First Sentence: How can one write about one’s grandmother, especially if she was a whore?
Thoughts: Lady Wu was a fascinating woman, but you wouldn’t know it from this book. Yutang portrays her as a cardboard cutout of a monster with no depth or reasoning behind her desperate grabs for power. She is simply a force of evil, subjugating all the men who stand in her way until her uncontrollable lust gets the better of her. It’s such a parody of a powerful woman that it’s almost insulting.
Not only is Wu a one-dimensional villain, the book is written in a dry, stilted style that makes it read like a weak novelization of a textbook. The story isn’t as important as the long list of facts that run together in a kind of literary drone that makes this an excellent book for insomniacs. (Trust me, I tried it.) The textbook nature of this dare I call it a novel is emphasized when Yutang interrupts the story with a three-page list of Wu’s most politically important victims. He then spends the rest of the book referring to this list both in the text and in footnotes.
It’s a shame the book is so boring because, as I mentioned before, Wu was a very interesting woman. She was a minor concubine of Emperor Taizong who went into a convent after his death, only to emerge to become the concubine and then first wife of the next emperor, Gaozong. Her rise was made possible by her political savvy in making friends with the maids of the other concubines and wives, and her utter ruthlessness in eliminating everyone who got in her way. She was so powerful that when Gaozong died, she took the reins of power for herself, exiling her own sons so she could be Empress Regnant.
On the other hand, she did have her vices, which Yutang played up to a ridiculous extent. Especially her lust for young men. Yutang seemed to think that an older woman with a younger man was something horrible that went against all the laws of nature. Reverse the genders and suddenly it’s the most natural thing in the world!
Still, I can’t help but share Yutang’s horror when Wu murders her own firstborn daughter so she can frame Gaozong’s first wife Empress Wang.
I would love to see what a woman’s version of Wu’s life would be like. Unfortunately history, especially Chinese history, is a very masculine thing. The official records were all kept by men who thought women needed to keep to their “proper” sphere which was not on the imperial throne. Still, I can’t help but think a female author would give Wu more depth in both her personality and motivation. If nothing else, she could write it so it would be a proper novel and not a disguised history lesson.