Empresses, regents, royal mistresses, twentieth- and twenty-first-century politicians—the life of women in power has seldom been easy. Whether we have in mind Elena Glinskaya, ruling as the mother of Ivan the Terrible (then aged three through seven); Sophia, regent for her younger brothers Ivan and Peter (later self-styled the Great); the eighteenth-century Russian empresses from Catherine I to Catherine II (another “Great”); Catherine de Médicis, Diane de Poitiers, and Mmes de Pompadour and de Montespan in France; Mary Tudor and her sister Elizabeth as queens of England; or Hillary Clinton on yesterday’s news, authoritative women have been viewed as bossy or shrewish, immoral or murderous, manipulative or inclined toward witchcraft, depending on the time period.
This uncomfortable truth holds even when the men who were the lovers or husbands of these female rulers were corrupt, insane, or otherwise incompetent. Our modern world may be more comfortable with women in power, but the double standard still exists. Imagine, then, the obstacles that faced the Tang Dynasty concubine Wu Mei (Wu Zetian), who defied every Confucian principle and restriction to become the only empress in Chinese history to rule without a husband as figurehead. Under her guidance, women achieved property rights and an education, and the kingdom flourished, buoyed by the silk trade with the west. She died in 705, and the Zhou dynasty she founded died with her, becoming a mere interregnum in the longer arc of the Tang.
It is a compelling tale, and it makes for a fitting entry in my blog series on women in history, revived two weeks ago in “The Divine and the Disrespected” (note that last week’s post also discusses women in World War I). But for the full story of Empress Wu and her times, listen to my interview with Weina Dai Randel and, most of all, read her novels. You can find links to them below.
The rest of this post comes from New Books in Historical Fiction.
In four thousand years of Chinese history, Empress Wu stands alone as the only woman to rule in her own name. She died in her eighties after decades of successful governance, but her sons could not hold the kingdom she established for them and the dynasty she founded soon fell from power. The Confucian scholars who recorded her history—outraged by the idea of a woman ordering men—depicted her as a murderous, manipulative harlot, an image that has ever since obscured her achievements. In The Moon in the Palace (Sourcebooks, 2016), Weina Dai Randel seeks to polish Empress Wu’s tarnished reputation, offering a new look at her and her times, the obstacles she faced and the gifts that enabled her to overcome them.
Wu Mei is five years old when a Buddhist monk predicts her future as the mother of emperors and bearer of the mandate of Heaven. By thirteen, she has already entered the Imperial Palace as a Select, one of a small group of maidens chosen to serve the Taizong Emperor. But the palace is a vast and complex hierarchy, and Mei one untried girl among the two thousand women it contains. Her first friend betrays her trust, her emperor has little use for her, and his youngest son seems all too willing to pay her the attention that his father withholds. Meanwhile, intrigue within the palace threatens the emperor and all those who depend on him. In this poisonous atmosphere, even a junior concubine may find it difficult to keep her head. Mei, capable and smart, is not easily daunted, but she worries that she will soon find herself out of her depth.
Mei’s story continues in The Empress of Bright Moon, due for release in early April 2016. In both novels, Randel paints in rich and compelling prose a wonderfully believable and nuanced portrait of a long-vanished court and the young woman who must navigate its treacherous paths.