April 2024
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Review: Wu, Jonathan Clements

Empress Wu was the first woman in Chinese history to become a reigning empress.  Getting there wasn’t easy; as a lower concubine, which she became at the age of 13, Wu was little more than a servant, and would have been banished to a convent forever on the death of Emperor Taizong.  Luckily for her, she encountered his son Gaozong before his death, and Gaozong became enamored with her, taking her from the convent and eventually replacing his current empress with her.  With that mission accomplished, Wu set forth on her goal to achieve recognition for herself and, in some ways, for all Chinese women; her methods may have been brutal, but so was the time in which she lived.

Anyone who thinks the Tudors are exciting and scandalous should try on the 7th century Chinese for a change!  I was frankly amazed at all the drama, scandal, and murder that went on in this court and over the course of the book.  It’s fairly well documented but even so, I’m quite shocked that other people can treat each other so badly and not really seem to notice.  This book was nothing short of exciting, especially for non-fiction; it’s no wonder that Wu’s life has been depicted in writing and in film a number of times over the years.

I didn’t know too much about Wu to start with; I had never read anything about her, but after I finished Under Heaven I set out looking for non-fiction about the same time period.  This is set a number of years before, but the events herein had a large impact on the following history, so I just went with this book.  Let me tell you, my interest in Chinese history is properly rewarding.  Wu was a completely fascinating woman and I’m surprised that we have so much information on someone who lived so long ago.  I can place her nicely in the context of Europe and I’m amazed at how different the cultures are.

I was also surprised at how many things were the same in China as they would be in the late nineteenth century.  Now, I haven’t read any non-fiction about that period yet, but just from reading Empress Orchid I recognized the huge palaces, the tropes of different levels of concubines with different names brought in purposely to please the emperor, the huge amount of ceremonial events, and of course the endless intrigue.

What I loved most about this book, however, was easily Clements’s even-handed treatment of Wu and all of her cronies.  Yes, she did some pretty terrible things; there were some more terrible things she might have done or her relatives might have done under her name; and then there were good things that she did.  For example, she murdered the Empress before her and a rival concubine by drowning them in wine after dismembering them.  She also may have conveniently offed her kids.  That’s pretty bad, and I don’t think anyone is going to absolve her of those crimes.  But she also raised the profile of women by increasing the mourning time for mothers and insisting on incorporating female halves of traditionally male ceremonies.  Yes, she was ruthless and furthered her own ambitions, but she also did her part to make women important, too.

I also loved at the end how Clements stepped back and looked at Wu’s behavior in light of other, male emperors, and came to the conclusion that she behaved similarly to them.  She had lots of lovers, she killed her enemies, but China prospered under her rule.  Men who behaved just like that were regarded as heroes, while she has been regularly vilified throughout history.  Is it just because a woman had the daring to act like a man?

I don’t know, but I like historians who question prejudice about women.  Murder is never a good thing, but should a woman be condemned for it more than a man?  I don’t think so.

Anyway, I’ll just conclude by highly recommending Wu. I think the subtitle (the Chinese empress who schemed, seduced, and murdered her way to become a living God) isn’t so good, but the book itself is just excellent.

I am an Amazon Associate. I borrowed this book from my local library – but you can bet I’ll be buying this guy’s other books.


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