- Daughter of Heaven: The True Story of The Only Woman to Become Emperor of China
- Oneworld Publications, 350 pp.
BLOOD, LUST, AND LONG LISTS OF FACTS
Let us imagine that the Emperor Wu Chao, female ruler of China during the 7th century (according to the Gregorian calendar) and Queen Elizabeth I, ruler of England during the 16th, meet in the afterlife.
After exchanging gossip about Cleopatra’s latest exploits, talk turns to their unlikely ascents to power. While Elizabeth is sure that the execution of her ambitious mother Anne Boleyn, the death of her Protestant brother, and the machinations of her Catholic sister top any stories that Wu Chao can tell, she, as they say, ain’t heard nothing yet.
The incredible adventure of Wu Chao is the premise of Nigel Cawthorne’s book, Daughter of Heaven: The True Story of the Only Woman to Become Emperor of China. And while it is admirably, if sometimes alarmingly (two chapters on the sexual practices of the court) thorough, it might leave the posthumous Wu Chao dissatisfied – at least once she has had time to compare it with Elizabeth’s biographies.
Born into a successful if not exactly aristocratic family, as a young teenager Wu Chao became a concubine, one of many low in the pecking order, in the Emperor T’ai-tsung’s court. On the emperor’s death shortly thereafter, tradition has it that all of his concubines were banished to a Buddhist convent.
Clever, ambitious, and still young, Wu Chao wasn’t overly fond of tradition – the nun one or any others that stood in her way. In a shocking and vaguely incestuous move, she seduced T’ai-tsung’s son, the Emperor Kao-tsung, and from there used a combination of feminine wile and strong arming to claim the throne of one of the most powerful empires the world has ever seen.
Feminine wile, in Wu Chao’s case, included sex and murder. One can imagine the Virgin Queen, no stranger to violence, paling just a little on hearing how far Wu Chao was willing to go.
Like Catherine of Aragon, the woman in Wu Chao’s way, the Empress Wang, was childless but well connected. Unlike Anne Boleyn, however, Wu Chao was able to provide healthy male heirs.
Having born two boys (one of whom may have actually been her nephew, passed off as her own as a kind of princely back-up), Wu Chao gave birth to a baby girl. After the Empress came to pay respects to the newborn, the baby was found smothered in her bed.
Though it was never proved, suspicion naturally fell on the visitor, for what kind of monster mother would kill her own child? By discrediting the Empress, and the Emperor’s former favorite Hsiao, Wu Chao cleared the way to becoming the Consort. Once there, she had her rivals beaten, their hands and feet cut off, and their live bodies tossed into wine vats.
This is the stuff of legend, made all the more appalling by its closeness to truth, and a biographer might be tempted to go for broad brushstrokes and leave context behind. To his credit, Cawthorne tries to avoid this, describing in great detail the backdrop of imperial life against which these dramas are played.
We learn, for example, that while Elizabeth’s ancestors were licking flesh off the bones of cattle, Wu Chao was enjoying chilled melons from underground refrigeration, riding down the streets of a capital city lined with banks, temples, and markets selling exotic goods from the Silk Road, or lounging with her lover in gardens full of exotic botanical wonders brought from distant shores.
This kind of detail fascinates and gives us a sense of the riches at stake for Wu Chao, who began to rule from behind the scenes after her husband suffered a series of strokes. But a non-fiction book, like any book, requires a sense of sweep and purpose, and Cawthorne’s blunt delivery slows things right down:
The major avenue, the Dingdingmenjie, ran parallel to the Mang-Yi-Que axis but, owing to the topography of the city, it was offset to the west. However, like the Vermilion Bird Road, it led from the city’s main south entranceway – the Dingding Gate – to the gate of the Imperial City and on to the Palace City beyond. Used for ceremonial processions, Dingdingmenjie was one hundred and sixty yards across. It was lined with willow, elm and fruit trees, and had a canal running down one side. It was crossed by five major avenues one hundred to one hundred and twenty yards across and smaller streets fifty yards wide.
A just ruler, Elizabeth might point out to Wu Chao that her biographers have advantages Cawthorne does not. They’re reading source documents in their own language, for one, and can include verifiable first-person accounts that do so much to kindle the imaginative fire of a reader.
In countering, Wu Chao would probably note that Cawthorne does, at times, pick up the pace by employing quotations from the historical characters involved, possibly using official court documents. But without footnotes or endnotes, it is hard to tell how much liberty has been taken with the sources.
More importantly, Wu Chao might want to know about Cawthorne’s fluency in Chinese, since all of the books he lists in his select bibliography have English titles (though only about half of the authors have Western names) and almost all were published in Western countries.
Would she be quibbling in demanding more from her biography? Well, she was a demanding ruler, and I think she would insist on the best. After all, it takes a strong woman to eliminate rival upstarts, even poisoning her own son, the Crown Prince, to secure her path to becoming Emperor.
Moreover, it takes a canny one to use aspects from the three prominent religions of China – Buddhism, Taoism, and Confucianism – to support her claims, as a female and former concubine, to the throne.
And it takes an energetic one to accomplish all that she did – good and bad – during her rule. No doubt Elizabeth would be intrigued to learn how Wu Chao introduced a twelve-point plan of reform that cut taxes, loosened freedom of expression, and punished officials for overspending public money. Or the methods she used to bring about victory over Korea.
If Catherine the Great popped in, how much more would they have to talk about! Wu Chao could note how she too had puppet officials to take the blame for unpopular measures, as well as a sadistic secret police service. She and Catherine could compare notes on how they surprised faithful advisors who dared to speak the truth with rewards, and how possible rebellions could not compete with a loyalty inspired by prosperous times.
But it would be with Elizabeth, who sent her favorite Essex to his death after he conspired against her, that Wu Chao could reminisce about the Chang brothers, who took advantage of their position as her lovers and were eventually executed for their own double-dealings. By this time, Wu Chao was in her eighties and was forced to abdicate, dying not long after.
Having covered all of this, our two giants of history might end their conversation with a period of introspection. What questions did Cawthorne not address in his methodical but stylistically frustrating book? What kind of flint is needed to spark the English-speaking world to produce the in-depth biographies, films, documentaries, and historical fictions that Elizabeth has enjoyed?
Should she have a feminist treatment, a triumph of XX chromosomes over tradition? Or should her achievements and excesses be brought to the foreground, gender notwithstanding? Or should she be regarded as one character in a Chinese script that deserves more Western attention in general?
Cawthorne’s book asserts that she deserves attention and provides a primer for the uninitiated. But there is more, I can hear Wu Chao muttering to Elizabeth, there is much, much more to be said.
Elinor Teele is a freelance writer and photographer living in Massachusetts. In addition to reviews and essays, she writes short stories, novels and plays for children and adults. An adopted New Zealander, she holds a PhD in English Literature from the University of Cambridge, England.