was agape. “How could this be possible?”

“It is difficult to explain, Governor, but it is true. There would be no one before her and none after.”

“But this child is not of the imperial family.”

“It would be her destiny.”

“I see…” Father said, looking pensive. “How could a woman reign over the kingdom?” Father was asking the monk, but he stared at me, his eyes glistening with a strange light.

“She must endure.”

“Endure what?”

“Deaths.”

“Whose?”

Tripitaka did not answer; instead, he turned around to look at the reception hall through the moon-shaped garden entrance, where splendid murals and antique sandalwood screens inlaid with pearls and jade covered each wall. Leaning against the wall shelved precious ceramic bowls and cups, a bone relic of Buddha – Mother’s most valued treasure – and a rare collection of four-hundred-year-old poems. In the center of the hall stood the object all Father’s guests envied – a life-size horse statue made of pure gold, a gift from Emperor Gaozu, the founder of Tang Dynasty who owed his kingdom to Father.

Tripitaka faced Father again, gazing at him like a man watching another drowning in a river yet unable to help.

“I shall take my leave now, respected Governor. May fortune forever protect you. It is my privilege to offer you my service.” He pressed his hands together and bowed to leave.

What I did next I could never explain. I ran to him and tugged at his stole. I might have only meant to say farewell, but the words that slipped from my mouth were,“Wo Men Xia Ci Chong Feng.”

We shall meet again.  

About Nicki Chen

About Nicki Chen
Nicki Chen is a writer living in Edmonds, WA. Her first novel, Tiger Tail Soup, is set in China during the Japanese invasion and occupation, 1937-1945. She’s working on a second novel set in Vanuatu, a South Pacific nation where she and her late husband lived in the early ’90s.

book reviews, books, China, historical fiction , , , , , , ,

46 comments


  1. Wonderful interview, Nicki and Weina! The books sound fascinating! It’s great to read the stories of women who rose to power.

    Like you, Weina, whenever I discover a book I keep returning to during my research, I wind up buying it. 🙂 Which is why I have a lot of books on medieval times, animals, and plants! 😀




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  2. Great interviews, ladies. Thanks for introducing us to Weina, Nicki. Her books sound intriguing and the covers are gorgeous!




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  3. So interesting! I never realized that China ever had a great female leader. Thanks, Nicki, for introducing us.




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  4. I can’t comment much! You’ll see why later. 🙂




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  5. Thank you, Nicki, for introducing me to a new author. Great interview and a good reminder that many moons ago some women had in fact real power and could govern.
    Best to Weina with her two books.




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  6. Nicki, what a great topic and a great interview.

    Taiwan recently elected their first ever female president last month. It is great to see women filling major leadership roles and I hope that more women will step forward in the future.




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  7. I am reading the novels and loving them! I will publish a review soon 🙂




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  8. Wonderful interview and fascinating glimpse into the life of Empress Wu. Best of luck with release of your books, Weina.




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  9. Such a lovely interview with Weina, and a fascinating look at how Empress Wu lived her life during the Tang Dynasty. It is amazing to see how a woman could rule over a whole dynasty back in the day. Certainly some accounts and perceptions of her may not be kind, but I think she certainly knew how to command a country. She is a figure to be recognised and admired in history.




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    • Yes, and I think people in U.S. would like to know more about her as well. 🙂




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    • I don’t know much about the period of the Tang Dynasty, but it sounds like it was a time of turmoil, wars, and intrigue inside the palace. There are no saints in such an environment, but Empress Wu must have been a strong woman to achieve what she did. I’m so happy I was able to meet Weina and introduce her to the readers of my blog.




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  10. Great interview. I had no idea. I’m so glad you brought this to our attention Nicki (and Weina)! I’ll look forward to reading when I’m done with the books I’m reading right now. Yeaaa!




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  11. Thanks for introducing these books to us, Nicki. They sound so interesting and well-researched. Congrats to Weina!




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  12. My kind of read! I shall certainly look out for this, Nicki. Many thanks for the introduction. 🙂




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  14. Wonderful post and review! Your questions were so intelligent and insightful — especially the last one about the author’s impression of Empress Wu.




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